When you’re living in a desert city of 10 million people in the developing world resources are stretched tightly. There’s not much room for nature in Lima, beyond the inevitable urban pigeons and a few hardy native birds that take advantage of the artificial oases of urban parks and gardens. There’s no space for wild places within the vast city limits, with one remarkable exception: Los Pantanos de Villa.
Los Pantanos is the sole protected natural area within the Lima urban footprint. It’s what’s left of the band of coastal wetlands that first allowed people to flourish in the desert. It’s why the original inhabitants built their towns and temples here, long before the Spanish dreamt of Incan gold and conquest. Over time the urban creep of the city has consumed much of these important habitats, and now Los Pantanos is all that remains, a surprising wedge of green constrained by dusty urban development and the sea.
In a city like Lima, an urban swamp becomes a treasure. Las Pantanos is an oasis of biodiversity here in the city. It has been named a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention1, which recognises its value as habitat for waterbirds on an international scale. When I visited Los Pantanos de Villa in November, when the migratory birds were just beginning to arrive for the summer, it’s importance to waterbird conservation was immediately evident.
It’s not just the waterbirds that make this place special, however. The surprising variety of wetland types within the reserve mean it supports a diverse array of life for such a small space. There are blackwater, saline, acidic, basic, freshwater and brackish water ponds, each with their own specific biological communities, from the algae in the water that form the base of the food chain to the surrounding vegetation and the animals that call it home.
The water that feeds this complex ecosystem originates high in the Andes. Wet season rainfall slowly percolates through the subsoil and aquifers, seeping it’s way beneath the desert and reaching the wetlands some four months later. Here it interacts with the ocean currents and salinity to well up to the surface, forming this intriguing mosaic of marshes and ponds. This slow and complex fluvial geomorphology brings life to the desert.
The park buzzes with dragonflies, damselflies and other insects with aquatic larval phases, which in turn provide rich pickings to the spiders and terrestrial birds. The dense thickets of reeds and mounds of samphire provide excellent habitat for any number of small critters that would otherwise be homeless in the urban expanse of Lima. There’s even a remnant population of wild-type guinea pigs, locally extinct, surviving in the centre of the swamplands.
The birds are the big drawcard though, and in summer the migratory species descend in their thousands to feed and breed in the reserve and on the adjoining beach. On the day I visited a small ceremony was held to herald the first arrivals of the season and honour the special connection between land and sea these wetlands represent. It’s a great way to get the community involved with the reserve and build traditions that contribute to environmental education and protection, and it’s in the area of community engagement and education that Los Pantanos de Villa really shines.
I was lucky enough to meet the team of biologists and rangers who take care of this rather special place. They are passionate people who understand that real, long-term environmental protection needs the support of the community. This means helping people to understand and value the ecology of the wetlands and other protected areas, and the team are involved in a lot of outreach and communication work. They’re building a new visitors information and interpretation centre and nurturing relationships with local schools and institutions. They understand that, in the crowded suburbs of Lima, the reserve needs to be a good citizen and get along with its neighbours. The local community is learning to love what used to be thought of as wasted land, and through engagement and education activities environmental awareness is increasing.
The more people who understand the value of the wetland, the better protected it will be, long into the future. Like the ripples from the wake of an Andean Duck, these changes will fan out and build public understanding and value of the environment as a whole, from the urban fringes of Lima to the shrinking rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon. These changes are the real impact of urban national parks and wildlife reserves: they provide an opportunity to connect city-dwellers with nature and sow the seeds of change. The most important thing is to get the conversation started.
Los Pantanos de Villa
What: Wildlife Refuge and wetlands complex, listed as a Protected Natural Area by the Ministry of the Environment, co-managed with the City of Lima
Where: Chorillos, a coastal suburb in the south of Lima, Peru
How: Take the Metropolitano mainline bus to Chorillos. From the bus station catch the yellow metro feeder bus. The Pantanos de Villa bus stop is on the main trail into the reserve.
Thanks to park manager Daniel Valle Basto and his wonderful team for inviting me to visit Low Pantanos de Villa and attend the welcoming ceremony for the birds. I’ll be back as soon as I can!
1. The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971) — called the “Ramsar Convention” — is an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the “wise use”, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories.
It’s a strange thing to find yourself slipping into the rhythm of daily life in an unfamiliar world. I’ve been in Lima four weeks now and my days are starting to take on a more familiar shape.
Two weeks ago I moved into an enormous share-house. Eight of us – a mix of Peruvians and other foreigners – share 6 bathrooms, 2 lounge rooms and 1 kitchen. It’s a big adjustment after 18 months of living alone in the Cottage and was pretty nervous about moving in given how badly I coped with a share-house of 4 in uni. I’m slowly getting used to the noise of others coming and going, and thankfully the others don’t much use the kitchen (and I have my own en suite bathroom) but it’s still taking a lot of adjusting and I’m still horribly under-slept. There’s just too much happening in my poor brain to get good quality rest.
Changes come thick and fast and the challenge is finding enough down-time to process all the new information that’s super-saturating my brain so I can wind down enough for sleep. It’s not helped by a culture where plans are made at the last-minute and you suddenly find yourself with an unmissable invitation on the day you were planning to catch up on sleep. There’s always something going on here in Lima.
Lima… this mega-city is an entirely different world to the Peru I’d seen before, to the Andean sierra I love. With almost 10 million people squeezed in together between the desert and the sea it’s a crowded and chaotic place. The traffic snarls its way slowly through hopelessly congested streets, the horn-blasts of frustration and shrill whistles of the traffic police the inescapable sound-scape of my evenings. It would possibly help if drivers bothered to obey the road rules. I’ve seen 4 lanes of traffic on a 3-lane highway; turning off round-abouts from the inside lane; going the wrong way up one-way streets, in reverse. He with the steeliest nerves wins, just don’t blink (or close your eyes and hope your cab driver’s a good one – I’ve been lucky thus far).
I’m glad to not drive. I’m getting by on public transport and my own two feet just fine, although the minibuses I take each work morning provide an adventurous ride. It’s amazing how many people you can fit on one of those things, if you really try, and they usually leave just enough space to get the door closed. I don’t mind riding in the doorway though: the air’s fairly fresh at the early hour I leave for work and the buses rarely reach speeds that get the adrenaline up. In the evenings it’s faster to walk home from the Metropolitano stop and most days the afternoon sea breeze helps to soothe nerves frayed by noise of it all.
It’s a strange thing after so many years down in Tassie to live somewhere with such predictable weather. It never rains in Lima. At this time of year the mornings are warm and humid, with low, grey skies hanging over the city. Donkey-belly skies, they call them, thick and hazy. Now it’s coming into summer we’re getting more blue sky and most days the sun makes some degree of appearance, and the less humid afternoons are cooled by the breeze. It’s warmer in the wee hours of the morning than when I’m on my way home from work.
I miss the variety of weather back home. I miss the drama of the sky and seeing the stars at night and the healing act of rain. In a desert city full of car exhaust the humidity sticks a layer of dust and grime on every surface, with no rain to wash it clean. I can feel it on my skin and look forward to scrubbing it off each night before bed.
I miss real green. I’m lucky enough to live and work in the wealthier suburbs with plenty of parks, but they are pale imitations of real green places, and I can’t ignore the social and environmental costs of them. Lush lawns take a lot of water and it doesn’t seem right to be growing the stuff when on the other side of the city people live cheek-by-jowl in shanties that tumble down the dust of desert foothills. The inequality of it all is offensive, and just to rub in the ridiculousness of it all in some places you’re not allowed to sit on the grass: the park police will get worked up and direct you to the benches where you’re supposed to sit.
I need to work on getting out of the city, but that’s surprisingly hard when you’re in the vast urban tangle and without a car. It takes group planning to really get anywhere interesting and I haven’t managed it yet. I’ll get there.
I have carved myself out small echoes of familiarity. The walk between the bus-way and work; the organic market on Sundays for beautiful veg; plunger coffee to start each morning. At the same time I’m embracing the new: kiwicha porridge with exotic tropical fruits; bartering with the taxi drivers over the fare; learning more Spanish each and every day. I’m meeting so many people and making friends. I’ve an ever-growing list of places to visit and things I want to do.
Work is adding to that rapidly as I learn about all the amazing parks and reserves spread around the country, each with its own unique treasures; from desert coasts to Peru’s Amazon and everything in between. I’ve spent the last two days in a national workshop and meeting of all the managers of protected areas across Peru and have personal invitations to some of the most fascinating places in the world with people who may be even more excited than I am about how their environments work. There are parks that house entire Amazonian tribes, people who’ve retained their own language and culture right through to now. There are tropical cloud forests, glacier-topped mountains, altiplanic lagoons…
There are entire lakes and rivers where the fish fauna has never been surveyed and I have people who’d happily take me there and hand me a net. Amazing. In several places there are no roads to follow: you fly in then go by boat. Combinations of plane, bus and collective taxi are needed to get around and time is short, working more-than-full-time. I need to see these places. I must! Where’s my teleport already?
I’ve only been a month in Lima, yet Hobart feels so very long ago.
Way back in the dimly-recalled shadows of the 1990′s an inescapable pop song called “Waterfalls” burrowed its way into my brain. Don’t go chasing waterfalls - implored the lyrics – please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to. My teenaged self took a serious disliking to this exhortation to play life safe: chasing waterfalls sounded like a much better plan. The song is barely remembered now, but the idea stuck so fast that I still think of following big, bold and slightly crazy dreams as “chasing waterfalls”, and lately that’s just what I’ve been doing.
If you thought perhaps I’d fallen silent because I’d had an attack of good sense and spent the winter relaxing and catching up on sleep, well you mustn’t know me very well. That may have been the sensible path, but this is *me* we’re talking about and if I’m not busy challenging myself and trying to do too many things at once I don’t feel quite properly alive. I’m curious, inquisitive and have a tendency to wander off poking at things that catch my attention.
For the last year or so South America has been a source of inspiration and fascination, particularly the mix of complex sustainability issues and welcoming culture I found in Peru. I came back from my last trip in April with a head full of ideas but no clue as to how to make them reality, so I did what I always do when I lack sufficient data and threw myself into learning how exactly one goes about trying to support sustainability management in a developing country on the other side of the world.
Weekends were spent reading research papers and NGO reports to understand the issues and governance frameworks. Free evenings were swiftly occupied by Google searches for programs and companies doing the sorts of work I was interested in. I enrolled in Spanish classes. I talked to my boss about opportunities for sabbatical leave and worked out how to go about packing up my life to follow a dream. I was all in.
I leapt, and as so often happens when you’re on the right path and making the right choices for all the right reasons, I found my wings on the way down. I have a job, for a year, in Peru, doing sustainability-shaped things!
I’m going to be light on the details to make sure I stay on the safe side of the code of conduct I’ve signed with its strict conditions for social media mentions, but what I can tell you is this:
- It’s a volunteering but with living expensed covered type of gig;
- I’ll be embedded with a Peruvian host organisation, the only foreigner working as part of a small team;
- I’ll be based in Lima and working in a Spanish-speaking environment, which is wonderful and terrifying in almost equal parts;
- I’ll be helping to develop environmental management processes and protocols for sustainable natural resource management for protected areas; and
- I may be lucky enough to visit and work in some of the most biologically diverse places on earth!
I am wonderfully, joyfully excited about it all, and just a little nervous and apprehensive too. Most of all, however, I am busy as I sort out my life and get ready to go.
I’ve got projects to finish at work, and I’m wanting to leave on a high note (especially since they’re letting me come back again) There’s background reading to make sure I’m informed and Spanish study to do, plus epic amounts of paperwork, medical and logistical planning to work through (I’m immune to rabies as of today, which feels like quite an exotic thing to be). There’s the huge job of sifting through my possessions and sorting out what to store, share or sell and still all the inescapable day-to-day work of running my very lovely but rather busy life.
Yes, I’m still harvesting veggies from the backyard (so much broccoli) and cooking myself proper food, still shopping at the market and the local grocer, still cutting more and more plastic out of my life, but I will admit that I catch the bus a little more often than I used to, and drive the car a tiny bit more to save time where I can. I’m not getting as much good sleep and rest as my body tells me I’m needing, and I’m not getting out bush-walking anywhere near enough. Sometimes I really can’t do everything I want to do, no matter how determined or stubborn I am, but I’m still doing ok. I’m still acting in ways that agree with my values, and I’m happy that even when going through such a big upheaval almost all the good changes I’ve made are being maintained. Certainly my learning to do without “stuff” is paying off in spades as I have so much less to pack and store than I did a few years ago: moving 4 times in 5 years really clarifies what you do and don’t need!
What good is material stuff, anyway, when you’re off chasing waterfalls?
Adventure called and I answered. I’m off just next month for a year of finding out what I’m really made of, trying to make a meaningful difference to this crazy, beautiful world. A year volunteering in sustainability management in Peru: that’s the shape of things to come!
Home again. Hopefully normal blog service will resume shortly, but in the meantime, here’s a little something from my travels…
It was a very intense trip, challenging on many levels. It’s given me a whole lot to think about, but for now I need to focus on unpacking and getting my life back in order here in Hobart.
Meanwhile, how have you been?
This is going to be a far shorter post than I want it to be. I want to do my research and give you the numbers but I don’t have the time. I leave the country in just a few days, and writing for the blog has kept falling off my “must get done” list. I’m sorry. I’m not going to do these guys justice, and I’m going to fall silent again. Life is short and I’m busy living it, but I have so much I want to say. So, on with it!
I’ve written before about unusual and heirloom vegetables and the importance of maintaining a diversity of seed to enable us to grow crops that best suit our local conditions, that provide the quality or yield of food we seek and provide a rich genetic pool to draw on into the future. Crop diversity helps us to make best use of the land and resources we have, and to adapt to changing conditions as the climate shifts. Protecting plant diversity is important work, and seed banks around the world are contributing to it. It’s not only plant diversity that matters though: if we’re going to feed and clothe ourselves as best as we can, agricultural animal diversity matters just as much. Rare breed beasties need loving too.
Farming systems have become industrialised and standardised across much of the world. Just like crops, the animal breeds most commonly grown are those that give the greatest yield per unit cost, with little consideration given to animal health and welfare, suitability for conditions, environmental impacts, disease resistance or even quality of flavour. Much like supermarket tomatoes, many farmers are growing flavourless meat. For instance, a modern meat chicken takes as little as 30 days to raise from egg to plate1. From nothing to roast dinner in a month? That’s crazy selective breeding for yield and little else.
You may shrug and think that a pig-is-a-pig-is-a-pig, but as such farming practices spread and traditional livestock breeds are replaced by the fast-growing, so much genetic heritage, so much biodiversity, is lost. Along with that we’re losing cultural heritage: breeds that are markers of places or peoples, farming practices that are tied deeply to ways of life. All that is gone, left to fading memories, as heritage porkers are replaced by Large Whites2.
That’s the serious side of things – lost diversity, resilience and heritage – but we’re also losing flavour. Industrialised farming doesn’t grow for best taste. The aim is not the highest quality, merely consistency at a low market price. Does taste matter? Not to everyone, not to those on tight budgets, but to you and me? Sure does! One taste of proper free-range piggy ham from a breed grown for taste convinced me enough that I had to try the bacon, then the chorizo, just to be sure… I didn’t know pork could taste so good!
Lucky for me I live somewhere where I can buy free-range raised, rare breed meats. I can do this because where I live there are farmers who are passionate about rearing rare breeds and keeping all that heritage alive. Farmers who put animal welfare, product quality and taste above maximising products and have worked hard to build up enough of a market that they can grow businesses outside the cut-price supermarket paradigm. And yeah, I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I can choose to support them: I don’t eat much meat, but what I do eat, I can afford to source from these types of farmers. These farmers, who have become people I know.
Let me introduce you to two of them: Guy and Eliza from Mount Gnomon Farm. These are the folk who awakened me to the true beauty of bacon, grown from their drove of Wessex Saddleback pigs. They are fierce supporters of preserving rare breeds and choose their livestock based on an ethos of preserving rarity, suitability to farm conditions, animal well-being and quality of flavour. They are also truly lovely people, and last year I was lucky enough to visit them on the farm and see their passion in action. It’s a beautiful spot on the edge of the Dial Ranges in northern Tasmania, all green grass, red soil and dramatic sky. I’m very glad I had the chance to visit, to meet my meat and learn about the challenges and rewards of free-range rare-breed farming.
It was an inspiring trip for this sustainable eater, and one that you too can make if you’re going to be in Tasmania this weekend. You see, Guy and Eliza are so dedicated to what they do that this weekend they’re opening up the farm to the public to share their passion and show anyone who wants to know how their meat is raised. This Sunday (March 24th) they’re inviting you to a Rare Day Out at Mount Gnomon Farm.
You can visit the farm, get up close and personal with the animals, see what they’re doing to protect the soils and support on-farm diversity and even sample the very tasty meats their animals become. If you’re interested in heritage breeds or free-range farming, or just getting to know a little bit more about where your food comes from, I highly recommend you go along and check it out, and while you’re there, give Cyril a good scratch for me…
Why won’t I be there? because I’ll be on my way to Peru! Catch you in a month or so and as always, thank you for reading!
 “The first harvest might occur as early as 30-35 days and the last at 55-60 days.” Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc.
 “The Large White has become well established as a major breed in virtually all pig producing countries in the world.” NSW Department of Primary Industries.
Make yourself time to be wild and free.
Reflect a while on who you are versus who you want to become, then find the path you must travel.
Acknowledging your faults will help you to master them.
I will be at the Hobart Sustainable Living Festival this weekend. If you spot me, come and say hi!
Never stop exploring, even in your own backyard. There is always something new to discover, both within and without.
Find out where that road leads.
No matter how dark it may get, the world remains a beautiful and amazing place
(it’s been a rough news kind of week)
There is nothing like travel to give you a heaping dose of perspective.
We in the western developed world, the vast majority of us, anyway, are so damn spoilt.
Here in Australia we write ourselves the narrative of the battler; hard-done-by working class hero, struggling to get ahead. The reality, however, is far, far different. We’re incredibly wealthy. Daily we take for granted riches of which much of the world can only dream, and yet somehow we think we deserve it, that we’ve earnt the good life that has befallen us by the sheer luck of being born on these fortunate shores.
We turn on a tap and we have clean drinking water. How lucky are we? So lucky that we think nothing of using this precious resource to flush our toilets and water our plants. Over 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water[1, 2] and we let it run down the drain then complain about the cost.
Safe, clean water, on demand, at a fraction of the true cost. Want it hot? Turn on another tap and let electricity or gas work it’s wonders. Energy that’s cheap and reliable enough to heat our water 24-7. Energy so cheap that I’m sitting here, running a computer and monitor and listening to the radio while a pot of chickpeas simmers on the stove and a head of garlic roasts in the oven (I’m making humus). Yes, I’ve turned the lights off in the rooms I’m not using and I’m working by a single energy-efficient globe but even then my bills tell me I use an average of 15 KWH per day, which is only a little below the average for my dwelling type and suburb. I can do better (and yes, long, hot showers remain my biggest guilty pleasure. Maybe next year’s promise for World Environment Day…).
We’ve got safe water, ready power, large houses we fill up with stuff (biggest in the world, apparently, and this place feels exorbitantly large after my recent travels) and there’s the access to food and consumer goods. Walk into your kitchen right now and take a good, hard look in your cupboards. How much food is actually in there? How long could you go without really needing to shop? How much diversity of product is there? I have 2 types of rice, 2 types of lentils, 5 types of flour (I’m gluten-sensitive, so it’s somewhat excusable), black quinoa, quinoa flakes and a number of syrups and oils I most never use and don’t really need (lime oil, rosewater, pomegranate molasses and a serious tea collection…) and that’s after considerable down-sizing and being very mindful about what I buy.
It’s easy to indulge in food without even realising. Walk into any supermarket or grocer and look around: there’s so much food and so much choice! With the shelves so richly stocked our trolleys and household pantries look restrained by comparison. We have a culture that encourages food as a recreational pursuit rather than a nutritional need. Food shortages don’t even cross our consciousness for most of us, despite recent record droughts and soaring prices of staples. If we have the money it’s always there, waiting. Easy.
We are so damn lucky. Lucky to have been born in a wealthy country, a place of political stability and prosperity. No wars have torn my country apart. No dictators have drained us of our wealth (though Gina Rinehart may well try), no diseases have ravaged our people or our food production. Although drought, flood and fire take their toll, we’ve thus far been rich enough and agriculturally diverse enough to weather the storms and bitch about the cost of bananas.
And that’s what gets me really. We have this incredible wealth yet we complain about it. We sit here with our hands out, crying poor, asking the Government for more, always more. How can you be a battler with a place just for you and yours to call home, all the safe water you can drink, power whenever you want it and access to all the food you could ever dream of? When you have health care and social security? When education is free for all and retirement is considered a right? Yes, there are some Australians who truly are poor (particularly our indigenous people, who live in a different world to most of us), but for the vast majority of us and our compatriots in the western developed world, we are rich beyond our own comprehension. We have so very much. By accident of birth we find ourselves in the land of plenty.
Is it surprising, then, that others covet our way of life? That when we travel we’re seen as wealthy targets to exploit? You can hardly blame the rest of the world for wanting in on our privileged party. Yet the planet cannot sustain our current levels of consumption. We can’t pull everyone else up to our standard of living. So do we try to keep it all to ourselves, spoilt children who don’t want to share our shiny toys?
Truth is it’s an inherently unsustainable way of life. We can’t maintain it while the rest of the world scrapes by. Sooner or later the rest of the world will come looking for their share as resources run out. We can try to hang on until then, in a final orgy of consumption, or we can start to learn to live with less. I believe it’s time we learnt the difference between wants and needs, asked ourselves some searching questions and reduced our footprints a little. It’s the only fair choice (and as Dr Samuel Alexander writes, it just might also be good for us).
There’s no point feeling guilty about an accident of birth, and not all of us are in a position where living more simply is a viable choice. Most of us can do a little more, however. We can be just that little more mindful about the choices we make and think about the type of future we want to build. That’s what I’m trying to do and y’know, I’m happier for it.
 water.org fact sheet
 WHO water and health program
 Energy Made Easy Australian power consumption benchmark
 ComSec housing data report 2011
 World Bank food crisis data
 ACOSS Australian Poverty Report 2011
 Radical simplicity and the middle class: exploring the lifestyle implications of a great disruption, by Dr. Samuel Alexander
Don’t be afraid to shoot for the sun. After all, it’s the closest star to aim for.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!
Slowly but surely the house move is happening. I have the keys to the Cottage, half of my possessions are boxed up, I’ve eaten my way through everything perishable in the kitchen and I’ve sold, donated or made gifts of a raft of unnecessary possessions (though in the process of packing I keep finding yet more things I’m happy to live without and will be re-homing once moved). I’m excited about the Cottage and looking forward to turning it into my cozy, sustainable home and finally getting started on that garden. Yet I find myself procrastinating, time and again, drifting off in day-dreams of where I’d rather be…
You see, it’s Fagus season here in Tassie: that special time of year when the only deciduous plant on our ancient island – the Tanglefoot Beech (Nothofagus gunnii) – turns the slopes of Mt. Field and Cradle Mountain golden with its firey foliage.
The Nothofagus genus is a relic of Australia’s Gondwanan past: an ancient plant family once common across Australia, Antarctica and South America. Of the three species left in Australia, two are found in Tasmania: the majestic evergreen myrtle beech (N. cunninghamii) and the incredible endemic tanglefoot. While myrtle beech forests are still quite widespread, both in Tasmania and on the south-eastern Australian mainland, the tanglefoot is not only found on two rugged Tasmanian mountaintops: Mt. Field, near Hobart, and Cradle Mountain in the island’s north-eastern highlands.
It’s an incredibly slow-growing plant, highly sensitive to fire and other disturbances and notoriously difficult to propagate: not exactly a prime candidate for survival in our rapidly changing modern world! There’s no arguing, however, that our Tassie Fagus is really rather special.
Both the Cradle Mountain and Mt. Field Fagus forests are protected national parks, and around this time each year hundreds of keen bushwalkers and nature photographers like me trek around these mountains, lugging heavy lenses and tripods, to witness and document the beauty of this fascinating plant. Except this year I’m not joining them: I’m moving house instead.
Thus I dawdle in my labours, lost in wistful longings for misty mountainsides, painfully early mornings and the unforgettable sight of Cradle Mountain – one of my favourite places in the world – draped in that golden autumn coat of fagus.
Next year, I promise!
I’ve just returned from a short trip up to the southern Gold Coast to spend the Easter break with my family. It’s a trip I make about once a year to hug my parents, play with my niece and spend some quality time with the kind of old friends who have become family.
I missed out on a window seat this trip, so instead of spending the flight more-or-less glued to the window, watching the landscape unfolding below, I got to thinking about my travels in the context of sustainability
Travel: it broadens the mind, feeds the soul and strengthens the bonds of family and friendship. What’s not to love about it? Well, environmentally-speaking not a lot!
Air travel is the single biggest contributor to my carbon footprint. This trip alone generated roughly 306 kg of CO2 (source: International Civil Aviation Organisation carbon offset calculator). I also make one or two trips to Melbourne each year to catch up with friends and to dip my toe back into the rushing current of modern life: a much-needed perspective check when you live in a beautiful but isolated backwater like Tasmania. That’s around 172 kg CO2 per trip.
This year I’m also heading off overseas for the first time in 6 years. I’m heading off to South America for a few weeks to experience new cultures and explore remarkable environments like Machu Picchu and the Atacama Desert. Getting there and back again? A whopping 1 994 kg of CO2!
For flights booked so far this year I’m clocking up a total of 2 563 kg of CO2 (and that’s without any business travel).
My annual carbon footprint without flights comes in at around 5 tonnes (source: CarbonFootprint.com), so my flights add another 50% to my impact, bumping it up to 7.6 tonnes CO2 p.a. – that’s not a good number. So flying is definitely bad from the carbon emissions perspective, putting a big black mark in the environmental component of my sustainability score. Does that mean I shouldn’t fly? What about all the benefits of my travels?
Living a sustainable life means making choices that also look after my mental and physical health, build strong social networks and interpersonal relationships and live a life that inspires, challenges and enriches me. Travel provides an excellent way to meet many of my personal objectives. My social and personal benefits of travel include:
- Maintaining family relationships
- Building and strengthening my friendships and support networks
- Growing my awareness and understanding of other cultures and ways of doing things
- Inspiring personal change and global thinking
- Learning from others and from the experiences travel provides
- Developing a greater appreciation of the world, its environments and cultures
These are all good things, for sure, but are they enough to balance out the environmental costs? Are there other ways I could gain the benefits of travel without the CO2 emissions? I really don’t know.
What I do know is that I enjoy travel and everything it brings, and that means I’m probably going to find ways to justify keeping on flying, but perhaps I can travel a little smarter…
Better ways to travel:
- Flying less often (and making more use of Skype)
- Choosing closer destinations and non-stop flights
- Travelling by bus or train where possible and reasonably practical
- Paying extra for airline carbon offsets – does this accomplish anything? Perhaps a blog topic for another day!
- Tying overseas trips to environmental or social volunteer work
How do you reconcile your ideals with your impacts? What are your ideas for managing the impacts of travel?