Published on August 29th, 2022 | by Michele Bigley


Can I Raise Worldly Kids Without Choking the Planet?

When my oldest son, Kai, was 11, he pointed at the trail of steam emitting from our airplane’s wings as we landed in Portugal and asked, “If we know flying is bad for the earth, why do we keep doing it?” I bumbled through a litany of mediocre responses meant to justify my wanderlust—we aren’t corporate travelers expensing unnecessary flights. Then: the planes will fly with or without us. And finally: it’s not like we fly that much.

He squinted and said, “You’re a travel writer, Mommy.”

For as long as I can remember, travel has been my identity, my relaxation, my inspiration, my therapy, my job. I pinch myself that magazines and newspapers pay me to make other places look so delicious that you choose to fork over your kids’ college fund to visit. It’s a real gig, trust me.

But the work was never about the byline, or even the wild adventures editors agreed to send me on—a week of tango in Buenos Aires, barefoot beach dinners in Australia, treks to glaciers. The job sated my discontent with staying still. I explore to stretch my understanding of what it means to be alive. In Lhasa, Tibet, a teenager and her mom invited me to their one-room home, to share unlimited cups of yak butter tea. Two mixed race South Africans shared their hooch with me in a Cape Town park. I pooped in a trough in the Chinese countryside with a crew of old ladies, thinking about how we’re all  simply animals in expensive shoes. From Kenya to Cairo, Columbus to Cornwall, humans in other latitudes and longitudes have presented me with how they live and I’ve had the chance to, if briefly, join them in it.

Then, when I had my sons, I was all about taking them with me around the world. Travel would show them that they’re part of something much bigger than California, that there’s no one conventional way to live. I wanted to raise them into global citizens. And, now, they’ve got more passport stamps than their ages. When things get tough, Kai will place his hands on his younger brother Nikko’s shoulders and say, “You can do anything, you survived the Amazon.”

Having aware kids was my dream, until it backfired. I hoped to see the world through their eyes. And yet, with their more informed (and frankly, evolved) eyes watching, I could not ignore all those bleached reefs, melting glaciers, depleted watersheds, plastic covered beaches, and insane storms we’d witnessed. Nor could I ignore the environmental impact of flying. Especially not when Kai reported the depressing facts about the aviation industry.

Air travel produces 5-8% of the planet’s carbon emissions. If global explorers continue to jet off on bucket list vacays or benders in Vegas or the Caribbean, by 2050, aviation greenhouse gas emissions will account for a quarter of the crap our grandkids are inhaling during soccer games. We’re in debt to a planet that doesn’t have an unlimited bank account, and yet, we continue throwing down our environmental credit cards with penis-shaped rockets, and celebrities jetting across town to shop, or folks like me scooping up cheap flights to Europe for a few weeks because I can.

Once I knew the facts about air travel, I wanted to find alternatives. But it’s damn near impossible to explore other lands and enrich our perspectives in the ways our Lonely Planet selves aspire without a plane ticket. Cruise ships are a nightmare for the planet and our souls. In the US and Canada at least, bus and train travel are inconvenient and take eons to get anywhere. When you consider that EV batteries can’t be recycled and are constructed sourced in an unsustainable way, it’s not like driving an electric car is that much better. And we can only walk so far, right?

Maybe we can do what the big corporations are doing and buy carbon offsets, I figured, and decided the next time I had to fly on assignment to try it. I interviewed folks at two organizations I’d heard decent things about: Gold Standard and Conservation International to learn about whether offsets help or just make us feel better. Here’s how it works. An algorithm calculates emissions based on mileage and type of aircraft to determine how much carbon needs to be captured to offset that flight. Organizations partner (or create) projects around the world to capture carbon. For example, in one recent project, Conservation International gave just over 50% of collected offset money to Kenyan community leaders to create a beekeeper training program for women and another chunk of cash for reforestation efforts. Effectively, money is used to assist places (many of them in developing nations) where they believe capturing carbon can have a meaningful planetary effect. 

But carbon offsets are kind of like a band-aid on a broken arm. The emissions continue in an endless loop. And here we do-gooders come to fund wind farms, reforestation, etc. Many critics think this corporate favored trend are simply a way to offset our guilt, which honestly, I would be game for, but the truth is, it doesn’t offset an ounce of my culpability. For every flight I’ve had to take in the past five years, I pay extra to offset the emissions, and I will continue to do this until there’s a more sustainable flight option. But I still have heaps of eco-guilt over each flight.

On a work trip in Hawaii a couple years ago, a kayak guide mentioned regenerative travel as a way to combat the deficit of flying. Regenerative travel means that you leave the place better because of your presence, not in a missionary way, but by letting the community guide you on how to help. That might be planting trees in the Congo, cleaning up a beach in California, clearing invasive species in Croatia, or helping baby sea turtles in Colombia. The point is that the money goes back into the community’s larger sustainability efforts.

My family and I have helped restore an ancient fishpond, we’ve planted dozens of trees and a community garden, helped promote locally-owned businesses on social media and in my writing, and done countless beach and reef cleanups. Whenever possible (and especially when I have to fly), I select hotels (not vacation rentals which price out locals) owned and operated by the community, hotels that don’t create piles of single-use plastic trash, and ideally ones like Playa Viva that consider their larger environmental impact as well. It costs more, but I’m trying to consciously lessen the debt I created for my kids’ futures because I flew.

Finally (as much as it pains me to write this and as much as I want a big ass Covid F-U revenge trip right now), I’ve imposed a flight diet for myself. If I can drive or take a train in the time I have for the trip, inconvenient as it is, I choose this option (even with the vomit-inducing cost of gas). It’s not that I won’t get on a plane again, but it’s that I am more deliberate about it. And when I do, we counterbalance that choice with actions that give back to my kids’ futures. This too is imperfect (obviously the true culprits are the larger corporations doing jack to change). But, while I wonder if my actions are inconsequential, I’m showing my kids that we must always try to be part of the solution.

Unfortunately, I’m not going to lie, this has been a shitty summer. Colds, Covid, kid injuries and a chronically coughing father-in-law made me cancel all six nearby trips I had planned. The song my kids repeatedly play on loop is Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Black Summer.” My tomatoes are drooping, as if they too are weighed down by pathetic news updates, pandemic parenting, elderly parent caretaking, and perimenopause.

And now fire season is starting.  

I desperately want out of my reality. Every day, I search flight deals, craving the tastes of other climates, languages, and cultures. I long for a thick tropical air, or a cool mountain breeze. Because really, I want a fucking break. 

But it’s not a break, anymore, in the same way as I once imagined. My kids have taught me that. It’s hard to be regenerated and feel good about our jaunts when we know the impact of our footprint. The kids don’t let us get away with talking about helping the planet, but then schlepping our Eagle Creeks on a 747 for a week vacay in Turks and Caicos.  

When I asked my kids what they wanted this summer to feel like, Kai said that he wanted us to go to the beach and enjoy nature and eat good food, just like we’d do on vacation. Nikko said that he wanted to play epic card games and eat ice cream and hang with cool people—again, all things we do when we’re away. What I realized they were asking for was a vacation, but at home. Something I might not be good at, but am trying to practice one day at a time.

On vacation, I don’t wake up and check my email or do dishes. Instead, I look out the window, wondering what beautiful or inspirational moments we might encounter or create as a family. While I don’t think I’ll ever be able to feel as good about being home as I do when I am off in some far-flung locale, I do know that I can insert some of the staycation mentality into our last few days of summer. And truth be told, at least I’m not feeling guilty this summer and that’s one piece of news that doesn’t suck.

An ongoing series, Mothering in the Anthropocene by Michele Bigley explores how to parent in a warming world by taking her kids to meet people actively stewarding their communities. 

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About the Author

Michele Bigley is a two-time Lowell Thomas award-winning travel journalist who has danced on six continents. Her writing has appeared in the New York TimesHidden CompassOutside, WiredAfarLos Angeles TimesCNNBoston GlobeSan Francisco ChronicleYes!, Via, and many more. She writes the newsletter, Our Feet on the Ground, about parenting in the Anthropocene. When not traveling, she teaches writing at University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s writing a book, Mothering in the Anthropocene, about how taking her sons to meet people stewarding fragile ecosystems helped her become the adult she hopes her kids will be. Her two sons, Kai and Nikko, remind her that making the world a better place is the only work worth pursuing. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram

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