How travel will make you wise

British Airways (BA) A319

On a recent trip overseas, I had the chance to read British Airways’ in flight magazine: BusinessLife. It’s one of those few magazines I’ll pick up and read nearly cover to cover on a sub-2 hour flight, and I usually pick up a tidbit here or there.

The particular article that jumped out at me was on page 46, Time to Wise Up, by Ashley Potter. Ms. Potter referencing an interview with Professor Hari Tsoukas, of the Warwick Business School:

Tsoukas cites the example of Admiral Thad Allen, the US National Incident Commander of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010–and formerly the Commandant of the US Coast Guard. When asked whether he used a ‘template’ from his previous experience of dealing with oil spills, he answered: Yes and no.”

“The ‘yes’ component reveals his experience of handling similar incidents in the past,” says Tsoukas. “But he also notes that every incident is different and its uniqueness must be grasped – hence the ‘no’ part of the answer.” (emphasis mine)

This resonated to me at the time, but as I will sometimes do, I set aside the article and find myself focused on something else. Well, I just happened to listen to the latest Saverocity Observation Deck Podcast, the unscripted, post FT4RL2 in Charlotte one. Well, about halfway through, the discussion turned to problems folks encounter when traveling, and how they resolve things. I think (please correct me if I’m wrong), Dan, from Points with a Crew, commented that folks that travel a lot, invariably run into issues. “One of the things about traveling more often, I think you’re right, we’re all kind’ve really savvy…. the more that you travel, the more that you’ll run into something… but having experience, and planning that something will go wrong, and how you recover from it.” Another speaker (Shawn of Miles To Memories), commented about his son is no longer a liability during issues, and is starting to understand how to recover from problems.

Its interesting, because when you think about it, traveling, you’ll invariably run into an issue, a flight gets cancelled, you get sick onboard a flight, you find yourself in a foreign country and a service you had requested didn’t show, or a multitude of other things. Not every experience is going to be the same, but you can usually put enough pieces together from your experiences, to say “well, this is sort’ve like that time in Bangkok,” and so you start by associating the similarities of your current situation to past experiences, almost as Admiral Allen says, as a ‘template’, then realize those unique items that are different, and figure out a resolution.

So what’s my point?

Not to borrow an over-used phrase, but travel is a great educator. While past performance is no indication of future events, it does inform the your actions. By traveling, you’re availing yourself to more experiences–good and sometimes bad–thus providing yourself more ‘templates’ to liken similarities too, and yet, also gives you a greater resource of experiences to interpret and respond to the uniqueness of each experience.

6 thoughts on “How travel will make you wise

  1. When does traveling a lot make you wise enough to understand that perhaps mileage running and extra flying – the aim of gaining elite status so you enjoy more luxury comforts while traveling for business and leisure – is morally indefensible given the expanded carbon emissions you’ll produce and the increasingly high costs that your carbon footprint and those of others will cause and is currently causing vulnerable populations around the world to incur due to a changing climate?

    In the post you’re actually talking about new experiences. Learning a new language, hiking a new trail, or taking up a new sport or hobby should produce the same results as sitting in an aluminum tube.

    • @Harvson – Thank-you for your comment. I’ll go in reverse order. I believe travel provides new experiences, the opportunity to learn a new language, among other things. That “aluminium tube” — which now a days can be composite, too, is the path to that end.

      As far as your comment that mileage running is “morally indefensible”, I find that callous. I don’t personally ascribe to carbon emission tracking, but I wouldn’t be surprised that folks who choose to drive big SUV’s are probably contributing more than I, flying on a cheap fare. My reasoning: Would the plane fly if I wasn’t on it? I’m pretty certain it would. Perhaps the difference is, that the airline realizes that, so they offer inexpensive fares to fly that plane more full, thus making things more efficient.

      Again, I’m no expert on carbon emissions, but who are these “vulnerable populations”?

      • I apologize for putting my personal conclusion in the form of a question, rather than asking an open-ended question. I was wrong to do that.

        I have been thinking more and more about the ethics of travel, and I think wisdom is a measure of our ability to figure out, among other things, whether what we do in life is right or wrong, just or unjust. The wisdom you describe above I’d label more as preparedness.

        I don’t mean these comments to be a personal attack; I’m simply trying to figure things out and read more before addressing hobbyists, and your post struck a chord.

        I can answer your two factual questions briefly:
        1. Carbon emissions are highest, per-passenger kilometer, on airliners. You’re right that some types of SUV may be less fuel-efficient, especially when driven alone or with few passengers. However, that SUV drivers are wasteful does not mean that another form of transportation is therefore ethical or justified. (There’s an active, interesting debate in the field of philosophy I could point you to on whether we have an ethical obligation not to go joy-riding in an SUV due to possible effects on future generations of people we’ll never meet.)

        The data from a simple Google search is here, with GHG emissions per passenger-km in Figure 1.6, and a discussion of improvements in airliner energy efficiency in chapter 7:

        2. In response to the idea that the plane would fly anyway, I approach the issue as follows: you are adding marginal weight to the airplane, and your purchase of a ticket is increasing passenger yields for the airline. Additional weight requires additional fuel. Airlines use the passenger yield numbers to forecast future demand, and thus their purchase/use of aircraft and planned flights, and from then on to terminal gates and needs for new runways. Your purchase helps the airline cover its costs better. More flying leads to more flights. That’s the environmental cost of a mileage run.

        Now I acknowledge that this addition is marginal. The question is whether the marginal environmental cost to a mileage run – the harm – is outweighed by the benefit to you and your friends/family.

        The exact harms marginal emissions will have on future climate change-related outcomes are still being detailed. We could already be in an irreversible negative-feedback loop in which dire outcomes will occur regardless of our behavior. Or behavioral changes may avoid worse outcomes, which is the conclusion of the most recent IPCC report (and the publicized attempt to aim for no more than 2 C more warming).

        The effects of climate change will be worse for people who have difficulty adapting to them. As rich citizens in a rich country, we can pay or shift our behaviors to adapt. Poorer communities, especially those in low-lying coastal regions (e.g., river deltas, where much of humanity lives), will be less fortunate. That’s why indigenous communities in Alaska are already having to uproot and move their villages, why the Maldives likely won’t be around for our grandchildren to enjoy, and why Bangladeshis are at serious risk. Those are the vulnerable populations I spoke of.

        But it is just these harms, among others that we’re just discovering, that we have to weigh the benefits we personally gain from travel and flying for pleasure. In my personal opinion, mileage running is not worth the potential harms.

        In the end, I’m still trying to figure out what the ethical thing to do is. There are those who have sworn off flying altogether, because, in Eric Holthaus’s phrase, “it’s not worth the climate.” I don’t know if I can or should.

        If wisdom is knowing what to do and what not to do, then we all need to put more thought into this hobby we practice. I don’t disagree that travel makes one better at handling the stress of things going wobbly-bonkers. I’m not prepared to call that the sum of wisdom.

        I apologize for derailing the conversation; this is pretty much trolling. I’ve been meaning to write up a post with more extensive thoughts on the ethics of travel (especially cheap travel) and offer it to Matt for a post on Saverocity, because I think this site is a leader in careful thinkers among those sites associated with the hobby, but I haven’t had time to finish the draft.

        • You should be worrying more about car and factory pollution in developing countries. Especially China, where they have complete disregard for the environment, and they love to leisure travel.

          A few tourists in developed western countries taking a few trips is nothing compared to several billion newly affluent citizens of a developing country who all want a car and who demand modern luxuries that require energy intensive manufacturing.

          • That’s true that China’s emissions are increasing, but they still trail the US’s per capita emissions by a long shot. And those of us flying up to 100,000 miles per year most likely have higher-than-average emissions among Americans.

            But in a larger sense I can’t directly change their habits, and there are indications – sketchy now because China is not a very transparent country – that they are shifting away from dirtier technologies and to renewable energy sources. I can, however, change my own habits, and I can vote for or lobby my representatives to pressure China to make a shift to renewable energy sources. My concern is with what my family and I, individually, might/should be doing.

            @George – Hi there. Still read your posts, but don’t have as many thoughts to offer.

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