In around 12 hours my daughter and I will be heading for the airport for our spring break in Thailand. I feel like I earned this break; I am wiped out from teaching the make-up classes on top of the regular classes and doing all the planning so that everything goes smoothly. It’s not even my break (hence the make-up classes). It’s Emma’s. But I really didn’t want her to sit around for a week here in Ulaanbaatar while I worked. Fortunately, it was easy enough to plan for a week off at this point in the semester, and my university understands things like family.
I’ve never been to Thailand, but I’ve always wanted to go, and I figured this was my best opportunity. Our itinerary getting there is a bit nuts. We leave Ulaanbaatar at around 11 pm, arrive in Incheon, Korea, at around 3 am, leave Incheon at 9 am, and arrive in Bangkok at around 1 pm. Then we hop onto a bus to Hua Hin, which should take about 3-4 hours (or more). I’m hoping we get to our hotel by dinner time, but I’m not counting on it. Basically, it’s going to be a really long day. I’ll try to post once from there, but I’m looking forward to taking a vacation.
I’m also feeling a fair amount of guilt for piling on another international flight on top of the flights to Mongolia and back to California, and then to Mongolia again. It’s a lot of flying. And one of the things I’ve read consistently is that if you’re worried about climate change, which I am, flying is one of the worst things you can do. I bought carbon offsets for each of our flights, but that’s not as good as not flying at all. If you are curious about carbon offsets, you can read about the pros and cons, and check out the organization I used this time around, ClimateCare. The basic idea is that you offset the greenhouse gases produced by your flight (or other activity) by investing in a low carbon or carbon reducing project, from planting trees to agroforestry to installing renewable energy sources like windmills or solar panels. The offset industry has come a long way from its early days, and, like everything else, it’s big business, but if you look at what specific organizations are doing, some of it is good work. (Though George Monbiot of the Guardian disagrees.)
I have mixed feelings about carbon offsets. What I don’t like about it, like Monbiot, is that it becomes a way to assuage individual and corporate guilt for continuing to use fossil fuels (but here I am doing it, so, hello!). There is a tendency to think it’s OK to continue to contribute to climate change as long as you make good by offsetting. It’s like the Prius effect: I can waste energy at home because I drive a Prius to work. Um, no.
There’s another idea called carbon “insetting” that is looking to do more long-term good by building carbon neutrality into a company’s entire supply chain. PUR Project and Plan Vivo are two organizations that help companies to do this, and PUR Project also offers carbon offsetting for individuals. They help regenerate ecosystems through land restoration, agroforestry, and sustainable agricultural practices. This seems better to me, because it actively improves the lives of people who are at the bottom of the supply chain as well.
Ideally, carbon offsetting is a short-term tactic while we all figure out how to change our lifestyles to make climate change less drastic than it could be. When I had my daughter in 2006, I was worried about climate change already, but I also thought (naively) that world leaders would respond to the already desperate need for action. Emma is almost 13 years old, and the world’s greenhouse gas production isn’t slowing down. Emma and I are now talking seriously about revising some of our future plans, especially plans we had for international travel, because of climate change. It no longer seems appropriate to go to places like the Galapagos Islands because they are already seriously threatened by climate change and don’t need tourists trampling all over them on top of it. “Last chance tourism” seems like a really bad idea, especially since there are still plenty of places to visit that aren’t threatened yet.
We are looking at our stay in Mongolia as a chance to see a bit of Asia without too many trans-Pacific flights. We’ll be visiting Thailand and Japan from here, both of which are still long trips. We’re going to Thailand because after the Mongolian winter, we both wanted some time at the beach. And Japan was part of my deal with Emma. She agreed to try living in Mongolia if we could visit Japan as well. I lived there myself, in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, for almost a year back in the 1990s, so I’m happy to go back and see more of Honshu. I’m also looking forward to returning to Asahikawa and visiting with my former students there.
Our next goal, for 2020, will be to choose a place to live for Emma’s high school that has good public transportation (so I won’t have to own a car), and where we can stay put for four years without flying. That’s the challenge we’ve set for ourselves. I’m hoping the airline industry will figure out a carbon neutral solution beyond offsetting, but until it does, we are going to clip our wings. It will be new for me to stay on the ground, but it will be good to live a truly low-carbon lifestyle for a significant amount of time. I’m not sure where we will end up yet, but we are working on a shortlist right now. Suggestions are welcome!