The festive season is over. The last mince pie eaten, and the New Year’s resolutions are starting to look a little less gloss and a lot more like the limp decorations you have just packed away, in the hope they will be revivable at the end of the year.
Well! Fear not! You still have plenty of time to make this year ‘The Year’ you were ‘your best self’ by starting the process of looking for your next adventure, perhaps your next volunteering experience, and by considering how this positive experience can be of benefit to you, the environment, and the local people in the places you want to be.
In recent years, thankfully, it has become common practice to consider our carbon footprint and the way our lifestyle needs are met by fossil fuels, but in reality, the potential for our impact is so much more. A deep dive into the ‘footprint‘ we each create should not be seen as scary, closely akin to completing a tax return or an overdue visit to the dentist, and it shouldn’t be relegated to the last item on the to-do list and done at breakneck speed in the hope of double bluffing your inner critic and squashing your ever-increasing levels of eco-anxiety.
Creating a considered breakdown of our individual footprint -created simply by being alive- can be a positive catharsis and can help each of us to actively acknowledge our place in the world, and look at ways to create maximum gain for minimum impact. It used to be said to “take nothing but ‘photos, leave nothing but footprints” and this idea still has merit but looking to the future we need to think of doing much more, and for this, we need to consider that our footprint on the world can be segmented into two distinct but intrinsically interrelated aspects. The physical aspect and the social aspect of our lives.
So, first, let’s consider the physical aspect of our impact during a travel opportunity.
The mechanics of travel to your destination of choice is an obvious place to start and whilst there is a focus on flying less or not flying at all, the opportunities which are open to you might mean you can consider different approaches to transport in order to minimise that known and visible top of impact. Consider taking a direct flight rather than a potentially cheaper layover flight, which inevitably uses less fuel by reducing the occasions of taking off and landing, both times of higher fuel consumption. Don’t go as far for a short time duration. Consider taking longer to arrive by using multiple forms of transport, including using local transport. There is potentially an offset that occurs in the form of the duration and quality of travel which can feel more weighted and complicated for us to do. However these options can offer all sorts of unique travel experiences which we wouldn’t get in a package, ‘door-to-door’ service and which will potentially reduce your fossil fuel footprint.
Exciting food and drink at a new destination is one of the joys of travel. Finding new taste sensations, new flavours and extending our palate or understanding of what is desirable, and even edible, can be an interesting experience, depending on where we are. Trying to stick to locally produced food and drink will naturally ensure that the transportation footprint and the possibility of plastic and other wrappings are not in environments that find it difficult to manage them. Alongside this is the need to consider the types of packaging which our requests for ‘home comforts’ may engender. The mantra all over the world should be ‘buy local, reduce, reuse, refill and avoid buying unless necessary’. A broader view than just not buying plastic bottles is needed to make the necessary changes.
Personal hygiene may not be something that hits our radar until we are in a different area and are faced with new systems that prompt this as a consideration. In our home countries, it is much easier to trial, source and buy suitable biodegradable products in compostable packaging, of which there are now many out there. Natural shampoo and conditioning bars in reusable tins, solid deodorant in paper packaging, ‘coral safe’, mineral sunscreens, reusable sanitary products and menstrual cups. It is worthwhile thinking about where and how you will brush teeth and wash yourself or your clothes when travelling. The possibility of contaminants entering the water and soil ecology of places you are there to support necessitates the need for a bit of research and consideration so you can meet your daily hygiene needs without creating a problematic impact.
And finally, a little considered aspect is that of personally collecting natural artifacts from an area. It is a practice that initially doesn’t seem to be an issue and is one that the majority of people have engaged in quite unwittingly. A couple of seashells collected from a natural beauty spot might not seem to matter but when multiplied by a large number of people this can create changes in the ecosphere undreamed of by the people doing it.
Making personal changes from a place of awareness, without an unhelpful level of ‘self-shame’ has the potential to improve the ways we travel as individuals. All of the base ideas for change can be applied to life in ‘home countries’ as well as abroad and these conscious changes to our behaviours, when compounded across the billions of us who reside on this planet, can create a potentially more happy, healthy, and harmonious life for us, and for our furry, feathered, and finned friends.
In addition to the physical considerations of the personal impact of our travels, we must look at the impact that we can have on the people and cultures we spend time in as visitors, volunteers, tourists, and travellers.
Our impact in this social sphere can be difficult to quantify simply because it is a qualitative approach and as with everything in life, it can be much easier to understand and make changes to the easily countable, physical, quantifiable aspects of life. Unfortunately, this has meant that the social can be downplayed or ignored.
A placement volunteering for a project which inspires you has the opportunity to offer you personal insights and rewards for years to come. It also has the potential to leave behind a positive legacy of dedication, shared experiences, and ongoing environmental and social benefits.
The importance of finding a holistically beneficial, ethical, responsible, and sustainable project cannot be underplayed and will make a world of difference to your experience of being in a location as well as having an impact on the local people and area. Choosing a project which is driven by a partnership between local groups and external support ensures that the needs of the region are being met on a positive footing. This is essential to take steps in redressing the global balance of inequality and environmental damage. No-one wants to create an unhealthy cycle of need and dependence between groups of people or of adding unhealthily to the environmental load on a region, which is why researching and considering the choice of volunteering opportunity matters so much.
Another potential issue, unsurprisingly a sensitive issue, is that of giving money to people begging. This is a tricky subject and, as with a lot of these social impact issues, is about making the best decision you can when you are in the situation. However, consider the impact of learned dependence and forced ‘employment’ on all individuals who are seen begging for money. It is impossible to know the backstory and the desire to assuage this immediate situation for others is a natural one, but consider the wider consequences. In the case of children, the more that a child takes ‘home’ the less chance there is that the child will be able to attend school.
Children can become a commodity for child labour traffickers in this market as in many others, and families can become highly dependant on this income stream, as education and employment drifts further out of their reach. Instead of giving money directly, it can be much more beneficial to give money to local charities which are able to distribute money, goods, and food as needed. And also potentially find ways to alleviate the need for begging in the first place.
Taking photographs of people and ‘local curiosities’ might seem like a positive or even neutral thing to do, especially if you have made the effort to ask for permission to take the snap. However taking photos of people can be done in a mutually beneficial way, showing respect and interest in an individual, a culture, and a situation. Or it can be done in a way that causes the host culture to feel uncomfortable about its own behaviours or practices as if they are an eccentricity or something to be looked down on or parodied. Consider your reasons for taking the image, ask before taking and equally consider how you will be sharing it. Be a human first, photographer second, and with these thoughts in mind, you are sure to be able to navigate this situation positively for everyone.
When travelling from one culture to another, it is helpful to have a grasp of one’s specific cultural biases in order to avoid falling into the trap of unconsciously creating hierarchical comparisons which break rather than build positive relations. Rather than saying we don’t have these biases let’s just acknowledge that we all do! They are a natural part of our cultural DNA, part of the glue or cohesion which helps people in a particular group stick together. What is important is to recognise this, and make them conscious, and to take responsibility for exploring and understanding our potential triggers or tendencies for bias, so as not to be surprised by them when we are travelling – and inadvertently be in a situation of causing offense.
Far from being a prescriptive list, these thoughts are simply a jumping-off point, a place from which to start. And by starting to have this, and many more of these conversations, more aspects of impact will come to light. Which will, in turn, present opportunities for consideration and positive change. Maintaining a flexible approach and conscious awareness are skills that will stand you in good ‘social’ stead.
Wherever we are in the world we leave a trace, so let’s all make it a good one. After all, there is a reason for the popularity of the affirmation “Good Vibes Only”. This should be what we leave, nothing more. And if we do that, then we have done well! So get out there and enjoy your next adventure with a conscious mind and a bag full of biodegradable, compostable necessities that will help you live your best life as positively impact-fully as possible.
Article by WorkingAbroad Blog Writer Rae Hadley