So you’re owning the impact of your travelling, and you are conscious of what you’re travelling for. You are on the threshold of sustainable travel.
Yes? Skip down to after the picture, for the three essential next steps to be an effective sustainable traveller, from a decade-long personal and professional experience in sustainability advocacy.
What, no? Here, go back to this article: Sustainable Travel: Carbon Offset, and Know Why You Go! Is it proving a bit harder than you thought, to take the first two recommendations seriously? Seems too easy – too small – to bother doing?
The Simple Things Are Most Important – Here’s Why
Human beings like to complicate things.
I’ve seen it in many completely unrelated fields of human experience.
Whether it’s solving a process problem by adding yet more processes, or by solving a social issue by adding more and more targeted intervention on symptoms, we like stopgap measures. It makes us feel like we’ve done something, and there’s a visible near term result we can point to and celebrate, and then forget about it for a while.
Or we like to quickly move to action, without thinking about whether we know what the right action is, or misreading the level of urgency. Like accidentally dooming a leatherback population by moving their eggs into shade to save them from poachers, inadvertently skewing the gender balance. Or Australia. Click the link if you would like to understand what I mean (don’t smash me yet Australians!)!
It’s there, in things as wide apart as religious practice and healthy eating, from urban planning to law.
We like to fix something out of whack, with adding more things.
We rarely think about simply sliding pieces out. Or re-arranging, pausing, smoothening.
Even though I’ve found this usually works out better. Things that stalled for years, have been unstuck in this way within just one.
The catch is, this second way requires you to first take time to understand.
The bonus is, afterwards – you understand.
The common thread
There’s one thing that you can say links such examples together. They all involve underestimating the importance of understanding.
You would not see a martial arts master waste movement. Nor would an expert diver appear to move very much at all. A witty remark needs only a few words – or it ceases to be clever. The person who changes hearts isn’t the one who lectures with many words, but the one who shows empathy with few – or none at all.
None of these outcomes are achieved by knowing more moves, or having the most gear, or learning the most words. You achieve it by understanding what matters, and what does not.
You cannot do sustainable travel if you do not take time to understand what you are doing first. If you can’t manage even this, you may be doing a lot of things from a list – but you won’t be able to keep it up. You won’t be able to step back and assess what impact you’re having.
Sustainable Travel: Three Essential Next Steps
I have some bad news. The next three steps still don’t involve you doing ‘eco stuff’.
The good news: there are no downsides. These would serve you well generally in life anyway, and they are likely to improve the vacation experience too!
(If you’re ready with these three though, brilliant! Here’s a good article that I like, as something to aim for: The Ultimate Guide to Zero Waste Travel: 40 Tips to Go Green).
I draw these next three steps are drawn from a decade’s worth of experience working as an environmental professional. These are the big skills that made the most difference to my ability to be a more effective sustainability advocate. There’s nothing quite like being made responsible for solving other people’s problems, to give a serious reality check to one’s youthful idealistic imaginings of how things must rightly be.
They are the same ones that would make the longest-term difference for sustainable travel.
Perhaps it took me longer than it should to work out, but that’s what pride does to you.
1. Go Slower.
I am guilty myself of underestimating my travel pacing. Someone recently accused me of being ‘Ms. Activity’. I didn’t tell him that that was the mellow version of what I’m historically like.
The thing with over-planning and trying to fit everything into a very finite amount of time, is that you force yourself to keep moving.
This means there’s no time to engage with people in any but the most superficial way.
There’s no time to observe what the same things and places look like at different times of the week, or even a day.
There’s no time for people to relax around you and open up.
So it’s hard to understand.
Give it time.
I realised this when I spent three weeks living in the village in the Perhentian Islands. It was the longest I’d stayed in one place as a visitor. And I went again, twice more.
Now of course I had the advantage of speaking the language. Although it can be argued that the Kelantanese dialect is an alien language! And because I was with the Blue Temple I had to speak to many people all around the island because we were advocating a waste segregation initiative.
But as a result I understood the island life there quite a bit better than anywhere else I’d been.
I learned what the water supply was like – and what it used to be like. What it’s like to live in the village when it rains. How food is delivered to the village, and fuel. How waste is carried away, and to where. Who does these things. When the ice cream lady is around on the promenade. How often people go to the mainland, who does it, and for what. The latest machete incident on Long Beach. What happens during the monsoon. What happens when the season opens again. The issues that islanders disagree about.
Along with all kinds of beliefs and hopes and complaints, and getting on with getting on. And when you learn these things, you understand better why people do what they do.
Try: Simplify your itinerary, and give more days to the remaining things. Or set aside one vacation where you’re not there to see ‘everything’, but to soak in some of the things. It feels weird at first, like you have ‘downtime’ and don’t know what to do with yourself. But you will.
2. Be Curious.
Have you ever thought about what it takes to make some of those unreal bucket list destinations, accessible to tourism?
Have you ever thought, maybe the place you’re at actually hasn’t been made ready for mass tourism?
We live in an age where the supply chain for the things we buy are so long and distant, we don’t really question how things came to be all around us. Or what our choices mean, for the chain of people and places involved in bringing those options into our hands. And find it hard to care.
Islands are a great place to be curious.
And if you’re curious while on an island (or really, anywhere remote) wonder about these three implications of tourism: water, energy, and waste disposal. Generally the people living there are close to these issues by necessity.
You might find out about the unexpected solar power transition on Dhiffushi atoll. You might come to understand the complicated waste collection system for Perhentian Islands. (This may be a matter of regret or entertainment, depending on your personality).
Water, water everywhere – which one do you drink?
I was curious while spending a layover on the atoll of Dhiffushi in the Maldives.
I stayed in a guesthouse and at breakfast there was bottled water with the coffee and tea and eggs.
So I asked the guy, what do you drink? He said, we drink rainwater, like everyone in the village.
I thought for a moment. There’s not really an industrial city emitting smog into the Maldivian cloud-forming sky.
So I said, I’ll drink the same water as you. He was surprised, but took me to the rainwater tank where they get their potable water. I refilled my bottle from there.
You see, if you think about it, where would the Maldives get fresh water from? The sea is salty, and do you see desalination plants on every tiny atoll? Groundwater is probably briny for the small atolls, or would easily become so if it were overly extracted. Bottled water? Who has the cash to throw around on that?
So when I learned that the Maldivian people rely on rainwater harvesting, it was actually pretty obvious.
It pleased the Maldivian dive master who was there in the common area. Apparently the matter had come up before, and as a paying guest, I had just made his anti-plastic water bottle point for him.
The mornings after that there was a jug of rainwater at breakfast.
Tip: Even if you aren’t prepared to do anything, don’t let pre-emptive guilt stop you from being curious. Then think about what you would do next time. Pick one small thing – just a tweak to something you’d do anyway. The impact of your action doesn’t matter at this stage, because the most important impact is in you. But then do it.
You will then find you are up for another change that felt too hard in the beginning. You will begin to believe this can be who you are. Your impact will snowball over time, once this happens.
3. Give People Their Autonomy.
The other day my brother was, uh, parenting.
I have a little nephew who is very bossy. He’s got to be the one that defines the plan, and controls the game. His sister is often the questionably-willing minion in his shenanigans.
It was one of his usual antics, explaining the rules of a game to his disinterested little sister, who promptly broke them. He became more forceful.
And my brother took him aside and told him sternly, You may not force other people to play the way you want to. Even if you are certain. Even if that is in fact how the game is played.
A mirror keeps you humble
This essential step is inseparable from the second. Very often (hopefully not as often anymore from my own mouth) I hear people who are concerned about issues ask questions, but do not listen. Or are not aware how much their views are also dependent on, simply: what they’re used to.
I had an Australian friend once, who took great exception that the sustainable farm project that we visited in India, had betel nut for its crop. Its use is highly integrated into local life – basically everyone chews it. Most of the litter in the otherwise tidy streets and rural walks are betel nut wrappers. The best quality products were given as gifts.
He was right in that the crop itself is likely problematic from a health and dependency standpoint, even if its farming is done impeccably from a sustainability standpoint. However, this is the same guy who displayed withdrawal cravings within only a week of having to be sober in Karnataka.
So while I did agree with his point, when he made snarky remarks in my ear about touring the ‘drug fields’, I felt the need to be calmly supportive, “yes, the vineyards”.
It makes sense to them
I read an article once from aid workers somewhere in Africa. They noted how the women had to walk very far to get water for the community. So, similar to other places they’ve worked in, they installed wells in the village ‘for them’, so that the women ‘didn’t have to’ do this.
However, in this particular village, a sort of culture had sprung around the daily water collection activity. It was a female outing of sorts – because it naturally gave the women time together without the men! So the initiative accidentally removed the reason for something the women liked. I’m not sure how it was overlooked!
Tip: Open-ended enquiries are better because you are allowing the other person to freely share. As an example, when you ask a local person “Why aren’t there local women out in the streets?” you have already bound that person to your expectation that there should be.
Ask instead, “I notice there are only men out walking. In my country there would be women also. What do the women do in the daytime?” They will be more likely to tell you what makes sense for them.
The Two Faces of Sustainable Travel
There are two sides of a coin.
A lot of material on sustainable travel focuses on things to be aware of to reduce the negative impact of your travel to the host nation (such as tips to avoid generating plastic waste), or to avoid inadvertently driving a negative impact (such as tips to avoid cruel animal tourism). These are all on point and necessary.
But let’s not forget the host nation also derives benefit from travel. That’s why tourism is generally welcome. Sustainable travel is also about consciously enhancing these positive outcomes of travel.
Yin and yang.
The first side is proactive on our part as the traveler. We take active action to make our travels more responsible. ‘Doing something’ is familiar ground, right?
The other side requires yielding to the host, as only the host can define what is a positive impact to them. Whether it is your tourism dollars, your time, your skills, your knowledge, your support, or just your jovial company.
The effective sustainable traveller tries to achieve both.