Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Once in a Lifetime
distributed 8/7/09 - ©2009

I hope you agree with me that we -- who are among the world's most affluent -- have to do a much better job of living lightly on the planet. That is hard to do, though, when living lightly feels like deprivation, and involves the loss of treasured possibilities.

Vacation travel is one of the places where "cutting back" can be especially hard. I've been pondering how the ancient traditions of Islam might provide new insights for us about changing our travel sensibilities. The Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, might be a model for intentional travel that can shift our values and change our behaviors.

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The modern era of remarkably cheap and easy transportation has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to travel widely. For me, personally, and for many people that I've talked to, experiences of other cultures, other habitats and historical sites are among the great joys of life. Travel is enlightening and broadening. It makes us better people by expanding our horizons and challenging our preconceptions.

For those of us who live in the United States, some far-flung travel may be especially important. Compared to residents of many other countries, our exposure to the rest of the world is very sparse and biased. When the news we receive is so oblivious to other countries, and when we assume that "the American way of life" is the global norm, we may need to walk the streets of Mumbai, Hong Kong or Cairo to experience a totally different world. Our awareness and appreciation of complex ecological systems is so sketchy that a visit the Amazon, the Great Barrier Reef, or the Kalahari may be needed to break open our eyes and our spirits. That sort of travel is enriching and life-changing.

While travel can be wonderful for those who do it, it is not wonderful for the planet. Every trip that enhances the tourist degrades the Earth community with additional greenhouse gasses and depleted fossil fuels. It looks like a no-win trade-off: "Pick one or the other -- live your life fully, or care for creation." Put in those terms, the personal benefits of travel are dramatic, and the global effects are diffuse. No wonder most people -- when given the option -- chose vacations instead of "stay-cations."

I'm probably going to step on some toes here. Please be gentle when you write back with your comments! Not all travel is profoundly broadening. Flying to Cancun to stay in a luxury hotel and sunbathe on an exclusive beach doesn't do much to build solidarity with the people and habitats of the Yucatan Peninsula. A few days in Las Vegas may be great fun (not for me!), but being steeped in that culture of excess is not much of a justification for the trip's environmental impacts. I'd be interested in hearing how those sorts of travel experiences makes you a better citizen of Planet Earth.

Yes, travel to far-away places can be a profound, enriching, life-changing experience. But let's be honest that the number of miles traveled is not directly related to the quality of the experience. Lots of frequent-flier miles does not ensure your growth as a person.

This is where I think of the Islamic "pillar" of the Hajj. Each devout Muslim, at least once in their life, is expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Going to the holy sites that provide the bedrock of the faith, participating in rituals that evoke the central events of Islam, is an obligation for all followers of Islamic practice.

The Hajj seems easy today. Take a few days off, catch a flight to Saudi Arabia, and join the throngs. Indeed, so many people are making the trip that crowd control and safety during ritual practices has become difficult. But think back 100 or 1,000 years. In a time when most people never traveled more than a few miles from home, when any long journey was very expensive, dangerous and time-consuming, making the pilgrimage to Mecca was a one-time, utterly unequaled experience.

There is a world of difference between a tourist and a pilgrim. One is an observer, the other is a participant. The pilgrim's destination and engagement is crucial. It is a ritual-infused trip to a specific place, and no other location can provide an equivalent experience. The Hajj gives us an image of pilgrimage as travel where the benefit -- in personal experience and in the building up of community -- can more than balance the ecological cost.

So here is my suggestion. Let us affirm the value of genuinely profound travel experiences by affirming "once in a lifetime" trips. Living lightly on the planet doesn't mean that we have to give up all travel. It does mean that our major trips should be very worthwhile. If I'm only going to drain the bank account and blow my carbon allowance once, what sort of trip would I plan that would be worth it?

The Hajj calls for a trip to Mecca, but the options for pilgrimage can be more diverse. Christians and Jews have often seen a trip to "the Holy Land" as a spiritual pilgrimage. An extensive tour of historical sites in Europe would be the choice of others. An immersion trip deep into the Amazon's rain forests, a journey to trace the family's heritage, or a river trip through the Grand Canyon could each qualify.

It may be that "once in a lifetime" is too stark. The concept could work with "once in a decade", or "once in a life stage" (adolescence, middle age, and retirement). Thinking in terms of Hajj leads us to place great importance on a very intentional journey. When we evaluate it in terms of "what would make such a profound difference in my life that it is worth great costs", then those trips become more valuable to us, and to our community.

In a near-future world where travel will be less frequent -- because of higher costs for fuel, because of environmental sensitivity, or even because the escalating demands of work make it harder to get away -- the travel that we do take should be life-changing.

Personally, and in your immediate family, consider how limiting major trips might make for much richer experiences, so that the saying about "less is more" is actually true. Imagine what it would be like in our churches if we celebrated the value of exceptional trips with special blessings for those who are embarking on this sort of once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. Think of the depth of conversation that would be possible in sitting down with a new friend and asking, "where do you want to go for your Hajj?" or "tell me how your Hajj enriched your life."

In our affluent society, travel is cheap and easy, and many people think of unlimited travel as a part of their unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. If we don't reframe the purpose and the value of our trips, then less travel does seem like deprivation and a restriction on freedom. If, however, we elevate very rare and special trips into a different category of travel, then we can enter into a different set of choices and opportunities.

As we seek ways to live more sustainably, it is important to highlight the aspects of life that we value most deeply, and to affirm those blessings. Finding ways to celebrate the most meaningful forms of travel will give us a different perspective as we reduce our less significant jaunts.

NOTE: Questions about travel have been addressed in two other Eco-Justice Notes. "Worthwhile Travel" proposed guidelines for business trips, and "Good People, Bad Choices" considered travel to family celebrations.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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