Traveling in the Ministry vs. Fossil Fuels

More and more, I’m hearing Friends talk about giving up travel to big conferences or even committee meetings because of the fossil fuels used in long distance travel. It seems so dramatic and important. And there are new technologies (email, conference calls, video conferencing) that are highly efficient and cheaper in some instances.

But I think we will lose a LOT if we don’t meet face-to-face, to talk and worship in each other’s physical presence, especially with those who are far away and/or very different from us.

I think the Earth would be better served if Friends would give up an equivalent amount of fossil fuel based travel on the local level, where we have more alternatives.

For example, if I want to fly to Indiana next April, how many miles of choosing public transit or walking over driving (bicycling is not very practical for me) will that require to offset the carbon emissions (and whatever other pollutants) of the flight? How can I find out?

And perhaps more painfully, where will I not go on a weekly basis to make up for the huge distances I want to travel next year?

[Tuesday morning update: here are some links to various calculators about carbon emissions. It's a painful calculation, let me tell you. See the comments for the answer to my original question.]

General information about calculating your carbon footprint, with additional links, from the An Inconvenient Truth site.

A calculator for any flight itinerary, with links to carbon offset options, from the Carbon Footprint site.

A link for calculating car emissions, with links to carbon offset options, from the TerraPass site.

I claim no knowledge about carbon offset programs and encourage readers to do their own research before spending any money online.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Robin. I have mulled this over myself. I don't have any wanderlust left at this point. For the most part I would prefer not to travel.

But the Lord seems to have other things in mind, and I find myself traveling more, being drawn to visit Friends and distant family members in need of ministry.

It seems to me it is easier to avoid tough decisions by choosing to cut back on the more dramatic-seeming but infrequently practiced things than making daily sacrifices.

Perhaps it is like giving up eclairs for Lent.

Right now I am carpooling one day a week with someone whose car gets twice the mileage from a gallon of fuel than my own very fuel-economical mini-SUV. The other four days, I share my ride with another person.

This is a small beginning. It has required that I get up a bit earlier and has eliminated some flexibility in my schedule. Some days are really long. My once-a-week carpool requires that I leave the house by 5:50 a.m. and I get home around 6:15 p.m.

When I travel, I think about what ministry could be done where I am going. I listen and try to be open to the Lord's guidance while planning the trip and as I travel.

So, again, thanks for bringing up this point.



10/04/2007 8:54 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Thanks for writing this post, Robin, and raising these considerations. They are a reflection of my own struggle about traveling long distance.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

10/05/2007 4:39 PM  
Blogger ef said...


I have this concern as well, both for local travel (which I have, in the past, done almost entirely by bike, but now often drive, sadly) and for long distance travel, both getting to gathering, and simply a love of travel. I can actually take the train to gathering, at least most times (and love it and HIGHLY reccomend it, to anyone who can manage it) but I really want to visit costa rica this winter, both for a little warmth infusion and the cultural experience of being in a different place - no ministry (at least intentionally preplanne) about it.

I also have a good friend in Germany who I havne't seen in years now, and I had mentioned the possibility of visiting him this year. so we'll see.

I would like to see more people taking the train to gathering, but it does require a certain amount of leisure, as it takes days longer than a plane (usually, though I think the recent problems with airline travel might give it a leg up in that particular competition!)

10/08/2007 2:20 PM  
Blogger Jeanne said...

Robin, than, you for writing on this topic. It also speaks to my condition. And I like your 'alternative' plan of how to make the choices that are important to you.

I have to fly to see my family in Florida because a train just isn't an option (fifty-seven hours each way including layovers). Burning the jet fuel bothers me.

Now I have a real reason to add up the miles I bike, bus or walk instead of drive. Though I wonder how I can rack up 4,000 miles a year.

When you figure out how to balance it all, will you let us know?

:-) Jeanne

10/08/2007 5:49 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Ok. Thanks to the internet, I now have some facts to add. I will put the links into the main post.

My car, a Mercury Sable station wagon, emits approximately .87 lbs of carbon per gallon of gas. It gets about 20-25 miles per gallon. So let's say .0435 lbs per mile.

One person's share of a round trip flight from SF to Indianapolis emits about 1,958 lbs of carbon.

By my math, I'd have to cut back on driving by over 45,000 miles to make up for one flight to Indiana. I don't know about you, but I don't drive 45,000 miles in a year. Maybe I have driven 45,000 miles total in the last nine years. So I'm going to have to look further if I want to be serious about making up for my air travel impact.

But that doesn't change my initial point that traveling in the ministry is still important. Just means we have to be clear about our priorities and realistic about our choices.

I am going to aim for a simple one-to-one ratio - to drive one less mile for every mile I fly. It's not a complete answer, but it would be a start.

This week, I was also inspired to do more research into the 100 mile diet. I'm going to start by hosting a potluck party and challenge everyone to bring something made with ingredients from within the 100 mile radius. Again, just a start. I'm all about the first step these days.

10/09/2007 2:31 PM  
Blogger ef said...

First steps are some of the most important.

I'd also like to, again, put in a plug for the train. Not only is it easier on the planet, but it can be an amazing experience in and of itself. I think of my train trips as a bit like retreats - there are so many things that normally keep me busy that I simply can't do

And what's weirder, is I find that I don't bring music (walkman or ipod or whatever, I don't have an ipod) and dont' generally get much reading done. I look out the window and talk to people for a day or two, and journal some. It's amazing.

Makes me want to rethink that trip to Germany. I can't imagine how much carbon that emits (and the train is not an option...)

10/09/2007 4:38 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, Pam. I would like to take the train more. I have had generally good experiences with train travel.

So everytime I get ready to go somewhere, I check the Amtrak schedule, and find out that it will take however long and cost as much or more than air travel.

For me, the highest cost is in extra childcare for every day that I am away from home, on top of the actual expenses of travelling. The future cost of carbon emissions has yet to trump the current cost of disrupted family life in my personal accounting. And so I am likely to fly anywhere that takes more than a day to get there on the train.

And therein lies the question of priorities. At what point will the future cost weigh heavily enough on me that I am willing to endure the inconveniences in the present?

10/09/2007 5:26 PM  
Blogger ef said...

Robin- yeah, I've had to do similar calculations (not childcare, but extra time off work, and petsitting) as well.

It's one of those things that makes me want to rethink my life in wider circles - what about living in community where my kids would have other adult guardians (if I had kids), or people who knew and would take care of my pets without inconvenience? (in a close knit cohousing community, or a commune, I imagine this to be less of a problem - though I also have a friend in NYC who always has a friend in her apt. building that can watch her pets - her kids are adults)

What if I didn't do work that was so hard to take time off from, or, again, shared in a community where shifts and ebbs and flows were easier?

just mullin'

10/10/2007 12:07 PM  
Blogger Friendly Mama said...

I was just perusing through your past posts and came to this one. I wrote about my thoughts on a similar topic this week: http://friendlymama.blogspot.com/2007/10/car-free-in-tennessee-rights-vs.html

Autumn makes me homesick and I've been thinking about making the 9 hour trip to my hometown in Northern Indiana to visit my Gram. Right now, the way I'm leaning is that just driving less does not justify the amount of pollution generated or the fossile fuels used for a plane flight. I used to travel by Greyhound as a young adult. I could do that now but the thought of 9+ hours on a bus with two of my kids is daunting, to say the least.

Our society is mobile. Our culture is founded on moving from one place to another (think Pilgrams).

I agree that it's important to stay connected but maybe we should be forging more connections at the local level, in our immediately communities rather than feeling the need to attend events, however important, that are at a distance.

I was talking with my mom about being car-free recently and she mentioned what people experienced in centuries past when it came to moving. The expectation was, if one were an immigrant or a pioneer, that one would probably never see one's family left behind again. "I'm going to the new country. I love you. See ya" and that's it. Maybe we take too much for granted. Maybe we should pretent that air travel wasn't an option. Or maybe we should just plant a lot more trees and hope for the best. I really don't know.
Mary Linda

11/02/2007 9:40 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Mary Linda,

I have really enjoyed reading your posts about car-free life. There are a few Friends in SF Meeting that are also living car-free, some refusing to even ride in other people's privately owned cars. But mostly they don't have small children. My husband and I did not ever own a car until right before our second child was born. But now we have two. I wrote about this in my first month of blogging, it's called Life After Oil, in August 2005, if you want to look it up in the archives.

I too regularly took the Greyhound pre-kids. But I am too spoiled to do that now, for more than a couple hours anyway.

My grandparents moved to the US from Scotland. My grandmother has never gone back, but then most of her family had already moved here. This summer, I read the first few Little House on the Prairie books to my younger son, and they had that experience just moving from Wisconsin to Kansas. I could hardly read the good-bye scenes, I was so close to crying.

Quakers used to travel regularly back and forth across the Atlantic, but they went for much longer periods - not 350 or 3,500 miles and back in a weekend.

11/07/2007 11:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a Joy to find your blog, as a Friend in the same region and incredibly concerned about our ecological disconnection and challenges. On the blog title, I too, find that line from Fox very memorable.

On the emissions calculation in your recent post, a gallon of gas should give you ~20.3 lbs CO2/gallon.
I think the 0.87 you had was actually the lbs/mile. Let me know if you already had taken that into account.

In the Light,
"Just get together, love one another, bring that peace, that joy, that strength of presence of each other in the home. And we will be able to overcome all the evil that is in the world"

"Let us thank God for the opportunity that we all have together today, for this gift of peace that reminds us that we have been created to live that peace, and Jesus became man to bring that good news to the poor."

-- Mother Teresa

1/27/2008 1:47 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you, David.
I have no idea now what I was thinking when I made that calculation. :-) And I'm sure I long ago recycled the envelope on which I made the calculations. So thanks for noticing and thinking about it. I will try to be more accurate in the future.

By my new back-of-the-envelope calculation, I would have to give up driving 2251 miles to make the difference.

Which doesn't seem quite right either.

How can a gallon of gas, which doesn't weigh 20 lbs to begin with, cause 20 lbs of carbon dioxide?

1/27/2008 1:59 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Here's the answer about the weight of gasoline vs. carbon.

Sometimes, I love the internet.

1/27/2008 2:04 AM  

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