But traveling light doesn’t mean just reducing your baggage. It means reducing your footprint or, rather, footprints: your carbon footprint, your ecological footprint, your footprint on the local culture. Most of your carbon footprint comes from the planes you take. A gallon of combusted airplane fuel produces up to 100 times more greenhouse gases than a gallon of gasoline. You can take consolation from the fact that if all of the passengers on the plane drove to the destination in their cars, their collective footprint would be greater, but still, airplanes account for something like 5 percent of the total anthropogenic (human) contribution to the rising temperatures that are wreaking havoc on the planet’s ecology and weather systems.
Driving is not an option, of course, if you are crossing an ocean, which I’ve done hundreds of times. I would never have gotten to all those amazing places if it weren’t for the airplane. I met my wife of the past 17 years on the October 11, 1987, Air Ethiopia flight from Entebbe to Rome. We had both changed our flights at the last minute, and if I hadn’t been kicked out of my seat by the Ugandan minister of youth, culture, and sports and plunked myself down beside her, our three boys would not have come into this world. Our family’s destiny is entwined with the passenger airplane, going back to the 1920’s, when my father was the business manager of fellow émigré Igor Sikorsky’s aircraft company, which was developing what became the Pan American Clipper Ship.
There may not be much you can do about the airplane-emissions component of your footprint in motion, but once you arrive, there are plenty of ways to make yourself a more responsible traveler. With the advent of ecotourism, numerous companies and operators are now sensitive to their environments, and they are the ones you should be booking. Are the local people getting anything out of my visit?Is it helping to preserve or to erode the local ecosystem and culture?These are the questions I think we should be asking.
In the late seventies, I was hired as the expedition leader of the first adventure cruise up the Amazon. We would take off into the side channels of the main river in Zodiac rafts. One morning we came upon some Tikuna Indians who had had little contact with the outside world and who sold us an extraordinary picture of forest animals, painted on an 8-by-10-inch canvas of bark cloth. Fifteen years later, at the gift shop in Harvard’s Peabody Museum, I found a stack of "Tikuna bark-cloth paintings." Their work had become worthless, kitschy tourist crap. Tourism can turn traditional cultures into ersatz replicas of themselves—look at the way the Hopi’s sacred kachina dolls are now sold as souvenirs.
But of course, tourism can also do good. The Amazon Rainforest Conservation Center, in the Peruvian Amazon, is completely staffed by local Indians. Jack’s Camp in Botswana offers "dignified tourism" among the Bushmen. The Masai of Shompole Group Ranch, in Kenya, are partners in the conservation business with the white Kenyan who built a luxurious eco-lodge in the hills above them, which they own 30 percent of and staff. They don’t kill the lions anymore, because they know that a live lion is worth $20,000 in tourist dollars, and the money flowing into the community has brought running water to every hut while helping them to maintain their culture.
For the traveler who can’t be bothered with all these niggling little green do’s and don’ts, I offer the following South American folktale (which I got from Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Prize–winning founder of Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement and a powerful and courageous woman): There is a terrible forest fire. All the animals are fleeing the conflagration except Hummingbird, who is flying back and forth, scooping up little slivers of water from a spring and dumping them on the flames. "What do you think you’re doing, stupid little bird?" the other animals ask derisively, and Hummingbird says, "I’m doing what I can."
That’s what we all have to do at this critical juncture. The way you travel, as an individual, absolutely does matter, especially when you multiply your footprint by the 1.1 billion others who are expected to be in circulation by 2010. So let’s all tread as lightly as we possibly can.
Alex Shoumatoff is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.