Sitting down halfway through my flight to Boston to begin this blog, I’m astonished that my trip is actually over. I kept preparing for the moment when I would get writing, travelling, loneliness, traveling with others, and working out all under control into a balanced lifestyle, then suddenly, without having gotten any closer to any of those goals—and still having the time of my life—I found myself in an airport again. Taking this small time frame of a lifestyle, it goes to show that the balanced life we are always dreaming of achieving for ourselves may be eternally unattainable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t remain happy as year after year we hopelessly try.
Starting from the huge takeaway that immediately popped into my head, I thought I might attempt a summary of my travels, with some broader reflections. Maybe I’ll do that eventually, but right now, there’s just one more conversation I want to recount. It took place over several days in Geneva, which was still during the first half of my trip (I have a whole book of conversations stored up from the second half; maybe one day).
In Geneva, as I mentioned in my last blog, I stayed at an Airbnb just across the border in France, in a section of a man’s house which he had partitioned off from the rest of the living room with a foldable divider. After three days there, I decided I needed another night in the city and my host generously set me up a tent in his backyard.
My host, Tim, was one of the most outgoing and generous people that I’ve met (if the tent didn’t prove that to you). He was a classic 1960s hippie, who had never left his love for Willie Nelson and marijuana (or Willie Nelson songs about marijuana) behind. And he still kept the politics with him too, always reiterating that things were “really gonna change once the revolution comes.” I’m not sure if my politics have come through in these blogs (although they probably would if you read my listings), but I was happy to chat about a little socialism with my passionate host.
Tim talked the talk of any classic young progressive: wealth taxes, universal healthcare, drug legalization, feminism, climate action, proletarian revolution—you know the deal. For most of us elite university socialists, our ideals become much harder to maintain as graduation looms and the prospects of survival in a capitalist world threaten us. So, the prospect of hypocrisy is something I’m quite familiar with, and fear for myself as well (the morality of writing for a travel guide while people are experiencing homelessness? Dicey, and often hard to handle as I walked by countless people living on the streets on my way to go out to eat in Paris).
But Tim, who is someone I appreciate and respect very much, seemed to live a hypocrisy that was particularly hard to confront. While pontificating about his progressive ideals and readiness to throw torches when the revolution came, it seemed that Tim was living on the opposing side of the revolution.
Climate change threatens our survival. Most young people know this and recognize that we must take immediate action to stymie its progress.
By participating in a capitalist system to any degree, we embrace a blind profit motive that encourages the burning of fossil fuels for as long as that activity remains profitable. This is the tried and true case for why working in finance contributes to climate change and all other social ills: by indifferently seeking the highest returns on investment.
Indeed, by writing for a travel guide, we implicitly encourage air travel, which is one of the worst things a person could do environmentally. So some degree of hypocrisy is near impossible to avoid for those of us who believe in making the world a better place, unless we drop out of capitalist society completely.
This near-universal hypocrisy cannot, however, be taken to mean a moral equivalence between all activities in capitalist society. Many people have very few economic options, and necessity drives them to accept work that has particularly harmful consequences. In my view, there can be no ethical judgement in such cases—the system that people live in compels them to do harm.
Yet at a certain level of affluence people have choices and can seek to minimize their harmful impact to a reasonable degree. Tim, for example, worked in oil shipping. He wasn’t a freight worker; rather, he was high up in a trading firm and showed me the proceedings of a convention he attended with the leading businesses in the field (think Shell, British Petroleum). As we got to know each other quite well over the few days I spent in his living room and in a tent in his yard, I eventually pressed him on this question: how can you reconcile opposition to capitalism and climate change with work in oil shipping?
His answer was simple: “my first priority is, and always will be, providing for my family.” This answer seems impossible to argue with; one must eat, and therefore one must work, whatever the consequences of that work may be.
But people feed their families, if only by the skin of their teeth, on a few dollars a month in other countries. So simply feeding one’s family cannot be a full justification for leading an oil shipping firm. Of course, I would never ask Tim to support his family on a few dollars a month to live out his ideals. But surely a salary slightly lower than that of a high-flying oil shipper would be sufficient for a reasonable standard of living in Switzerland. (I will grant that Switzerland is a preposterously expensive country, so I could almost be wrong on that claim).
Nonetheless, it is quite probable that what is viewed as an acceptable standard of living does require that level of salary. If we view cars, boats, and international vacations as necessary elements of acceptability, perhaps Tim does need to work in oil shipping to support his family.
Yet there can be no denying that Tim’s position places him squarely on the opposing side from the oppressed masses with whom he envisions himself rebelling. No justification can reconcile this essential contradiction if Tim is to live out his ideals.
Tim’s insistence on the necessity of his high salary points to what I believe is one of the core issues with leftism, particularly the brand found among the affluent university graduates of the world: the necessity of sacrifice is entirely ignored.
To stymie the effects of climate change, to redistribute wealth, to provide for any ambitious social program, it is not only the otherized “millionaires and billionaires” who must sacrifice, it is us too, the self-righteous, upper-middle class leftists.
A world in which wealthy people feel economic pressure to ship oil and a world in which greenhouse gas emissions are reined in cannot coexist. If the latter world is to come about, quite a few college-educated leftists may have to lose the purchasing power to buy a second Prius. If one is rich in an unequal society, one will have to sacrifice for justice to be achieved. This fact should be so central to any leftist project; somehow it seems so often forgotten. My conversation with Tim reminded me.
In the end, these reflections have little to do with travel, except perhaps that we should interrogate whether air travel can be justified. That sounds a little suicidal coming from a travel writer, but not shipping oil would be equally suicidal for an oil consultant, and we’ve been through that discussion. At the very least, I’ll leave you with this message, regardless of your beliefs:
When aiming at something you want changed in the world, you should consider what sacrifices such a world would require from you. If you find the sacrifices you are willing to make don’t align with your ideology, you should do your best to resolve that contradiction.
I recognize that this is a huge burden to bear in daily life, but I think if each of us merely considered how our lifestyles fit into our beliefs on justice, we’d take a step in creating a more moral world. I’ll call that a final reflection from my travels.
Will often finds himself confused and disoriented in dangerous situations and usually, joyfully stumbles his way out. His one cool story describes the time his Subaru broke down in the Utah desert and he was forced to spend three days camping out in a junkyard until a distant friend gave him a free 1995 GMC Safari van. Nothing has gone wrong in Switzerland and Paris just yet, but he has all his muscles braced for an escape effort. Outside of frolicking around the merry world, Will likes skiing, mountain biking, and reading. He studies Social Studies and would like you to know that is a very important and meaningful subject.