Eco-Travel Isn’t A One Size Fits All: Thoughts on Location Privilege and Sustainability

[Photo of white brick garage with plants along one side.] I learned about how location privilege impacts sustainability when I moved to this new place with a garden space and proximity to bike trails.
My new garage, with space for bikes and garden supplies!

Perhaps it’s the fact the global pandemic has given me ample time to reflect, contemplate, and analyze. Perhaps it’s my recent move from an apartment to a house, about a mile down the road. Or maybe it’s my new job with my first benefits and salary, or the new bike my boyfriend bought me as a surprise. Whatever it it’s I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on location privilege, sustainability, and travel and I wanted to share some of what’s been rolling around in my head.

Where I lived before

In my last apartment, we were situated right off a highway which we had to cross basically any time we wanted to leave the residential area. We had very limited space and storage, we weren’t close to any bike paths, and we were 2-5 miles fro the nearest grocery stores. Not to mention we had daily traffic with consistently risky drivers, which made biking on the wide highway shoulders a non-option.

For the two years we lived there, with no yard and only 2 windows which provided sunlight half the time, it felt extremely difficult to adopt some of the eco-friendly habits I wanted. Riding my bike to the grocery store, gardening, walking to restaurants – they were nearly impossible where we lived.

Where I live now

I moved to a house with my partner and a roommate off the same main road, but its on the other side of the highway. A house with a yard. And sidewalks in our neighborhood.

Immediately, it felt like the world opened up to me. There are a few restaurants within walking distance of our house (including a brewery we love) so we can go get a snack or a drink without taking the car. We’re a few blocks from the Indy Redline which is a high speed public bus that cuts through the center of Indianapolis. I can be downtown, or in a few of the surrounding towns, in 10-15 minutes, again without driving.

Our yard had a long clothesline already installed. so I’ve been able to wash my clothes in the washing machine, but dry them on the line to save energy.

My roommate had a little composting system set up, and there’s plenty of space to garden too so we’ve got tomato plants, pepper plants, and herb gardens growing right now. I haven’t bought fresh herbs in a while, which has saved me both money and plastic and cooking really enjoyable.

I’ve also found so many mental health benefits to being out among my plants in the garden. Having a space to be safely and comfortably outdoors in the last month has been so amazing.

Then, Christian surprised me with a really nice road bike! This area is, for whatever reasons, wayyyy more bikeable than where we lived before. I guess we’re just a bit more centrally located now. Last weekend, he and I took our bikes 20 miles to Noblesville, a few towns over, and 20 miles back.

These weren’t things I planned and I didn’t know how much I would notice the impact of our location change before I moved. But it really opened my eyes to how much privilege there can be in your physical location and how much easier it can be for some people to adopt some more sustainable habits.

My new job has allowed me a bit of flexibility in my budget too so that I can afford to buy some of the things associated with my new “eco-hobbies” (gardening and biking, both of which can be quite expensive to get started).

These were all things that were practically inaccessible to me, just a month before.

Photo of a table stacked and surrounded by potted plants, in the corner of a house.
My garden of herbs and succulents – which I absolutely couldn’t have grown at my previous apartment.

What does this have to do with travel again?

Sustainability and sustainable travel are not one-size-fits-all and they probably never will be. Depending on where one lives and travels and a million other personal circumstances, some things might be possible for them and other might just be out of the question.

An example

People who live in Spain are able to access far greater swaths of the globe without hopping on a plane than a person who lives in Hawaii. Indisputably. And while flights are certainly damaging to the environment, does this mean people from Hawaii don’t get to travel internationally?

I don’t think so. I think a person from Hawaii should consider the impact of their flight when they’re thinking about the sustainability of a trip. Maybe for them, sustainable air travel means choose an airline with a better sustainability rating, a non-stop itinerary, and carbon-offsetting, whenever those things are possible for that person.

I also think it’s much more reasonable to expect a person from Spain to take a bus or a train when traveling abroad. Perhaps a person from Spain is able to cut out air travel all together and focus on choosing eco-friendly accommodations.

Both people can be doing their best in these situations BUT their locations can come with different privilege which affect their abilities to take certain eco-friendly habits.

Tying it all together

I’ve been reminded that what it means to live or travel sustainably will vary from person to person. Of course that must be the case – there are few things in life in which a one-size-fits-all approach is truly a solution.

I think it’s also reminded me that we must be forgiving and understanding, of both our own situations and limitations, and those of others.

It does no good to shame someone for taking a flight, or visiting a zoo, or not adopting a vegan diet. And it’s self-righteous and usually ill-informed to assume that we’ve figured out all the answers for how to be eco-friendly sustainable people. It does no good to guilt ourselves either, and it’s arrogant to think we can either save or destroy the world with our actions alone. (Unless you are Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos or some other powerful person reading my post – you can probably save or destroy the world alone. Plz save it.)

Don’t forget, there are communities who’ve been living in harmony with the earth for centuries who already possess knowledge of how to live sustainably – often times in ways which are in opposition to our modern ideas of “eco-friendly.” BBC calls them the “original eco warriors“.

My move has helped me be more clear about my mission with Suitcase Six: to lovingly challenge and empower you to incorporate sustainability into your travels, in all the ways accessible to you.

No matter where you are in the sustainable travel journey – whether this is the first you’re hearing about it or you could write a book on the topic – I welcome you to this blog without judgement! I’m sharing all I know here for you to take what you need, share what you can, and leave the rest.

Buying popsicles at a shop that’s now within a safe biking distance from our house.

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Eco-Travel Isn\'t A One Size Fits All: Thoughts on Location Privilege and Sustainability