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Truth and Reconciliation
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Truth and Reconciliation

My mother says I worry too much. She says that I find things to worry about; and she is probably right. I worry about things in the future [first mammogram] and things in the past [did they understand what I meant?] and plenty of things to worry about in the here and now. With the worrying comes a big ol’ sack of guilt as well.

However, here is something I have been worrying about for awhile – and it’s a doozy.

I love to travel. LOVE. I grew up exploring the country with my family – we moved every three or four years, and I developed quite a taste for seeing and experiencing new things. Since my junior year of high school, I have lived right here in Maryland. That is ten years in the same place. A record for me. (Granted, I moved out of my parents’ house, went to college, and then bought a house with Kris, but it was still within a 30-mile radius) I get an itch to pick up and move far away (I am looking at you, Pacific Northwest) but there are some great things here too – like our jobs – so we stay. And how do I scratch that itch? Well, I go on trips. I travel around.

Golden Gate Bridge

Times Square

I love travel so much that I signed up for a class this summer called Travel Writing. I thought that my travels might be something that people would be interested in reading more about… even thought about a little side project as a writer. I have picked up some good tips, and have received some favorable and complimentary feedback from my instructor and my classmates.

New Bern Marina Docks

One of our recent assignments was to write a list of the top 50 places we wanted to travel – off the beaten path kind of places – and how we could sell that trip to a publisher/magazine. I had 90 places on my list. I wasn’t trying to “outdo” anyone – I was just writing down the places I wanted to see and experience! No doubt, I could come up with some more without too much trouble. Just a quick flip through one of my magazines (my favorites: Budget Travel, and National Geographic Traveler and Adventure) reminds me of about 10 other places that I want to see.

The other side of the coin:  In my daily life, I consider the consequences of my actions.  I consider the footprint that I leave.  I want to live with the lowest impact possible.

There is a lot more that I could do.  Yet, I already do quite a bit.  I am committed to the cause.  Each day I learn something new (many thanks for the dynamic discussion in the Ravelry GreenCraft group) and I adopt new practices.

How do I reconcile my wanderlust and my (intense) desire to see/experience the world while considering my footprint? 

Jet fuel emissions are extremely harmful and not sustainable in the least. Air travel is very ineffecient energy-wise, and depends on a non-renewable resource.  Driving a car is not much better, and train travel is only slightly better.  What about the places that I want to see (80% of the places are over water) but can’t get to without air travel?

According to Salon’s recent article, “You Are Now Free to Pollute About the Country“,

Flying still makes up a very small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, just 1.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity each year come from air travel… In the U.S., that number’s about 3.5 percent. Yet those numbers are projected to rise sharply, making air travel one of the fastest growing contributors to global warming, while the world is struggling to reduce emissions. Over the next 20 years, more than 27,000 new aircraft will take flight, and the number of air travelers will double to 9 billion during the same period…

So, yeah. Now you see why I am worrying. It is a conundrum.

Carbon offsets don’t quite fit the bill. You can’t unpluck a flower, so how can you make the carbon dioxide evaporate? Sure, it may be better than nothing, but do those offsets just exist to help me feel psychologically better about my own pollution?  I am all in favor of planting trees, funding wind farms, and conservation of energy, but the fact of the matter remains: it is about the CO2 here and now.

The Salon article above points to business travel as the #1 culprit.  Cutting down/eliminating transcontinental and transoceanic flights would definitely have an impact. Technology allows us to have web conferences, chat sessions, and live demonstrations.  If more companies adopted online meetings, things would get better, without a doubt.  What will be the tipping point?  When will it be widely adopted and implemented?

And what about the traveler like me?  I do a handful of auto and train trips a year – usually about four or five.  I go on two or three airplane trips a year;  this year, two will be within the States, and one will be outside and far away.  I know that my vacations are not the biggest problem, but they contribute to the overall problem.  I proscribe to the “every little bit” ethic, and this is another instance, even if it is only a drop in the bucket.

On a related note: When I do travel, I consider the impact of my presence on the land and on the culture.  I believe in fair trade and supporting local economies.  I believe in sustainable development.  I want to see people succeed and live happily and healthily.  The social and societal aspects definitely play a role in all of this. [The Rise of the Conscientious Traveler]  After years of study about other cultures,  I want to witness them first hand.  How can I do that while still living responsibly?

Perhaps I will cut my list of PLACES TO SEE down – I know that there is no realistic way to travel to 90 places far and wide in my lifetime.  I can visit the library and read about them instead (and still live quite happily with some nice stamps in my passport).  See pretty pictures of the people that do live there.

I can research the places and activities planned and ask myself what is the impact on culture and on the environment. I can reduce my consumption while on travel, just as I strive to when I am at home.  Use responsible transportation while I am away – walking, public transit, biking.  An obvious tip would be to travel close to home.  The whole “playing tourist in your own town” goes a long way (it is one of my favorite pastimes).  But don’t get me started on the whole driving TO nature thing…

There is simply no clear answer… at least not one that I can see.

*Perceptive Travel Blog:  The Environmental Traveler’s Conundrum
*World Hum: The True Cost of Travel [interview with author]
*National Geographic Traveler’s Green Guide

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50 Responses

  1. slt

    word up, sister. i hear you. it’s tough to try to make decisions when you have the opportunity to travel and the cash to make it happen. i will be flying to london in september and have decided to start taking the bus to work (or biking) as often as possible in order to “make up” for my flying. i also stopped driving to see my family and have instead started taking a 12HOUR train ride home a few times a year. at least i get lots of knitting done. i think traveling is such a wonderful opportunity, and often times i come back and try to simplify my life a bit further than before, so that must count a bit, right?

    my best excuse for traveling? i will never give birth to another human (perhaps adoption is in my future) so that’s a “reduction” in the population! i’ll think of anything to let me travel.

    good luck with your own thought process!

  2. kelly

    I think it’s all about balance. You do what you can, I do what I can, and it all works out as best it can. Think about it this way: you take several trips a year- I rarely get the time off to travel by air, let alone car. That is some balance. The newer planes hold many more people, and can replace older models that aren’t as efficient and take more trips to do the same thing. It’s not the same as a completely green flight, but maybe it’s just a bit better than the status quo. Also, the ability to video conference and network via computer wasn’t really an option ten years ago. Do that where you can, and there’s some more balance. And if we all do a bit better, it’s going to add up eventually.

  3. Tara

    Hmm…as usual you’re very timely! Hub and I are just starting to plan next year’s trip-across-America and have been asking ourselves these questions! We’ve wondered if taking a train would be better…but it’s just not the same as stopping when you want, ya know?

  4. amanda

    Lolly, thanks for this really thoughtful post. I’ve been trying to go greener (besides simply recycling and turning the lights off). It’s a tough struggle when so many don’t do their part, but let’s hope that every little bit we do really does help.

  5. Carole

    You make some valid and very thoughtful points. However. I agree with your mother. ;-)

  6. Claudia

    I have one word for you (from continental travel): TRAIN! :-)

    My husband loves trains and we started taking the train everywhere since I moved to the USA in 2001. We have done literal crosscountries – from NY to Seattle (last Thanksgiving – Seattle-Chicago-New York!).

    And train is still the most sustainable way to travel long-distance.
    Check out Amtrak routes – the experience is fantastic. You can get a room, includes yummy meals (including breakfast in bed, not kidding), and you can always buy “legs”, hop on hop off style.

    This coming Thanksgiving, we’re going all the way to the Grand Canyon. We have done almost every route and we’re working our way to “every route”. And if you travel to Europe, train again! As an American you can even get a EuroRail. Once again, hop on, hop off.

    Good on you for the love of travel and the sustainability! :-D

  7. Dame Wendy

    Just the fact that you care and worry so much is really commendable. :) I so wish there were more people who thought and cared as much as you are about your personal impact on the world we tread upon.

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  9. Heather

    This is a topic that my husband is consumed with! He maintains that we are living at a very odd historical moment and that the unexamined excesses (travel being an excellent example) we grew up with will not even be thinkable thoughts in the future…but I think you do well to balance these concerns with a regard for fair trade and respecting the local traditions and economy. I lived in Morocco–my kids are visiting there right now–and the local economy has a vital dependence on travelers. Not an easy question!

    I have to say that you are one of the most thoughtful bloggers around and I always enjoy your perspective of knitting and non-knitting issues, Lauren!

  10. lobstah

    Oh, I’m glad there are others out there who worry about the same things as me! I like traveling too (although I don’t have the money to do it by plane more than once every year or two) and I always feel a bit guilty. And I agree that the carbon offset thing is a big joke. One of my rationalizations is that I try to make each trip as long as possible–preferably two weeks–and I only go once a year max. Although this cuts down on the total number of places you go, you get to really get an in-depth feel for one place, and minimize the number of plane trips as well.

  11. hpny knits

    there really is no easy answer. I think its about doing our best in our own world- and hope everybody does the same.

  12. Melissa

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post — you’ve given me lots to think about.

  13. Meg

    You know, I hadn’t really thought about what my travel is doing to the environment…. I travel a lot for my “work,” (meaning, currently, my education) both by car and plane. In fact I’m leaving for Italy on Friday. Thanks for the thought food for the plane!!

  14. Sarah

    Great food for thought. Thank you!

  15. jen

    There are a few things that article doesn’t take into account.
    1. Most of the additional 3 billion people born between now & whenever won’t ever see the inside of an airplane
    2. Many (most?) of the new airplanes being manufactured have been made to new specifications, with waste & stuff kept in mind. The Boeing plant is quite near me (I live in Seattle), and the new jet has been all over the news.

    Not to say that I don’t understand your point, I do, but I think that being a person of the world and making your soul happy with travel is just as important as reducing your imprint on that world. You’re already doing WAY more than most people do, just by being vegetarian and conscious of your consumption. Feed your soul.

    And I don’t think 90 places is too many for a lifetime. I have a friend who, at 26, has probably been to that many already, if not more. She travels about 4-6 times per year, starting 10 years ago.

  16. Robin

    What a thoughtful post, Lolly! Good things to think about when planning a trip near or far. It is a tough question to consider our impact on the planet and on other cultures – especially when tourism is such a huge worldwide industry and the only means by which some people live. I hope your well thought out travels will benefit both you and those you visit. The fact that you may get a few more people thinking about how their travel impacts the globe is a great thing in itself!

  17. Mary

    It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you have enough time and savings to take off for a couple of years, there are sailboats. My then not X husband and i had 37K in the bank and no debt. We saw the West coast of California from San Francisco down the west coast of mexico for 2 years, landing in Zihuatanejo at the furthest point south. We landed in Hawai’i with 7K.

    Extreme, I know, but it’s definitely quite a different perspective on traveling and seeing really out of the way places.

  18. Mintyfresh

    Very thought-provoking post, Lolly. I personally hate to travel, but I love to see new places, so if they could figure out apparating quickly, I’d appreciate it. I like to think that enough of my daily choices (walking, public transit–i’ve never owned a car) help to defray the few flights I do take (none last year at all, but I have a few scheduled this fall). It’s give and take and balance, I guess.

    Post your list! And don’t forget that if Singapore or spots in Asia are on the list, we could coordinate visits and/or you can certainly stay with my parents :)

  19. Kim

    Interesting post. I’m impressed with the way your thinking runs, and with your research that you include. I love train travel. We have a neighbor whose husband is Marquesan, and they own a rather large sailboat, and often sail to the Marquesas, the Cooks and other Pacific islands.

    It would be interesting to see your list of 90 places you’d like to visit. Won’t you consider sharing it sometime?

  20. Tamar

    Even though I worry a lot about my impact on the earth, too, I do think your mom is right. :)

  21. Anna

    Wow. That’s certainly something to think about…

  22. Mai

    Thank you so much for sharing your concern. I have been reading your blog for a year now, and I always try to imagine how you would be in RL. I think I got the feel for it, and I feel very luckily to have you as a virtual “friend”. We have never met, and probably will never, but I do believe the thoughts I have for you and the kind thoughts you have for others, do not have limit. We (in general) are all connected, whether we see it or not. A little bit of effort from each of us will certainly make a difference. There are a lot of destruction going on and at the same so many heroes out there who unconditionally try to rebuild this beautiful planet. We have come a long way, and have learned what it is needed to maintain this balance. Just to maintain this balance is already a big effort, and it seems like we need to push a little bit harder, I think… :)

  23. stacey

    that post made me think…..it’s hard when some people make huge efforts to change and others make nothing – like they cancel each other out almost. I love to travel also – i don’t get to do it nearly enough, but I will think about things you mentioned a lot more when I do!

  24. Carol

    Hmmm, as you mentioned, the day to day things tend to be the greatest polluters. So maybe you coul dbe uber-conscious while at home by biking, busing, walking and so on so as to “save up some of you rcarbon-imprint for the travelling. And I mean also eating locally, drying your laundry on the line etc….

  25. Liz

    Great and honest post, and something I think about a lot… and like you I spend a lot of time trying to leave less of a footprint on this lovely home we have… Definitely a conundrum, and definitely a topic that many of us are hopefully thinking about and talking about … thanks for bringing it to the fore

  26. AmyK

    Not to sound like an echo – your mom is right.

    There are some things that we just cannot control despite our best efforts. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to do the right thing or that we let the fear of what we cannot control consume us. If we cannot enjoy life, then what is the point of living?

    If you enjoy travel, then by all means travel. After all, you still need your sanity. Some people are born “settlers” and are happy being in their segment of the world. Some are born “adventurers” and enjoy experiencing and enjoying places that they do not know. You are a born adventurer and that is an aspect of your personality. Going against your inborn tendencies will unravel you, so don’t do it. It will cost you your sanity and overall well being.

    A living example of the above is this: Al Gore still flies and owns his own plane. He’s obviously not one to settle in his own little part of the world. Do you think he can get out his message by staying in Tennessee? Sure, it’s possible. We have all the resources to communicate from our very own homes. Yet do you think as an “adventurer” he would be content with that? I don’t think so. Besides, I imagine he still travels for pleasure.

    I don’t see the wrong or the hypocracy in this unless he’s advocating others to not do any air travel. I don’t believe for a minute that he has even suggested this. I do believe that he is advocating reducing our consumption. Regardless of wether or not we are causing global warming, reducing consumption is something we should all be doing because our population is ever expanding. We have to make room for ourselves and be good stewards of all things we have been entrusted with. You can still do that and travel too.

    Regardless of what your beliefs are, I think this is a great quote and worth sharing:

    “Do not worry for tomorrow, let tomorrow worry for itself. Each day has enough troubles of it’s own.” – Jesus

  27. nova

    I am a worrier too Lolly (every one tells me so; but, oddly enough, my mom has never pointed it out). In any case, I think you do you part where you can. Unless you are planning to bike across the continents and get their via row boat, you are going to have some impact. Being socially and environmentally conscious about your actions before and after have a huge postive impact…I would go with that… How half-full is that?

  28. Claudia

    Lolly, I think you’d find this blog very interesting: No Impact Man http://noimpactman.typepad.com/blog/

  29. Leslie

    first, i would be thrilled if you ever moved out west! :) second, from one writer to another, i think you are very, very talented! :)

  30. Delia

    Hey Lolly I remember reading this article and your post made me re-think of it: http://www.dailycandy.com/article.jsp?ArticleId=30236&city=15.

    You touch on it slightly above, but just some food for thought.

  31. danielle

    I think you raise some great points in your post. What’s more, I think you have a great voice when it comes to writing – you always write in such a colorful and thoughtful way that it makes reading your blog such a joy! I think you should take your questions and incorporate them into a travel book, so that you can share green travel with everyone! So many travel books focus on just getting to the destination, and not the impact of the travel. You could really have something unique……! :)

  32. Stef

    Hi Lolly– I’m also very interested in reducing my footprint, and I also used to be an engineer in the transportation industry. Maybe I can help ease your mind a little bit.

    First, yes. Transportation is a whopping contributor to pollution, but freight is the biggest issue. A fuel cell professor was talking yesterday about the contribution of the giant engines of cargo ships– he estimates that one giant ship with its huge meterlong cylinders generates as much emissions as 28,000 cars. Wow! So if a boat captain decides to turn the engine off rather than leave it in idle, that’s akin to taking 28,000 cars off of the roads. Diesel is more fuel-efficient than gasoline engines, but expels dirtier exhaust. Think of the number of trucks that have to drive across the country in order to keep even a single chain of stores stocked.

    Secondly, sure jet fuel pollutes, but our economy would collapse without air travel and shipping. Boycotting airplanes will not make them cut back substantially– they’ll just get subsidized by the government. Every time you buy a seat on the plane, that is one seat on a set flight that will not go wasted, thereby maximizing the efficiency of the flights. (And I could tell you a funny story or two about what goes on on undermanned but logistically necessary flights, haha).

    Honestly, I am not sure what everyday citizens can do to encourage improvement in air travel, and train travel has its own issues (largely economic, in my opinion). But you already know a consumer’s best way to affect reduction in freight– buy local, buy domestic. (As a sidenote, a book was recently released about a woman’s difficult quest to buy no Chinese imports for a year– but of course, the book made no claims that its paper was not processed in China ^__^ )

    Not that my opinion means a lot, but I think you should travel without guilt. Geographic understanding and and cultural respect are ideals that I believe are worth expenditure of fuels.

  33. Sarah

    I worry about the environmental cost of travel, but it’s the day-to-day habits at home that do more harm and help — so that’s what I focus on, and just do the best I can. On the whole, I think the human benefits of travel can balance out the costs — when we make human connections as respectful visitors and kind hosts, we shrink the emotional size of the world and begin to appreciate that “half a world away” isn’t really all that far.

  34. Gwyn

    Thanks for a great post! I am like you, with incurable wanderlust, yet a desire to be a better human being and preserve what we have. I do fairly well in my everyday life, although I know there are still better choices I can make and options that I am not yet aware of. However, when it comes to travel, I stick my head in the sand. It’s completely wrong, but I think I knew deep down how awful planes are, but I didn’t want to admit it because of the joy I get from travel, particularly to far off, international destinations. To compound it, as I have transitioned from student to career woman, time is a factor, and I am flying between places at my ultimate destination, where I used to take the train or bus. There’s no easy answer. I’m realistically not going to give up travel. Besides, I think the cultural understanding I gain when I travel is part of what makes me a better human being. But you are absolutely right that we should all think about how we can minimize our impact, even if we can’t be impact free. You’ve brought up some great ideas for minimizing impact. Thanks again for a good read this morning!

  35. Sneaksleep

    Oh, I know this pain. And on top of my own wanderlust, my husband’s family actually LIVES on the other side of the world, so we pretty much HAVE to go there at least once every couple of years, money permitting. I don’t know that there is an easy answer. Unitl much cleaner methods of fast long-distance transport are developed, we might have to content ourselves with an imperfect compromise of less travel (but not none), and more of staying in touch with our loved ones and friends through electronic means. We have been so spoiled, growing up in our ignorant bliss as we have. My first step: moving to an apt complex that recycles properly, and buying a Prius.

  36. heather

    very thoughtful and well put post (as you can definitely see from the thoughtful responses). Finding the balance is the key, between living a fulfilling but thoughtful/responsible life, but that isn’t easy!

  37. heather

    this was very thought provoking…I agree in so many ways…and balance is definately possible.

  38. Macoco

    This is a great post Lolly and something I think about A LOT. I’m glad to see that other people are thinking about it too.

    I fly for work and pleasure 7-8 times a year. Which is probably a lot to some people, but nothing to others. What I wonder is how the accumulation of day-to-day responsible living but with lots of travel compares to that of a person who doesn’t make an effort but never gets in a plane (which is the case for many, many people). It’s a senseless argument to have with myself because I’ve made an impact already and don’t see myself giving up travel, but I guess it makes me try harder with my overall responsible tendencies.

  39. tiennie

    Speaking as someone from the PNW – we’d totally welcome you!!

    Argh. These are the things that I worry about when I wake up at 3am and can’t get back to sleep.

  40. Erin

    You CAN offset your travel emissions! Plants absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, so the more plants you add to the earth, the more you are able to offset. Also, this website will allow you to purchase sustainable energy to offset your trips: http://www.carbonzero.ca/home/calculator/travel.php

  41. Jen

    From my own travel research and being involved in the climate change industry: Long-haul flights are better than short-haul in terms of fuel efficiency and co2 emissions since take of and landing use more fuel and release more co2. Better to take one overseas flight a year than flit around the US.

    I think you are being too hard on carbon offsets. For full disclosure the carbon offsets market and carbon trading pay my rent so… However, the NGO I used to work at had carbon offsets projects in places like Madagascar and Ecuador -forestry projects in particular. They were not only replanting lost forest, but also using the money from carbon offsets to prevent further deforestation (setting up trusts, etc). If not for the carbon offsets market, there is little incentive to preserve the forests in developing countries. So, to over simplify it a bit, forestry offsets have a two-fold purpose. I don’t at all believe it’s green washing. You do, however, have to be careful which offsets to buy in the so-called voluntary market.

    You bring up a point, however, in that some people may view offsets as a ‘license to pollute’ but I wouldn’t necessarily look at it that way. People should calculate their carbon footprint and take measures to reduce it first – there are tons of ways. But it’s impossible to get it down to zero, and carbon offsets are a win-win for the polluter and the land-owner on the receiving end.

    I would go to the mat in defense of forestry offsets projects having traveled to where deforestation is at its worst. Without the offsets market, there’s so little incentive for land holders to preserve their land. In terms of Kyoto credits, there is some really amazing development work happening on the tail of Kyoto-certified projects. My husband has worked on some really cook projects that not only produce carbon offsets credits, but also bring very basic city services to rural poor in Africa.

  42. parikha

    kudos to you for being so green-conscious! it seems like more and more people are getting passionate about this cause, which is fantastic–it means we don’t have to wait for our government to get off its ass and do something about it before we can start seeing change.

  43. DebbieB

    Thanks for making me think!

  44. loriz

    I’m glad to hear that you are thinking about the complexities of today’s world rather than turning a blind eye, which is so easy to do. Last year sometime I heard a rather interesting interview with George Monbiot, author of Heat, share his thoughts on the end of pleasure travel as we know it. His arguments seemed sound to my scientifically trained ears. From what I remembered, he said if we must travel, it should be for extended periods of time.

    Good luck finding a solution that works for you and your conscious!

  45. Michele

    Interesting post. Living in NYC, I do not own a car. I take public transportation, walk alot, use green products as much as I can, buy at the Farmer’s Market, eat seasonal as much as possible (no strawberries in Feb for me), have taken the train on trips throughout the US – and when I have to fly, I fly. For me, I’d rather focus my worrying and activist efforts on the true polluters in this world – the big companies that pollute like crazy throughout the world – and I try to make informed consumer choices and not buy from them; and on our current gov’t that does nothing to stop the looming crisis.

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  47. amisha

    hi lolly,
    been catching up on your posts and as always there is so much to think about here. being a person with wanderlust and a LONG list of places i would love to see (and having just come home from vacation), i read this and the comments with great interest. for me, i tend to agree with some of the comments that talk about balance and moderation. our travel, though it may be more frequent than most other americans (and is definitely more frequent than the majority of people on earth who are not able to travel by air), is still a drop in the bucket compared to business travelers who fly every week. in the meantime, there are so many environmentally responsible practices to implement (which i know that you do) that balance the impact of a flight, at least somewhat. is this rationalization? maybe, but i feel that it is true– i drive a car only once every couple of weeks and am moving to a city where i won’t have a car; this has to balance the flying a little bit, right?

  48. moirae

    I too struggle with this issue. It’s important to remember how travel opens up the world and fosters cross-cultural communication and understanding in a way that other methods of exploration (books, internet, movies, etc.) do not. Sometimes I think the world would be a better place if more people traveled. Then they’d understand why it’s worth saving.

    I strongly applaud your support of eco-tourism. In many ways, eco-tourism is helping to save some areas from deforestation and becoming victims of a global form of NIMBY.

    Keep up your good habits at home and remember that the same rules apply when you travel abroad. Combine trips, reduce, reuse, walk when you can, use public transportation and support the local economy.

    In the meantime, don’t forget to travel in your own back yard. Everyone has an undiscovered country close to home. The true adventure is finding what has yet to be discovered rather than visiting what others have already recorded.

    My mother recently told me that she feels similarly to you about carbon offsets. If you decide to purchase them, just remember that many of those organizations use that money to fund environmental education projects. Just be sure to pick a good organization. I recently attended a green commencement during my alumni reunion weekend. Being able to purchase carbon offsets at the event was just one of many ways the event was green. Other measures included compostable picnic ware and the use of local foods.

    Good luck in all your travels Lolly and thanks for caring about the environment.

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