Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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Entries in travel (4)

Monday
Jan232012

Transit Eco-Footprint: A New Year's Resolution to Cut Back on Car Use

A new year means beginnings— a fresh start for some, resolutions for many, and an opportunity to make goals and shift routines in need of change.  We often reflect on our lives and look for opportunities to grow, improve, and find gratitude for what we love.  It is also a perfect opportunity to reflect upon our relationships, with others and with the world we live in. 

Transit—our means of mobility—is an important, ubiquitous way we interact with our environment.  It is also an easy place to make small changes with big impacts.  Cutting down on car commuting, riding bikes, or increasing use of public transit can reduce our transit eco-footprint and shake up our daily transit routine. 

The Costs of Travelling by Car

Ninety percent of Americans drive to work (and only 0.6% bike to work).  Commuting by car has significant impacts—both environmentally and financially.  As Americans seek space and sprawl out from urban centers, the seeming financial benefits of reduced mortgages and a lower cost of living may be offset by the costs of long commutes to financial centers.  One estimate, based on IRS calculations, concluded that a two-car commute of 19 miles each way would cost $125,000 over 10 years.  Add to this cost the hours spent in a car, which for many adds a full work-day onto the week (with 6 hours in a car), and the costs and time spent after 10 years may equate to 1.3 working years of time.  The costs are considerable, and make city living— and the access to transit that often accompanies urban density—appealing for those who work in financial centers.

The EPA calculates the cost of automobiles using three variables: (1) internal variable costs, which include vehicle operation, fuel and travel time as discussed above; (2) internal fixed costs, or the costs of car ownership associated with insurance, fees and depreciation; and (3) external costs such as road upkeep, which are collectively imposed.  Combined, the cost of owning and operating a car is around 40 cents per passenger-kilometer.  This estimate was made over a decade ago, meaning that with inflation and as fuel costs have risen, the current cost is much higher. 

Environmental Costs

The impacts of transportation, like all environmental impacts, fall into three categories: direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts.  Direct impacts are the immediate consequences to the environment; indirect impacts are those impacts to environmental systems; and cumulative impacts are the additive, combined impacts of transport activities.   

Our lives have become so intertwined with transportation activities, from commuting, to freight delivery, and travel, that it has become dominant source of pollution and environmental impact.  Transportation accounts for almost 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in some states.  Yet, the environmental or external costs of transportation are often unaccounted for, and may be responsible for up to 30% of estimated automobile costs.  A failure to consider these costs results in their subsidization by society, by future generations, and by the health of the planet. 

Environmental costs include the following: climate change, air quality impacts, noise, water and soil quality impacts, biodiversity factors, and land use changes.  Hostra University did a thorough analysis of the environmental implications of transportation.  Their conclusion: “better transport practices, such a fuel efficient vehicles, that reduce environmental externalities are likely to have positive economic, social and environmental consequences."

Solutions

A few months ago, we explored solutions to the problem of automobile impact, which included car sharing, car pooling, and reducing car use.  Car pooling could save up to eight billion gallons of gas each year, and leaving your car behind twice a week would save an average of 1,600 pounds of CO2 emissions a year.

Cars produce a full pound of CO2 each mile, although not all cars have the same impact.  Driving an SUV versus a hybrid will have different environmental consequences.  The EPA suggests that before buying or renting a car, consumers check EPA's Green Vehicle Guide and the EPA/DOE Fuel Economy Guide.  These guides provide information on the emissions and fuel economy performance of different vehicles. 

If you must drive, drive smartly.  Avoid overuse of brakes, hard accelerations, and idling.  Remove racks that are not in use, and maximize efficiency when using cruise control.  Keep your car maintenance up to date, your tire pressure correct, and remember to change your oil. 

Better yet, take a break from the car.  Use public transit, walk or bike.  70% of car trips in the U.S. are less than 2 miles, which translates to an easy 10-minute bike ride.  Bike commuting also has health benefits: the average person will lose 13 pounds in the first year of riding to work; this saves approximately $544 in medical costs annually, and bicycles are 50% faster than cars during rush hour.  This site provides a great infographics that show the benefit of cycling. 

The results of a resolution to drive less: Cutting back on our reliance on automobiles will reduce our environmental impact and lessen the cumulative and direct costs of our car culture. 

Thursday
May122011

Travel Profile: Prana del Mar—A Solar-Powered Oasis in the Baja Desert

During a time of personal transition, I traveled with a good friend to the Baja Desert in search of a bit of bliss and a few days of quiet from the chaos of daily life.  We were fortunate enough to discover Prana del Mar, a gorgeous environmentally-minded wellness center where we spent a beautiful week practicing yoga and exploring the surrounding area. 

Prana del Mar is a relatively new wellness and retreat center, located about an hour north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific coast.  The property is encircled by beauty—the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains glow purple at sunrise, the ocean sparkles below the fiery sunset sky, and desert cacti pepper the space between.  The design—inside and out—is meticulous and sublime.  Golden buildings blend with the soft sand of the dunes abutting the property.  Outdoor space is cultivated to nurture contemplation—a labyrinth of pale grey stones invite meditative walks and Zen gardens complement cacti and aloe plants.

The rooms are equally beautiful—clean white organic bedding juxtaposed by sleek teak furniture and decor.  As soon as we arrived, my friend and I ran from end to end, exploring our spacious suite that had not one, but two balconies with sweeping views of the ocean to the west and the mountain landscape to the east.

In addition to awe-inspiring aesthetics, Prana del Mar also offers a sustainable, environmentally mindful vacation experience.  The retreat center strives to reduce its impact through environmental stewardship.  It capitalizes on one of the areas greatest natural assets—the sun.  With over 300 days of sunshine on this part of Baja, solar power is the smart and obvious source of power.  All electricity supplied at Prana del Mar comes from on-site solar panels.  The outdoor pool is heated by hot desert sunshine.

Guest options are geared towards conservation.  Linens and towels—all organic—are laundered only when requested.  Upon arrival, we were given reusable metal water bottles—a nice eco-friendly touch.  Drinking water is filtered and placed in ceramic pitchers throughout the facilities and in each suite.  Waste water is treated and reused for irrigation.  Shampoo, soap, and personal care products are supplied in dispensers rather than single use containers and cloth towels and napkins are provided instead of paper. 

We feasted all week.  The food at Prana del Mar is magnificent.  Every meal creatively incorporated local produce and vegetables grown on the property’s organic garden.  Most meals were vegetarian, although several meals featured fresh caught fish.

But the highlight for me—and our purpose for coming—was the yoga and the beautiful room we practiced in.  Our incredible teacher, Jocelyn Krasner, led us through two practices a day in the elevated, sunny yoga room constructed out of strand woven bamboo with a high ceiling palapa style thatched roof.

During the week, Prana del Mar also facilitated our visit to Todos Santos—a local artist community, horseback riding, and surfing at Los Cerritos Beach.  In our free time, my friend and I explored the natural beauty surrounding us, running through the desert hills, walking the beach at sunset, and enjoying an evening hot tub underneath a blanket of stars.  The week, the yoga, the like-minded women I met, and the accommodations at Prana del Mar exceeded my hopeful expectations.  The experience is one that I will carry with me always and proves that we do not have to sacrifice anything to have an environmentally mindful vacation.

Monday
May022011

Eco-Travel Part II: Lodging and Mindful Consumption

Last week, I learned a bit about greener transportation options for travel.  In addition to how we get to our destination, the place we choose to stay and what we do once we get there greatly impacts our vacation ecological footprint.  Depending on your budget, travel style, and accommodation needs, you can find lodging and activities that suit your preferences while remaining mindful of your ecological impact.

Resources: Where to Stay

What I look for in my travel accommodations is what I strive for at home: energy efficiency, the use of green cleaning products, reduced water consumption, less waste, and food offerings that are local, organic and sustainable.  However, after a fair amount of research, I remain mystified about the environmental certifications and claims of many hotels and resorts.  There are a few programs and rating systems are more transparent and widely accepted. 

Certain certifications, like LEED or Energy Star, provide independent verification of environmental design or energy consumption.  LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) looks at the actual design, construction, and operations of a building and uses accepted benchmarks for its certification process.  Energy star is a U.S. government backed program that promotes energy efficiency and rates products and buildings.  While not all eco-friendly hotels and resorts have such certifications, their presence indicates a consistent set of principles and values.

Hotel associations with an eco-friendly mission help travelers navigate the planning process.  Green Hotel Association covers much of the U.S., Canada, a several areas in Mexico, South America, Europe and Canada.  It is member-based, which has drawbacks for smaller, off-the grid locations, but it does provide reviews for its member hotels. 

Other resources include Environmentally Friendly Hotels, which is akin to Trip Advisor for green hotels.  Properties are rated by the number of green trees they receive (as opposed to stars).  There is also Eco Hotels of the World, which is an independent guide that uses a green star-based rating system and profiles hotels throughout the world.

Finally, you can always opt to plan to camp rather than stay at a hotel or inn.  There are hundreds of campsites in beautiful locations that offer a truly intimate way to experience your chosen destination.

Maintain your eco values while you are away

Like many travelers, I like a bit of removal from my reality and reminders of the memories I create during vacation.  A few things I’ve learned that help me embody my core environmental values while in an unfamiliar place: 

­1.   Be a Mindful Consumer

Souvenirs are big business in most vacation destinations.  However, many of these are manufactured miles from where they are sold and don’t really represent the place you’ve traveled.  Instead of buying manufactured trinkets or t-shirts, consider purchasing souvenirs that are made locally.  These include handcrafted artisan work—jewelry, crafts, and art—which often benefits the local community. 

2.   Utilize Technology

Skip the morning paper and get your news online.  Take digital photos instead of film (unless your artistic urges necessities traditional photo processing).  Store maps and itineraries in your electronic devices rather than printing them out on paper.

3.   Opt for the Optional Towel and Bedding Programs

You don’t wash your towels and sheets everyday at home, so why would you need this while on vacation?  Many hotels provide the option not to launder towels and bedding on a daily basis.  While hotels greatly over promote this cost-saving initiative as a form of environmental credit—resulting in greenwashing—taking this option can reduce your water, energy, and laundry detergent consumption. 

Of course, there are many other ways to consider your ecological footprint while traveling.  For me, I’ve found simply remembering my goal—to reduce my ecological impact—helps me make more informed choices and enjoy my time away from home with less worry about the carbon costs.

Wednesday
Apr202011

Eco-Travel Part 1: Avoiding Greenwashing and Exploring Transportation Options

Spring has officially arrived—and with it warmer weather, longer days, and the anticipation of vacation travel.  

I have long been aware that my wanderlust may be my biggest obstacle in a quest to live a more eco-friendly life.  Hotels and resorts are known to have huge environmental impacts.  Travel to destinations (especially those off the beaten path) often require very carbon unfriendly means of transportation.

As I have begun to plan and embark on my travels this year, my search to discover green travel destinations was both encouraging and sobering.  The issue of global warming has become a reality for many industries, including tourism.  Over the next few weeks, I will dive into the eco-travel world, share a few good resources, and profile an incredible solar-powered resort I had the good fortune to recently visit. 

Before You Book… Be Wary of Greenwashing

Across sectors, “green” or “eco” branding has become a lucrative business.  Consumers are now more conscious of environmental issues and want to feel good about their purchases.  Marketing and advertisements inundate us with product claims, comparisons, and green promises.  More information, however, does not always mean better options.  The abundance of green products that are not what they claim to be—called greenwashing—is problematic in almost every consumer driven industry.  This is particularly true of the travel industry, where advertisements for eco-friendly lodging and experiences are prolific.

Unfortunately, not every destination that touts its environmentally friendly offerings actually lives up to its claims.  My solution to this problem—don’t take an eco or green label at face value.  Do a bit of digging.  Find out the true environmental implications.  If a place or product truly is green, the reasons why should be transparent and readily accessible.  If there is a void of information, be skeptical—this could be the result of greenwashing.

Getting Where You Want to Go: Transportation Costs

Transportation is typically the first consideration for any vacation planning.  Yet getting where you want to go can be one of the more environmentally costly aspects to travel.  Below are a few of the tips and suggestions I’ve collected in my own vacation planning process:

1.     Stay close to home

The most intuitive solution to the transportation problem is simply to travel less.  Generally, the closer you stay to home, the lower your carbon impact.  Local travel is often more affordable, provides an opportunity to understand the history or engage in the cultural offerings in your area, and benefits your local economy and businesses. 

2.     Travel low-carbon

Airplanes are the carbon costliest means of travel.  Cars are also high carbon emitters.  Trains and buses are better options—whenever practical, I try to forgo air and auto travel and explore rail, public transit, or bicycles. 

3.     Offset if necessary

Sometimes, planes are a necessary evil of our travel plans.  I recently learned about several of the organizations that invest money in carbon beneficial projects to offset air travel.  I use carbonfund.org whenever I fly—although there are a number of reputable companies to fit your offsetting preferences.

4.     Stay longer

One of my favorite tips I’ve seen comes from Rough Guides travel books, which simply recommends that you fly less and stay longer.  It makes sense—the longer you stay, the more value you get for the carbon costs of your travel.  Aside from my sheer love of travel, this also gives me a little added incentive to prolong my vacations and learn even more about the places I decide to explore.