Can I Justify Travelling for Pleasure When Children Are Starving?
“Can we really believe that we are living a good life, an ethically decent life if we don’t do anything serious to help reduce poverty around the world and help save the lives of children or adults who are likely to die if we don’t increase the amount of aid we are giving?”
– Peter Singer
It’s a quarter to midnight and I’m in a dimly lit pub clutching a cider with fervent passion, indignantly expressing my hatred for Australia’s treatment of refugees, scoffing at the wealthy’s need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a television when a three-digit Dick Smith one will do just fine, pointing fingers at the societal structures that increase class divide in Australia and prevent housing commission kids from leaving the welfare cycle.
My friend politely interrupts and asks with a soft and sincere tone: “What have you been doing to make a change and how can we help? Because I feel like I care about these things too, but I don’t know enough and I don’t know what to do about it.”
I stopped and I paused for a moment.
What WAS I doing? Apart from subscribing to the usual clicktivism bullshit and writing a somewhat informative Facebook status every once in a while urging my more ignorant friends to educate themselves, what was I doing? I was still spending reckless amounts of money on alcohol, on donuts, on a new pair of overalls because it’s summer now and apparently they’re trendy as fuq, on coca cola and overseas flights. I was still spending stupid amounts of time working on building my own career, window shopping and shooting the shit with people in club toilet queues that were neither stimulating or intelligible.
Then I started to think about travel, because of course the scraps that I had managed to collect in my savings account was purely for the purpose of serving and decorating my own existence in a developed nation I just happened to be born into. How could I comfortably spend this money on flights and alcohol and accommodation and skydives and boat trips and museums and bike tours? Somewhere in the world there were millions of little hollow-cheeked boys and girls, born into a society they didn’t choose, with arms outstretched begging for food and shelter… those same things I had and was planning to fly away from to indulge in elsewhere.
I sunk into a pit of guilt and found myself caught in a never-ending ethical dilemma.
“Many countries will not survive without tourism. You are actually supporting the country by travelling there…”
But shouldn’t we try to solve that systemic issue, so these countries can thrive without drunk, ignorant westerners?
“What can I do? Nothing. So I may as well go there and play my part. Also, I worked hard for my money, I deserve it!”
Those people don’t even have a chance to work for enough money!
“Okay so how about I go over there and volunteer?”
And assert your white privilege for three weeks and increase their reliance on you? So you can change your profile picture to you and a bunch of impoverished kids to show the world how #selfless you are?
I struggle with this internal battle every day. What is the balance between your spending and your giving? Can you ever justify your spending, be it on another drink at the bar or another flight overseas?
The conversation in the pub made me realise how arrogantly I was using my mouth and how idly I was using my hands. I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of guilt for the extent of my hypocrisy and ignorance, so much so that I felt an immediate need to act.
In the space of a fortnight, I marched in a rally. I gave to every social enterprise seeking donations that I came across. I registered for a sponsor child, and I started spending significant time with volunteer organisations – to the point where I didn’t have enough money to feed myself and I didn’t give myself enough time to stop, recuperate and rest.
When I finally stopped I reflected on my Good Deeds, I realised that I hadn’t either a) become a Good Person or b) felt any better about the whole Poverty in the World situation. I soon came to the understanding that it was guilt that was motivating me, not a love for the poor or the needy or the dispossessed. Giving had become a protective mechanism for my ego.
I am not writing this piece to shame you from travelling. I am not writing this piece to force you, right now, to sign up for every charity within your reach like I did. It will burn you out, both emotionally and financially. I am writing this to encourage you to reflect on whether what you preach aligns with how you behave, because if you’re ranting about how the wealthy spend their money, you too are wealthy in the scheme of things. What is the difference between That Guy spending exorbitant amounts on a television and you spending exorbitant amounts on a pair of shoes, or the new iPhone or a flight?
What I am employing in my own life is this: changing my guilt for love. I think that once you start looking at the problems in this world with a sense of love, your actions will reflect that and you won’t feel like you’re making sacrifices. Driving your lover to the hospital when he’s sick doesn’t make you feel like you’re sacrificing your time, because you love him, and as if you wouldn’t do it. It works on the same principle.
Is travel selfish? Philosopher Peter Singer (quoted above) would say yes, certainly. But is this utilitarian way of thinking plausible? Is it human? I don’t think so. I think it’s a gradual process. It’s important to reflect on what you speak about, what you care about and how you can marry the two. Don’t let guilt stop you from seeing the world but please, I beg you, do something to alleviate pain in your communities, your nation or the wider world.
Cover by Madi Robson