I will begin with my usual caveats.
First, yes, I’m about to talk about what we might call Upper Middle Class Problems (or Upper Middle Income, but most don’t think about the difference between wealth and income, so I’m trying to keep it simple). This might seem ridiculous in the face of the reality that the vast majority of the world’s population will never see the inside of a plane. But I’m talking specifically here about a small portion of the world’s population: those who travel for work. A whole lot of us live in the U.S. Probably a quarter of my friends are like me: business travelers. Upgrade-hunting, frequent flyer mile-hoarding, million-miler, spending real money on high-quality luggage, hotel point-collecting business travelers. Now that I work at one of the six agencies of a mainline denomination. While I travel a lot, my travel schedule is paltry compared to the travel of many of my colleagues. I have many colleagues who fly to all corners of the world, not just the U.S.
Second, the travel thing. There is travel
Yay! I’m going to see my niece! All I need are a few pairs of jeans and some t-shirts!
Yay! I’m going to see some grad school classmates, and we are going to learn a little bit and then go to the beach/drink/go on a cruise!
And then there is travel
I will be in four hotel rooms in nine days, work 12-15 hours most of those days, and pass through three airports! Bring the business cards!
In my life, I do plenty of the first category of travel. That’s because I have been moving further and further away from my family, and my friends are spread all over the country. I move for work. I live in the peachy state of Georgia, and am moving to Kentucky. Most of my family members (on my side) live in California, Oregon, and Washington. Name a major metropolitan area somewhere in the U.S. and I could name friends I could visit, or great colleagues I’d like to see. Travel is a fact of life for me.
In my work, I do lots of the last category of travel. That is how I spend most of my time, actually. I love it. I love meeting people, finding new-to-me locally-owned restaurants, visiting churches all over the country (world), and figuring out how to take public transportation in Chicago, or Philadelphia, or New York, or San Francisco. But it does mean I spend a whole lot of time considering how to be a better traveler. In terms of lifestyle, I have more in common with frequent flyers than with a parish pastor.
Third, the “like a Christian” thing. I am aware that carbon emissions from flights are a major contributor to climate change. In fact, air travel is one of the worst things I could be doing for the environment (see NY Times article "Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel" here), not necessarily outweighed by living in a reasonably-sized townhouse with shared walls (cutting down on electricity needed to heat/cool said townhouse), or all the recycling I do (my HOA board told me to take photos of the worst recycling offenses in our complex for circulation, because I’m that person), or that the two grownups in my household share one car, or that we grow our own herbs and a few vegetables. In fact, my heavy travel may be one of the least Christian actions I take, along with my strongly judge-y tendencies, the fact that I like to wear leather without knowing where it comes from or if it was ethically sourced (Boots, people! Boots!), and that I get really, really mad at slow drivers in the far left-hand lane on the freeway. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What can Christians do? We can ignore what we’re doing. We could also consider building travel carbon off-sets into our budgets. Yes, what if the budgets of every non-profit and religious organization included a line for carbon off-sets? That would be amazing! It wouldn’t solve the problem, but could go a long way to acknowledging our Christian responsibility to caring for the whole creation.
(We could also cut back on travel, but just an FYI, anyone who works in a sector in the U.S. that isn’t exactly booming has already done that, and now is more discerning about travel versus some other kind of electronic interaction.)
Fourth, on privilege. Let’s be clear that those of us who have jobs that require travel have privilege. I have the creds to get the jobs I have held, which are all thanks to privilege. Education? Check (thanks, privilege!). Fluent in English? Check (only in the U.S. is English-only a privilege, but that’s another blog post). Appropriate work experience? Check (thanks, privilege!). When I travel for work, thanks to the privilege that gets me into these jobs, I get more privilege! Yep. Privilege begets more privilege. I get status on the airline I fly most, so now I get to board earlier than occasional travelers. I get free checked bags, whether I travel for work or for vacation. I get the seat I want, without paying extra. In a former job, I had the credit card that got me into the airline club. I didn’t have to pay for coffee or breakfast or snacks or internet access, because the club had all that. I saved money because my office paid for the credit card.
Privilege is relative. Travel is really hard on the body, and it can become a grind, especially when you realize you haven’t had time to do more than dump the last two trips’ worth of clothes on the floor, refill your little travel bottles of shampoo and moisturizer, and take off again. There are also those moments when you’re me (a 30-something woman of color), and you have to choose your lodging carefully, because violence is a fact of life. Or you’re me (30-something woman of color who stands at 5’4”) and people line-jump you because they DON’T EVEN REALIZE YOU EXIST. Or you’re me and you’re standing in a line of white middle-aged men in suits boarding a plane, and you realize how many of them get that airline status, and how few of you get that status. Privilege is still relative. I might have it, but I’m always clear how unique that is. When I could get into the airline club, I used to silently congratulate myself for being its integration, whether by age, gender, or racial background. My individual relative privilege, let’s be clear, doesn’t change the fact that the group I belong to (people of color), does not hold institutional power and privilege equivalent to that of white people.
There are exceptions, but by and large my experience (and most data show) is that white and male power and privilege are real. If you feel tempted to argue with this, just look at the composition of the first class cabin in your next flight. Those (mostly) white (mostly) men got there because they either bought those first class tickets (hello, class privilege), but on many flights, often because they are more likely than any other group to work in positions for for-profit companies that purchase full-price refundable tickets, allowing them to accrue airline rewards much more quickly than the average non-profit worker or one who travels infrequently due to family responsibilities or the particular job sector or position. These (mostly) white (mostly) men also have the family structure that allows them to travel a lot. If they have kids, that means they aren’t the primary care-giver. And that’s a whole other blog post.
Enough for this edition.
Next Edition: How to Travel Like a Christian, SecondEdition: Respecting People, Also Known As God’s Creation
Resources to help Christians think through what to do about the environment, economic justice, and other contemporary social issues. Oh, and on white privilege.
Air Pollution: Inside & Out
Adult Downloadable Study by Megan Pillow Davis
Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World
By Pamela K. Brubaker, Rebecca Todd Peters, Laura A. Stivers
To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians
By Rebecca Todd Peters & Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty
Adult Downloadable Study by David V. Esterline