Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Once in a Lifetime
distributed 6/21/13 - ©2013

The remarkably cheap and easy transportation of this modern era has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to travel widely. For me, 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.

But that easy travel to distant places also has a heavy environmental impact. That is the case both with getting there -- especially by air or cruise ship -- and being there. Swarms of tourists, even well-intentioned eco-tourists, can cause disruption and depletion.

It looks like a no-win trade-off: "Pick one or the other -- enrich your life with travel, or care for creation." Given that choice, the personal benefits of travel are dramatic, and the global effects are diffuse. No wonder most people who have such options chose vacations instead of "stay-cations."

I've been looking at the ancient traditions of Islam for new insights which might change our travel sensibilities. The Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, might be a model for mindful and meaningful travel that breaks free of an either-or choice. The notion of Hajj can shift our values and change our behaviors in ways that affirm both Earth care and travel.

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For those of us who live in the United States, some far-flung travel may be a valuable experience. Compared to residents of many other countries, our exposure to the rest of the world is very sparse and biased. When we hear little news about 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 and appreciate a totally different world.

So, too, our awareness and appreciation of complex ecological systems is so sketchy that an extended 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.

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 your thoughts about how those sorts of travel experiences make any of us better citizens of Planet Earth.

Travel to far-away places can be a profound, enriching, life-changing experience. But let's be honest. 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 that 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 have 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 pilgrimage gives us an image travel where the benefit -- in personal experience and in the building of community -- can justify much of 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 works with "once in a life stage" -- adolescence, middle age, and retirement -- or perhaps even "once in a decade". (It misses the point, though, if this sort of profound pilgrimage happens every year or two.) 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 your immediate family, consider how limiting major trips might make the trips you do take a much richer experience. 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 will 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 enter into a more meaningful 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. When we find ways to celebrate the most meaningful forms of travel, we will also find a perspective that allows us to minimize our less significant jaunts.

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The thoughts above are a variation of a Notes that I sent out in August, 2009. I am inspired to re-send them today because I am taking my own advice.

This week, my wife and I are on the sort of pilgrimage that I have described -- a treasured and very intentional trip to Alaska. We are going with heart-felt confession about flying from Denver to Anchorage. And we are going with great anticipation about experiencing glaciers and whales, ancient indigenous cultures, and the summer solstice so far north. It is true that taking travel so seriously does make it more meaningful.

It is likely that you'll hear more about our experience of Alaska sometime soon.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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

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