We used to see international travel as a force for good – but the climate crisis has changed that

More free time and less financial hardship would mean that holidays would cease to be the only source of pleasure. 

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The thought came to me on my way to Chernobyl of all places. I was on a bus driving from Kiev to the site of the nuclear disaster, and the passing scenery changed remarkably quickly as we left the city, from generically modern to bleak and archaic. Twenty minutes’ drive from Independence Square there were elderly women in headscarves bent almost double, walking for miles by themselves, and vacant apartment blocks and long dust roads of nothing. It made me think of decommunisation, and about what a genuine, successful communism might look like; made me think about space, and waste, and need. And then, because of where I was, on a tour coach with a bunch of strangers and other journalists far from home, I thought also of travel.

I had come on the trip ostensibly for work, but really because I try to go wherever I can. I go on press trips I have no interest in, or pet-sit for friends of friends, as an excuse to go somewhere new – anything to say yes to. I wondered, would I feel the same need to move so much, see so much, if I had a life that was steady and reliable and safe? Would the urge to roam remain?

Travel has tended to be considered something morally neutral or good in modern life. Tour package companies flatter us to take our money, insisting that those of us who like to be away as often as possible are unusually spirited, open-minded people. Our curiosity flatters us, suggests liveliness and tolerance and inclination towards connection with far-flung, random people we would have no normal cause to meet.

A sense of adventure has also been used to mask evil, of course, most notably in relation to colonialism. How many schoolchildren in the US have been taught to see Columbus as a swashbuckling, essentially benign pioneer? And there’s a reason the gap year traveller has become such a cliché, that we dread being subjected to monologues about India and Cambodia and self-discovery on Tinder dates: because we see that an ostensibly innocent desire so often expresses itself as gawping exoticism.

Lately, there’s been a new moral slant on travelling. The climate crisis has inspired a “flight-shaming” movement (the original word, flygskam, means the same in Swedish and emerged when activists such as Björn Ferry and Greta Thunberg began to encourage the cessation of individual commercial air travel). I don’t believe in total abdication of personal responsibility, and I think that the “no ethical consumption under capitalism” mantra gets played out to meaninglessness – any easy excuse to never act at all. Still, flight-shaming ordinary individuals does feel to me an essentially wrong approach. Wrong in that I think it will be ultimately ineffective, but morally wrong too. Statistics released in September showed that just 1 per cent of English residents are responsible for nearly a fifth of all flights abroad. That’s before you even consider corporations as international entities.

It’s a doomed enterprise to shame and fear ordinary people into abandoning their leisure time and brief treats while we live in a world where the wealthy act with impunity. It seems to me that we should not try to take away those conciliatory pleasures, but to think bigger; to create an actually fair society, one that doesn’t prioritise productivity and profit. One that does not squeeze all pleasure into tiny contained bits of time, which then come to seem all-important. What if we lived in a society that was basically equitable – in which housing and medical care and education and food were all a given? In which everyone, not just the rich, had the luxury of protected leisure time, the ability to pursue non-profitable interests and hobbies? What might it be like, in other words, to live in a society that wasn’t capitalist?

The impulse to travel, to be drawn towards novelty and romance and adventure, will surely never leave us, but more free time and less financial hardship would mean that holidays would cease to be the only source of pleasure in an ordinary life. It would also mean that your average person could afford to travel by more expensive and time-consuming means, such as train and boat. I wonder if our entire approach to travel wouldn’t be transformed, in a world like that.

It seems cruel and obscenely ignorant to scold a low-wage worker for their annual flight to the continent. But it would be a different situation if we were able to say to everyone, including the average casual worker: “You only get one transatlantic and one continental flight per five years, but in the meantime you have childcare, you have housing, you have a mandatory minimum of paid holiday days, you will never want for groceries, meaning that your everyday life is suddenly a much more relaxing and dignified prospect.”

Our approach to the climate crisis should not be smilingly to hold hands with corporations as they promise to cut their naughty emissions and throw a few quid back into planting trees as and when they see fit. Our journey to a different way of living cannot depend on their decision to cooperate with our pleas. They will only ever make concessions that allow for their own continuous growth, calculating how little they can reasonably get away with doing for the greater good, and doing only that. To recognise this isn’t to say each individual working for a corporation is evil, or unconcerned with the environment, but simply to recognise the function of business in the world we currently accept. Like a virus, the capitalist corporation exists to self-propagate and will instinctively attack in order to do so.

We should instead be brave enough to reimagine a world without their supremacy, a world where the baseline well-being of ordinary people is the goal, not the amount of profit corporations can make from their oppression – and even our eventual demise.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 13 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold