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We didn’t fly when I was growing up. “We’re not the bloody Rockefellers,” my father reminded us. We got around southern Africa in farm pickups, the kids sitting in the back with a leaky generator, maybe a carsick dog or two. It took nine hours to get from our home in Zambia to my boarding school in Zimbabwe. Crocodiles sunbathing on the riverbanks, elephants sailing through the Mopani woodlands, a picnic of boiled eggs and milky tea for lunch. It was heaven—I knew it even then.
In my early twenties, I met and married a U.S. citizen who’d made a career out of adventure travel. I was impressed: My family had created adventure enough, trauma even, without ever needing to leave home, but Charlie had flown all around the world coaxing paying customers to raft whitewater rapids and climb mountains. He’d guided helicopter skiing trips in Kazakhstan.
“Good heavens,” my father had remarked, eyebrows shooting up his forehead. I could tell he was mentally calculating fuel loads. He was a true conservative, my British-born dad, energy-conscious, a philosophy that had served him well regardless of the political climate in which he found himself. For him, everything came down to miles to the gallon. “Exactly how sick?” Dad always wanted to know if my sister or I claimed to be deadly ill. “No point wasting a trip to town if you’re going to die anyway.”
Moving to the States was a revelation, in many ways the opposite of my childhood. Life wasn’t cheap—we were middle-class citizens of a Western democracy, after all—but fuel was. Driving and flying seemed to be regarded as human rights. At first that astonished me, but after a decade or so, I took it for granted, too. I drove without thinking much about it, and I flew frequently for work, also with little thought. Book tours, speaking engagements, magazine assignments: Mexico, Chile, Haiti, Mozambique, Kenya.
Then in 2015, I was sent to Angola to report a story about water. That vast, gorgeous country was three years into what would become a four-year drought, and Angolan politicians pointed to climate change as the culprit. I was working on the subsequent article when I got news that Dad had fallen very ill. My parents had gone to Budapest, the poor man’s Paris, on a rare vacation from their farm in Zambia, where they had finally settled after decades of moving from one patch of southern African land to the next. Apparently, Dad had accused a waiter of being a spy and then collapsed. “Like a soufflé,” Mum said.
I flew to Hungary from my home in Wyoming and sat by Dad’s side for 12 days in a Communist-era ICU. My father suffered magnificently, died bravely. The grief was terrible, an apocalypse, the end of my world. Somehow, his death highlighted the distance between how I’d been raised and what I’d become.
I didn’t finish the piece on Angola. No matter how I attempted to frame the story, it suddenly seemed clear that flying more than 8,000 miles to write about an oil-rich, dirt-poor nation was not alleviating anyone’s suffering; the opposite, in fact. Flying my father’s ashes from Hungary to Zambia didn’t seem right, either. I could almost hear him say, “No point wasting the fuel if I’m dead anyway.”
The Swedes were about to come up with a name for it: flygskam, or “flying shame.” (Trust the northern Europeans to be ahead of the game when it comes to a piddling social conscience.) Put another way, I could no longer allow myself to fly over despoiled, drought-ridden landscapes, writing endless prose about it to no measurably better end, while my carbon footprint stomped on the very people whose well-being I professed to care about. That familiar adage—Be the change that you wish to see in the world—had finally caught up with me.
Air travel isn’t the only way I contribute to a warming globe, but it’s a major factor. So I grounded myself, for the most part. And I began to look at numbers, lots of them. They varied slightly depending on the source, but any way I parsed the figures, the people most affected by climate change are those in the weakest position to do anything about it. You can’t fly less or consume less if you’ve never flown in the first place and have barely enough to eat. U.S. citizens generate, on average, 16.5 tons of carbon per person per year. By comparison, the United Kingdom produces 6.5 tons of carbon per capita and China 7.5. Zambia’s per capita carbon output is 0.3. Climate scientists have calculated we all need to get our output down to 2 tons per person by 2050. A flight from New York City to South Africa contributes 3 tons of carbon per passenger to the atmosphere. I figured I couldn’t quit traveling, but I could levy personal fuel rations. No more frantic book tours covering a dozen cities in two weeks, far fewer magazine travel assignments. I live in Wyoming. It’s a trek to the nearest train station, but once there, I can take my time crossing the country. I write for a living, so I’m my own boss: I can pack milky tea, sandwiches, and a book. I rode the train from New York City to Pittsburgh, which took a little more than nine hours. I saw a fox disappearing into the forest near Harrisburg. It reminded me of a time before I believed myself to have no time.
The Swedes have a name for this, too: tågskryt, or “train bragging.”
I’ve also limited myself to one long-haul flight a year. To offset the carbon produced, I’ve pledged to tithe the cost of the flight and contribute the funds to reputable environmental organizations, such as South Pole, Natural Capital Partners, and Climate Care. One such NGO oversees Kariba REDD+, a forest-protection project in Zimbabwe that is just across the Zambezi River from my parents’ farm in Zambia. Since 2011, the project has preserved almost 2 million acres of forest.
I’d known that forest as a child—seeing elephants sailing through the Mopani woodland and crocodiles sunbathing on the banks of the river. My father is buried across the river from that forest. After 3 1/2 years I’d found a way to justify a flight back to southern Africa: by putting money toward a wild forest in the part of the world most umbilical to me. All good stories end in a cliché: I went around the world, only to come home again.