Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta \ Photo by Laura McDonald

In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the feel-good travel epic released last Christmas, Ben Stiller plays a compulsive daydreamer who travels around the world in search of a missing photograph. Mitty’s hunt for the photograph allows him to escape his boring life working in a darkened photo lab at Life Magazine, and to find happiness through adventure. This narrative of self-discovery through travel is pretty well-worn – Eat, Pray, Love being another prominent example.

This narrative, however, has implications that go far beyond the movie theatre. Consider, for example, the advertising materials for The Adventure Travel Company, offering hikes through the Sahara Desert, mountain-climbing in the Himalayas and rainforest treks in the Amazon. Their promotional images typically feature a single person or small group looking introspective or triumphant while standing amongst some sort of dramatic natural scenery.

Charity travel packages to climb Kilimanjaro, of which there are many, use similar iconography in their advertising. And then there’s the very problematic practice of voluntourism, whose promotions tends to feature very happy first-world twenty-somethings surrounded by very happy children in developing countries. The message in all these examples is clear: Pay us money to take you somewhere far away, and in return you get a happy, enlightened and purposeful life.  

Of course, this narrative has its critics, prominent among which are a few seasoned travellers who point out that simply being in another place is not a magical path to self-discovery. On reflection, that seems pretty obvious. Travel might force you outside of your comfort zone and give you a few good stories to tell, but there are ways to do that that don’t involve intercontinental flight. And a few good travel stories won't magically make your dull office job back home more exciting.

What’s less recognized, however, is that this narrative is not just flawed; it’s actively harmful. According to Carbon Footprint, we need to reduce the average carbon footprint to a measly two metric tonnes per person per year. Now consider the fact that Walter Mitty's flight from New York City to Nuuk, Greenland, and back from Rekjyavik, Iceland, would have emitted  a total of 1.24 tonnes of carbon, over half of his annual allowance. In case you're not planning on any trips to the Arctic Circle, you should know that a return trip ticket from Vancouver to London, UK emits 1.33 tons of carbon.

The twenty-first century practice of finding one’s self through global travel, by virtue of its dependence on flying, is fundamentally at odds with sustainability.

While it is possible at the moment to address this problem by buying carbon offsets, this is not a long-term solution. There are only so many high-efficiency lightbulbs you can pay to install before you'll have to start cutting back yourself if you want to continue living sustainably.

The inescapable conclusion is that if we want to stave off global warming, we need to stop flying so much. The twenty-first century practice of finding one’s self through global travel, by virtue of its dependence on flying, is fundamentally at odds with sustainability. And that means that we need to re-think the narratives given to us by characters like Walter Mitty.

We shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking these narratives aren't powerful. Popular stories about technology, described by transportation historian Colin Divall as “techno-tales,” have a powerful influence on how we use and interact with technology. Divall demonstrates that this influence played a big role in the development of tourism, when nineteenth-century railway companies promoted positive narratives of travel in order to encourage more tourist traffic. So Walter Mitty’s tale is, in a sense, a hundred years out of date.

Techno-tales around unsustainable technologies and consumer practices are already being questioned and re-moulded. While a Hummer might once have stood for manliness, for example, they’re now seen as overcompensation in many circles. But narratives around travel have proved surprisingly resistant to this kind of criticism.

For now, environmentalists can get away with offsetting their flights, but in the long run we’re going to have to find another way to discover ourselves.

The idea of international travel appeals strongly to the traditionally left-wing values of personal introspection and cross-cultural understanding, shielding it from criticism by environmentalists, who tend to be on the left of the political spectrum. But this simply can’t go on if we are to attain any meaningful level of carbon mitigation. For now, environmentalists can get away with offsetting their flights, but in the long run we’re going to have to find another way to discover ourselves.

The good news is that there are ways to do this.

Cross-cultural empathy can be facilitated through the internet. 20daystranger.com allows you to share the intimate details of your life with a stranger somewhere else in the world. Websites like italki.com allow you to practice a language with native speakers over skype. And signing up for The Listserve lets you read an email from one randomly selected person every day.

Adventure, and even possibly self-discovery, can be found much closer to home. Multi-day bike trips or hikes can provide a feeling of adventure and accomplishment while also revealing spectacular natural beauty. The less athletically-inclined can still attain substantial carbon savings by taking a bus, a train or even a car to somewhere closer to home.

Perhaps it’s time for the concept of a 100-mile travel diet to join our lexicon along with its culinary cousin. Either way, we need to ditch the environmentally destructive and, frankly, classist, travel narratives in which whomever travels furthest, to the most exotic locale, wins. We can discover ourselves in ways that don’t kill the planet. 

Cameron Roberts is a Canadian PhD student studying the cultural history of transportation technology at the University of Manchester. He blogs about science, technology and society at Where's My Jetpack.

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