Recently I led a seminar at Colorado College on Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change and caring for our common home. My CC students, much like students at Notre Dame, care deeply about the environment. Many have switched to a plant-based diet. They know where their food comes from, work to reduce waste, carry reusable coffee mugs and bike to class. They participate in gear swaps, organize tool libraries and push for the college to make its buildings more energy efficient, which it has, cutting on-campus emissions in half since 2009.
Some of my students even advocate in the community for the switch to renewables. They love rock climbing and hiking and being in nature. Also, much like Notre Dame students, many come from homes in the top 20 percent in terms of family income.
They are informed. They know that the richest one percent of the population consume far more and produce more waste and pollution than the poorest 15 percent worldwide. They are attracted to minimalism and tend to value experiences over things. It’s not uncommon for them to say they don’t plan to have children, because the average American generates about 16 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year — triple the global average. Most seem not to agree with Pope Francis, though, when he argues that “to blame population growth, instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”
Indeed, we all have blind spots. Many of those students willing to forgo parenthood are travel addicts, people who find it difficult not to hop on an airplane and fly cross-country or even internationally a dozen times a year. They have the means, so why not have an adventure? China. Barcelona. Thailand. The Philippines. Iceland. Nepal. Rome. This despite the fact that riding in an airplane is the single largest contribution an individual can make toward climate change.
Of course, long-distance travel carries benefits that cannot be replicated in a classroom, among them intercultural competency and exchange, not to mention firsthand knowledge that the world is beautiful and worthy of our attention, awe and admiration. I taught in Uganda as a student, and it changed my life. But when does long-distance travel become an end in itself, or a means of self-medication?
It’s easy to perceive compulsive shopping and other conventional addictions as attempts to fill a void, but might extreme tourism point to a similar need for escape from a culture that is spiritually empty, built on self-indulgence and impermanence? How many American cities are home to beautiful architecture, native plants, real neighborhoods and vibrant local traditions? How many more feel like clusters of parking lots and strip malls and people who are strangers to one another?
Why are students and recent graduates traveling more than ever? Sometimes I wonder whether we Americans, dating back to the first colonists and their pioneering descendants, have restlessness in our DNA. We are in large part a nation of immigrants, people whose ancestors traveled far from home in search of a better life. Many of us descend from those involuntarily displaced from Africa or their ancestral lands. One way or another, maybe we’re all still searching for home.
Leisure travel in the 19th and 20th centuries was the domain of wealthy elites and brave explorers. That may explain the common view that travel is intrinsically broadening, even when it’s just to a beachside resort. High-profile vacations are unquestionably sexier than staying home and growing your own food, or visiting on the back porch with your elderly parents, activities that cultivate community and a sense of place. Unlike other things that pollute, like plastics, travel is touted as an unqualified good. My child’s wonderful teacher once told me, “Traveling is the best thing you can do for your kids.” I knew what she meant. You make memories and understand things differently when you experience them firsthand.
It’s not just students at expensive private schools who seem to feel their lives would have more value if they traveled more. A young woman at our local community college told me it was on her “bucket list” to “visit all seven continents” by the time she was 24 — not to do or see anything in particular, necessarily, but just to be delivered there, like a parcel. Selfies from Santorini shared online are indeed a powerful kind of currency. They indicate a great deal about you, starting with your socioeconomic status. On dating websites, profile pictures of a person on vacation receive the most likes. In one study, 50 percent of Tinder users listed travel as their favorite pastime. I asked the director of the Office of Sustainability at CC about the carbon footprint of so many flights. He said, “Ideally we’d all just stay home and walk and bike everywhere, but that’s at odds with our other goals as an institution.”
It can be hard to feel motivated to make small changes, given the enormity of the ecological crisis, but most of us probably just need to fly less.
Our mixed institutional messages are certainly part of the problem. Gone are the days when students anticipated four years in the library and partying with friends on campus, squeezing in a semester or year abroad to immerse themselves in a foreign language. Today, colleges market themselves as nearly endless opportunities for travel — for research, course assignments, “experiences” of every stripe — all while using the language of sustainability. According to this segment of the typical recruitment pitch, travelers are “open-minded” and willing to “break out of their comfort zones.” They’re people who value “diversity” and “global awareness” and “appreciate cultures other than their own.” Are people who are satisfied with their hometown or college town necessarily narrow-minded? One CC student told me, “You don’t go to Colorado College to be here. You go here to be anywhere but here.”
At Notre Dame, which ranks second among universities in the United States for study-abroad participation, the Office of Sustainability provides information on its website about public transit options in South Bend, but nothing prominent about the impact of air travel, or on how to purchase carbon offsets for future flights.
Overseas study is a good thing, an opportunity to experience other ways of living, thinking and being. Yet how frequently are students encouraged to understand the plants, animals and cultures where they live for the rest of their four years? Do we encourage students to put down deep roots or shallow ones? Do we help them think of themselves as relational and interdependent — as siblings, co-workers, friends, future spouses or parents; as members of a religious faith — or merely as unfettered individuals who won’t be here or anywhere very long? Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns and Colorado College’s Collaborative for Community Engagement offer a wealth of local service-learning opportunities, including some that focus on environmental justice. But the attraction doesn’t match overseas study. When it comes down to a choice between community service and travel, “going local” has less cachet.
I am fortunate to be able to live within walking distance of my job, my kid’s school, parks, my church, a movie theater, restaurants and 15 members of my extended family. And yet, I too struggle with travel. Deep down, I would love to fly more for pleasure and for work. I learn new things when I get out of my routine and find joy in reconnecting with old friends. To be honest, I fly so little not because I’m green, but because I lack the disposable income. To travel for education or simply for an adventure can be a wonderful thing.
Still, I have come to recognize that a life built around air travel is unsustainable. One round-trip flight from New York to San Francisco is the rough equivalent of one month of an average American’s activity, meaning it generates one to three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger. You’d have to drive a midsize vehicle 7,500 miles by yourself to match that output. Aviation accounts for as much as 12 percent of the total human impact on the earth’s climate, and that percentage is rising. The daily number of flights worldwide has doubled since 2003.
International flights are up 83 percent since 1990. And because airplanes release their emissions high in the atmosphere, their impacts are magnified. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the warming impact of aircraft emissions is two to four times greater than the amount of carbon dioxide alone. Some climate activists, like the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, have given up flying entirely. In Scandinavia, a grassroots “flight shaming” movement encourages consumers to do the same, putting pressure on airlines and the oil and gas industry to create cleaner alternatives.
It can be hard to feel motivated to make small changes, given the enormity of the ecological crisis, but most of us probably just need to fly less. Solar airplanes are not on the horizon. Environmentally conscious consumers can purchase offsets using a travel-offset calculator. They’re cheap, less than the cost of checking a bag, about $10 per metric ton. The revenues are used to burn methane from landfills or to plant forests, an imperfect substitute for eliminating the carbon-dioxide that spews out from jet engines in the first place. But none of the students I spoke with have purchased offsets, citing the additional fees.
Even if solar jumbo jets were coming in for a landing, what is the psychic cost of so much student travel? College students are groomed to become highly successful “global citizens,” which can translate to “citizens of Nowhere”: passive consumers of people, places and things, rather than active participants in vibrant and sustainable communities. Colleges wisely recruit students from diverse domestic and international backgrounds, encouraging them to learn from one another. CC’s class of 2022 represents 37 languages. And yet these same colleges subtly and not so subtly condition students to think they have too much potential to use their education in service of the people and landscapes that helped make them who they are. My international students are encouraged to continue their careers in the U.S. Not everyone comes from a place or a people to whom they feel connected, but many who do, do not return.
In no small way, graduates are freed by higher education. It allows them to achieve their professional goals and economic independence, not to mention to read great books and see great art. In another sense, though, they are profoundly isolated by technology, travel and careers that prompt them to move in order to “advance.” The average American moves more than 11 times in her life. Students get the message that to put down roots with a person, a place or a local cause is to “settle.” That endless variation is freedom. That limits are bad, when in fact they are key to human and planetary flourishing.
Yet this kind of temporary happiness is not the same thing as being content, which author Sebastian Junger, in his book Tribe, attributes to feeling competent at what we do, feeling connected to others and feeling that we live authentically. The privileged few can make such choices about how they want to live. Most students who attend elite universities with huge carbon footprints are those privileged few.
The writer, farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry once advised a group of graduates to reject “the common delusion that career is an adequate context for a life.
“The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it,” he continued. “But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community . . . to which you belong.”
What if we sent students the message that the things they love most about long-distance travel — meeting new people, experiencing rich and vibrant cultures, being fully present to a partner or kids, learning something new, connecting with nature, having adventures, and unplugging — can be part of everyday life?
The ecological crisis demands systemwide changes and individual ones. Colleges and universities prepare students with job skills and food for political thought, but few devote any curricular time to philosophical or character education or to discussions about the reality of post-graduation life. Given Gallup’s finding that 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs, this sort of contemplation might be useful. And if we want students to travel more consciously, or more locally, or to care better for the places where they live, then we need to ask them better questions. Such as, “If you had to stay in one place for the rest of your life, what would you want it to include?” Or, “If you could create a community that foreign travelers would want to visit, what would it be like? And what gifts might you offer to make it a reality?”
You can imagine answers as diverse as the students — walkability, mutual aid societies, public art, clean air and water, renewable energy, slow food, neighborhood traditions — but what’s at stake is the health of our planet and of our souls. When students ask without irony what there is to do in Colorado Springs or South Bend for an entire week, we know that our ecological crisis is in part a spiritual one. We don’t know how to be with ourselves. We need to learn.
Anna Keating is the Catholic chaplain at Colorado College. She co-owns and lives above Keating Woodworks, a handmade furniture studio, and is the co-author of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life (Image Books, 2016).