As with many things in my life, I should have listened to my wife.
This particular lesson came as I was packing to attending the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference.
“You look like you’re planning to move there,” she said.
I had to admit that she had a point.
My college days of traveling through Europe with just a backpack and sleeping bag looked as if they never had existed. The metal seams on my black carry-on suitcase looked strained beyond their capacity and about to burst at any second, and I had yet to put in my blazer, shoes, black and white socks or pajamas.
This said nothing of the work and personal laptops, 20 batteries for my flip camera, or three hard cover books about climate change that I was planning to stuff into my backpack, which, if it could talk, would likely express the identical distress as my suitcase’s seams.
Rather than heed her sage input, though, I simply upped the ante.
“I’ll want to have room to bring back some of the materials I get there,” I said after I returned from the basement with a full-size suitcase to hold my wares. “Besides, the copies of Hoy I’m planning to give everyone are taking up a lot of room. “
“Uh-huh,” my wife said, her arched eyebrows transmitting her utter skepticism. “It’s your trip, so do what you want.”
I realized her wisdom after I arrived, got to my room at the Gateway Hotel and met Lorenzo Morales, my roommate from Colombia, an accomplished journalist, and, fortunately for me, a very polite person.
I could not be sure as we had just met, and he did seem to register some surprise at the seemingly unending stream of items that issued forth from my suitcase.
Where I brought two laptops, he brought one. Where I brought enough clothes to avoid doing laundry, he brought a supply that would serve him just fine and require him to do some minor washing.
His toiletries fit neatly into a black leather bag, while mine resembled a burgeoning pharmacy packed in a half-dozen plastic bags.
The next day, while waiting for the bus to take us to Durban and the conference, Lorenzo asked me if he could write about the differences in what we had brought. He was from Colombia, he explained, a country with exceedingly low emissions, while I hail from the United States, the world’s second-largest emitter.
Could it be that the differences in what we brought pointed to some differences in consumption?
“It says something,” he said after asking my permission to write about my goodies.
I agreed after telling him that his question mirrored my wife’s feedback precisely.
Yet, as accurate as he is, my Colombian colleague and friend’s total footprint for his conference attendance may well ultimately exceed mine. That’s because of an area of climate change that thus far has bedeviled even the most creative and innovative of environmentalists: airplanes’ enormous consumption of fossil fuels.
Lorenzo told me that his flight took him from his native Colombia to Atlanta, Georgia before flying to Johannesburg and then Durban.
My trip, on the other hand, began in Chicago, continued through Washington, DC, Dakar, Senegal and Johannesburg before boarding the same flight as Lorenzo to Durban.
As a result, then, because of his extra miles, Lorenzo may actually have the greater carbon footprint for his participation in the conference.
I write this not to explain away the excessive quantity of goods that I brought, but rather to raise one of the most fundamental questions running throughout these talks.
Even if the world’s nations come to an accord that pledges to reduce the world’s emissions to the necessary levels, are we as a global community actually willing to make the necessary behavioral changes to achieve those goals?
In the world of air travel, the answer is not optimistic.
Despite calls in British activist and author George Monbiot’s Heat for long-distance air travel to be drastically curtailed, if not completely eliminated, the massive consumption of fossil fuels for flights continues largely unabated.
This is not to say that the situation is hopeless, but rather to underscore some of the less considered aspects facing the peoples of the world.
In his book, Science is A Contact Sport, the late Stephen Schneider, recipient of the 2007 Collective Nobel Peace Prize and one of the key figures for decades in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wrote that his students maintained, and he agreed, that the contributions he made to the issue outweighed the negative value of his footprint through air travel.
Although I would generally agree and apply the same reasoning to Lorenzo’s participation here, I’m not completely sure.
But one thing I do know.
The next time I travel anywhere, when it comes time to pack, I’m listening to my wife.