Despite the consequences for my carbon footprint, I spent a week in Mexico last month for a too-brief beachside vacation. Actually, as far as my carbon footprint goes, my flight was at least partially offset by my behavior in Mexico: I stayed in a small hotel with electricity only in its reception area. There were no TVs, no radios and no streetlights anywhere. Almost everywhere I needed to get to was within walking distance — our one big trip was taken on rented bicycles, down to a beautiful freshwater swimming hole. A flashlight sufficed for nighttime walks and bedtime reading, and public transport got us from the airport to the hotel.
It occurred to me while I was there that people could, and should, plan vacations as lower-impact than their daily lives: why not take a vacation from not only the place you live, but the way you live as well? There were so many tourists trapped in their rental cars, driving along the road to the beaches, and every time I saw one I imagined him or her in the same position, trapped in a car, schlepping to work every day. Didn’t they want to take a break from the commute? Or were they that habituated to daily driving? And why, in glorious, 70-degree weather, were they sitting with their windows rolled up, climate-controlled, and controlling?
Ah, humanity. Like turtles with their shells, we drag our habits with us, afraid to give in to easier, simpler, or less amenitized ways of living. When I first went to this part of Mexico, five years ago, it was impossible to find a take-out coffee, or the attendant disposable coffee cup. While they’re not everywhere yet, I saw a disturbing number of gringos wandering around with plastic-capped lattes on this trip: could they not find the time to sit and enjoy a coffee even on vacation? Were they so accustomed to cup-clutching that they had lost the point of to-go coffee, an evil compromise made by those with over-demanding schedules in need of caffeination?
Had they forgotten that coffee was meant to be consumed sitting down, from a real cup, with a real breakfast?
Talking to a fellow environmentalist recently, we got on the subject of habits, and how they are both difficult and easy to change. Given the necessity, many of us can change our habits fast: in 2007, Americans’ savings rate was slightly negative; just a year later, with the economy falling apart, the savings rate had jumped to nearly five percent. Years of politicians, economists and others telling us to save more had done nothing, but a brief glimpse into the abyss of super-recession got people saving, despite layoffs and foreclosures.
Changing my habits, even for a week, made me think (yet again) about all the things I do and take for granted. Could I get up earlier, like I did in Mexico, and take advantage of more natural daylight and less electricity? Could a single rechargeable lantern suffice for my nighttime reading needs at home? Could take-out food, and coffee, come to seem as ridiculous in New York City as they seem on a Caribbean beach?
The answer to all of these questions is, of course, yes, and I’m trying to learn even more from my vacation: after a week of limited internet access I’m finding it easier to be deliberate about checking email and other online pursuits. Far from a washer, I found that some articles of clothing are fine when worn three or four or even five times. And, even in public places, toilet flushing isn’t always necessary (“If it’s yellow, let it mellow,” especially in the water-challenged Yucatan). In other words, I’m breaking habits.
Of course, you don’t need to travel 1,500 miles to change your behavior. You can do an at-home modification, a stay-cation of the mind, if you will. Give yourself a week, and go to a new, greener place. Pack a lunch every day. Take a mug to the coffee place, or better, drink your latte sitting down (be European for ten minutes…). Take the train instead of driving, or bike instead of taking the train. Skip your daily shower, eat only vegetables for the week (spa vacation!) or take a yoga class every day. Give up TV, or the internet, or Facebook, and read a book.
Change is good.