Up The Road: Why Travel?

Jul 10, 2019

Travel makes the world look new (World War II command position Kristiansand, Norway)
Credit Guiseppe Milo / Flickr

We head up the road this week on a philosophical trip, to answer the question: Why travel? We travel because we’re a migratory species, on the most basic level, and we’ve gotten good at it over the eons. At first, we traveled strictly to survive, as many still do. Now the middle-class travels for fun, as only the upper class once did.

But there is a cost to so much travel. According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change earlier this year, tourism—meaning, pleasure travel—accounts for 8 percent of all global greenhouse gases. Some sources put the total closer to 10 percent.

Tourism is “largely a high-income affair,” as the leader researcher put it, with wealthier countries being both origin and destination for most travelers. The U.S., as you might guess, is number one in the global travel sweepstakes, though China and India are catching up fast. Making matters worse, in terms of climate impact, this trend will continue, with tourism and its impacts predicted to grow about 4 percent per year, worldwide.

There are other negatives on tourism’s balance sheet. Let’s include environmental costs not already filed under climate change—a dammed river here, another lost species there—and immense cultural costs, including the loss of entire cultures. Did anyone really want world culture to become so homogenized? Isn’t discovering “difference” why we set off on adventures in the first place? No, to that first question, and yes to the second. But: How do you keep people down on the farm after they’ve tried their first iPhones and Nikes?

Admitting—loudly—that we do need to clean up our collective act, and to get busy doing just that—like yesterday—Up the Road says yes, we should travel. Not the way we’ve been doing it, sure. We need a different experiential focus. Plus, we need to change our travel ethics, on a massive a scale. More about that next time.

But we do need to keep traveling. Who better to explain why than America’s own Mark Twain, who discovered very large, inviting life both on and beyond the Mississippi. As Twain once said, in The Innocents Abroad:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

Recently, I’ve thought about starting something like a Send Your Neighbor Abroad program. Making it easier for you and I to just export folks the nation would be better off without—but in a very nice way, by sending them off on vacation. Because travel has a way of educating even the most mean-spirited. As Twain also said, in 1868, right after our last Civil War:

“It liberates the vandal to travel––you never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born and thought God made the world and dyspepsia and bile for his especial comfort and satisfaction.”

If a particular person popped to mind, hearing that, wouldn’t you want that person to find a happier path? Send Your Neighbor Abroad. Amen.