There are hard questions that take us to dark places and which, most often, we’d rather not ask ourselves 😉 This one of them, particularly in times of Flygskam and Greta Thunberg as nominee for Peace Nobel Prize. Whether we agree with the young Swede superstar or discard the whole movement as an unrealistic bag of tripe, the question doesn’t go away: is it ethical, for those of us who can, to travel around the world with expensive gear just to assuage a personal itch for collecting photographs of distant places?
First of all, I don’t want this to turn into a debate about Greta Thunberg or her ideas. Whether or not we agree with her conclusions, her premises are unassailable and I wish more of us had the cojones to mobilize crowds around things we care about (and I know many DS readers are actually doing that: creating photography calendars to raise funds to maintain wild places, donating art and time to hospitals, promoting values and education via local clubs … you gals & guys know who you are, thank you and kudos to you).
Neither should this be a forum about ecology. There are better suited outlets for that discussion. I’ll just work on the assumption that we can all agree that whatever we do has an impact on our environment. It’s inescapable Newtonian fact. Flying emits CO2, among other things that seem to elude our dear leaders. Cameras require manufacturing and few industries are as distasteful, energy wise, as silicon wizardry. Ditto lenses and their rare glasses. And let’s not even consider batteries, the unlikely saviours of our planet, apparently (according to this paper, it takes 100 times more energy to build an alkaline battery than it will produce during its use phase and its compounded greenhouse gas emissions are 30 times that of the average coal-fired power plant, per watt-hour. Ouch.) Cards, storage, lots and lots of it, judging by the responses to my “backup strategy” posts. Printing: ugh … paper uses tons of water and some chemicals. Inks don’t grow on trees either (although you could argue cochineal carmine does).
Does this make us monsters?
There are probably many ways of looking at this. Plato would have unilaterally deemed us all monsters, for example. He didn’t hold poets and painters in very high respect for seeing only the surface of things, never knowing their true essence, and for bringing falsity to his perfect society. So, it’s fair to say his words to and about photographers wouldn’t be the kindest (based on his first argument, can we disagree entirely?) And what about dear Susan Sontag, who described how a world based on imagery was necessary for predatory capitalism to bloom majestically, and declared that travel had just become a pretext for collecting photographs?
Let’s try to consider just two othere ways (of looking at the question). The two I find most interesting (and, conveniently, most efficient at lowering guilt levels 😉 😉 😉 )
Yes, our hobby is one with detrimental negative impact. There is no way around it. And traveling for work or to visit family is every bit as bad.
It is, however, a little bit too convenient to point fingers at a group of people or a mode of transport without taking a look at a bigger picture.
Did you know, for example, it takes 18 years of constant use to compensate the carbon footprint of a TGV (electric fast train) track renovation? Electric trains may have low CO2 emissions (let’s not even talk about how clean nuclear power and solar panels are) but infrastructure, it sure don’t.
Did you know, funner fact, that the carbon footprint of a large steak is as much as 100km of air travel? And let’s not even mention how much water is used to bring the big juicy into a plate, or even consider the animal suffering in some slaughter houses (France has had recent scandals about this and I doubt it’s the only country with horrible practices).
And how about this? Did you know a pair of jeans uses up 2000 gallons of water along its manufacturing process, and travels on average 40 000 miles before it lands in a shop?
So, shamers, if you’re daily meat eaters and binge on cotton clothing, you may want to clean up your act before your finger pointing.
Until we get a global evaluation of our total footprint, and not just a flimsy report of our C02 emissions during 3% of our lives, I’m not really listening. My house is almost passive, heating-wise. My food is 95% vegetarian. I mostly buy clothes from ethical and ecological brands. My family’s total weekly rubbish fits in a small shopping bag, everything else is composted or recycled. I have de-polluted a dying plot of land and brought back birdlife and other fauna to what was basically a ruined portion of the Earth after decades of vine culture by a pesticide freak. I work from home and don’t commute. I skype with my clients for 95% of meetings.
But I drive a car that’s too big and thirsty for my strictest needs, mostly alone. And I fly to the UK to visit relatives and friends, and travel further out at the first opportunity to visit and snap other countries. No one can criticize the latter part without taking the first part into account. We’re all different, we all do good and we all do bad. Let’s not allow the shamers to highlight only the bad (and let’s try to crank up the good whenever we can. eg: How to Cut Down on Carbon Emissions When Traveling).
So yeah, when shamers take a close look at their global footprint, they can be taken seriously. But that’s just a defensive argument based on petty mathematics.
I have a more interesting point of view. Heck, it’s almost spiritual in its grandeur 😉
If you think of it, the two dominant forces in the world are entropy and purpose. Don’t leave, I’ll keep it short.
Energy use doesn’t really matter. Energy dissipation does. The fact that we are depleting some cleanly isolated reserves and spreading the fumes all over the globe is basic entropy.
It’s not inherently bad, though, and that is my point. The Earth does it all the time, the kook. It takes high energy photons from the Sun, does it’s stuff of creating life and radiates it all back to the heavens in the form of pesky, low power, infrared photons. It’s just plain littering of the universe, it is.
Thing is, it creates and maintains that little thing called life in the process. The Earth destroys raw potential energy differentials by warming up the universe and creates high level organisms in the process. It dissipates, at low level mechanics, to create order at a higher level one.
That idea regulates our entire lives and univserse. Entropy is (best) used to create higher-order systems (called complexity) from lower-order ones.
It’s how our bodies work. It’s how evolution works. It’s all OK and natural (and we have no choice anyway 😉 ) so long as there is a higher purpose to the use of entropy. And I think that, if we travel with a higher-purpose in mind, it may well be OK to burn fuel for it.
We can waste resources on cheap jeans or on high-fashion.
We can travel to collect selfies and let our ego dominate us or to create photographs that will speak to others, better understand cultures, build bridges. So let’s not judge the fact that we travel without taking into account why we travel. What’s in it for others and for our personal evolution?
Greta Thunberg’s crossing of an ocean on a sailboat may be a highly symbolic gesture, but it seems like a big opportunity waste if, in the same time, she could have mobilized people in 10 cities rather than 1. I’m sure mother Earth would have tolerated the expense knowing the outcome.
What good we do in our travel matters more than whether we are traveling or not. Or so it seems to me. So, rather than focus only on travel footprint, we travelers owe it to the rest to find a higher-purpose to our travels. We evolved into sentient beings, not to be swayed and molested by mindless crowds but to exercise that sentience for the good of all. Let’s try that, even in small doses 🙂
Maslow described a hierarchy of human needs, apparently. Physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, self esteem needs and self actualization needs. I say apparently because it’s not a pyramid and Maslow never said it was. Some people willingly forfeit safety and physiological needs for self esteem, for example, but most won’t. Still, there is an automatic upwards drive at play in most of us.
Anyhoo, if you think about it, only the upper rung is purely human in its scope. Physiological, safety and love/belonging needs are shared by a dog and its owner alike, by a gorilla and it’s photographer. Making money is no different than fly-hunting by a bat. Very rich people are often just alpha pack leaders. Humans expressing great animal talent. This is a bit unfair to animals: they usually stop hunting when satiated, greed is a purely human illness.
It could be argued that self esteem is rooted in fear. So let’s consider that a grey area.
Self actualization is purely a need of our human condition. It’s why the alpha males donate so much to charity: it makes them feel more human than coyote. It’s why artists continue pushing hard even when they can’t make the rent. Self actualization is all about finding meaning. Art (creating or collecting) is all about expressing meaning.
So, traveling to create art that connects with others could be one of the noblest possible uses of our resources. Yes, we can travel for humanitarian reasons and help others and that’s an even more important (and Zen) way of self actualizing (the two being by no means mutually exclusive). But making art connects us to others, and no shamer in the world can tarnish that.
At the end of the day, we can chose to travel like the self-centered idiots who harassed geishas for selfies, causing a photography ban in Kyoto or travel to open up to others, build bridges and make art. Oh, and gear choices can have an impact as well.
Signing off. What ways of mitigating our footprint can you think of? And what higher purpose can you find for traveling? What’s good for the planet usually also feels very good at a personal level.
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