“You said you would help me think of a sustainability project. You haven’t done anything; I still don’t have one,” complained my friend from his habitual stretched-out position on my sofa.

He was referring to the project all of us had to come up with after, our corporate-sponsored volunteering program in India. In fact, that was how we met.

It had been a deeply reflective two weeks in Sirsi, and everyone else came up with highly personal and meaningful endeavours to work on. 

But my new friend struggled.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t think of something. It was more that he couldn’t think of something that he didn’t feel was just a checkbox to finish the program. Something he felt worthwhile to do, whose effect would last, and something he could pour himself into. Not just a project for the sake of doing a project.

What do you need to start the sustainability journey?

“I said I’d help you figure out why you can’t get going on it. I’m just a catalyst, remember?” I corrected calmly from my own habitual position on the carpet before him. It was something I had shared during the program. When asked whether I saw myself as a leader or a follower, I had said ‘neither’. 

Oh sure, I could play either role. But what I really do, is catalyse. When all the ingredients are there, add me in, and things start to happen. If things are moving, but sluggishly, add me in and things tend to go faster. Indeed, smart bosses in my day job utilise me for exactly this. 

“OK, catalyse then. You’re the brilliant mastermind. Why haven’t I come up with something yet?” he challenged me.

I paused, and considered.

The rainforest of the Western Ghats | Karnataka, India
The rainforest of the Western Ghats

Since we returned from India, I’d known him a couple months. Both of us were newly moved to KL, and in those first months we hung out quite a bit. Did I know him enough to help him? Why did he struggle so? And why did I not?

Why could I start, but he could not?

To be honest, during the program I had the same problem as he did. I, too, did not know what sustainability project I could possibly come up with, that would be authentic to me, that I could commit to carrying out in the long-term, and whose effect would be lasting.

But it came together somehow by the end.

Instead of a sustainability project, I offered a sustainability journey. In fact, this entire website, and all my channels, are the footprints of my journey – perhaps the only ‘project’ from the program that has not ended, because I did not choose to build something or make something. I chose to plant a seed, grow it into a tree, then a forest, and maybe – someday – a whole ecosystem. 

I thought about our fellow volunteers, who offered more conventional projects. Some of them did not have much sustainability awareness in the beginning at all. A few were even a little sceptical about this whole ‘sustainability thing’. But by the end, they all thought of a sustainability project that they felt sincerely about.

What was the same between me and our fellow volunteers, but different from him? 

Is knowledge all it takes to embark on a sustainability journey? 

It wasn’t as if my friend did not have sustainability knowledge. Being an Australian xennial, sustainability convictions are considered mainstream culture for him. There were quite a few insights that I gained from conversations with him.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t show an interest in acting on his knowledge, either. (Although it was never entirely clear to me whether the motivation was to acquire social approval, or genuinely from personal conviction.) He often spoke about making a change, giving to charity, and choices related to animal ethics.

But, just as frequently, he also argued himself back out of action.

Seafloor of broken coral and sand in the Maldives | Dhigurah snorkelling
Getting down to the sea floor.

The essential choice to start the sustainability journey

What was the same between me and our fellow volunteers, and with all the other sustainability advocates I know and respect, but different from him?

Now, it often happens that my conscious mind would have completely forgotten to work on something, but my subconscious mind has got it covered, and was just waiting to be asked. 

Just at the moment that my contrite conscious mind asked that question, spurred by his challenge, the back offices of my subconscious mind handed over the completed analysis. And I knew the conclusion was true.

Oh, but how do I tell him that, conscious brain said. 

Above my pay grade, said subconscious, falling back into the background.

I considered him for a moment. He was still looking at me expectantly, a slight challenging smirk tugging at the edge of his mouth.

Maybe he can take it, I thought. Maybe, in this past year, I may have acquired enough diplomacy skills to deliver the news with less of my typical bluntness.

What do you care about?

I decided to go the indirect route. I spoke about our fellow volunteers. About how they described their projects. About the thing that they all had in common.

I recounted how M-, S-, and a couple others spoke about how they felt they needed to, that they had no choice but to change, because it was crucial for the world their children would inherit one day.

A couple others admitted that their own kids would probably be fine, through the fortunate geography of their birth. But they thought about the children of others who are not so lucky. My own motivation is close to this one.

And then there were those like M-d and V-, who spoke about how their action was crucial for the future survival of their communities and countries in Africa – countries that are the most exposed to the consequences of climate change. 

…Or, who do you care about?

The reality is, we were all probably among those who will be safest and most removed from the brunt of climate change impacts, relatively speaking. Its full consequence may perhaps only occur after we personally have passed on.

But every single one of us came up with a change project anyway. And when we did, every single one of us was thinking of someone else.

Not only that, we were thinking of someone else in the future.

And not only that, we were choosing to love that future person more than ourselves today.

So I told my friend, very quietly, softening the message with a gentle smile, that I cannot help him think of a sustainability project, the meaningful kind that he wanted.

Not until he can choose to love someone in the future, more than himself today.

Kampung Pasir Hantu | Perhentian Kecil village beach | Perhentian Islands Malaysia
Waiting on your choice.

The very definition of Sustainable

Yes, this advice is not just for becoming a sustainable traveller, but to become sustainable, period. Indeed, I would argue that you cannot effectively be a sustainable traveller, without also being on the sustainability journey in general. 

All environmental professionals are aware of the default definition of ‘sustainable development’: meeting the needs of the present, but without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

A sustainability journey requires a sustainability mindset. And inherently, a sustainability mindset requires us to consider other people, who are in the future.

But how do we love someone in the future?

Is it any surprise that this is so hard for most of us to do? Psychologically, our lowest ‘animal brain’, the brain of here and now, just does not go that far. And it’s not like the main influences of our modern world encourage us to operate at a level much higher than this.

How many people can make the philosophical choice to love future human beings enough, that you would take inconvenience to yourself for their sake? Some do, but not most.

How many people can grow to love nature so much, that they would change their lifestyle for its sake? Some do, but not most.

It’s just so… abstract. 

But from long years of watching the ways that people change, and listening in on various environmental fora as people come and go, I noticed that there is a way that sustains the most number of people on the sustainability journey.

A happy way and a positive way. A community-building way, and a mutually supportive way. An indefatigable way, and an unconditionally loving way.

The most common way perfectly ordinary people suddenly switch into a sustainability commitment, and sustain it, is when:

(1) they accept knowledge about the implications of sustainability issues to the future of the world, and

(2) when they realise their own children will live in that world.

That was my epiphany. I realised, while knowledge is a necessary precursor, it’s not enough to seal the deal for action – not enough to make people to sustain their sustainability journey.

However, even people who don’t have deep knowledge on sustainability issues will learn, will sacrifice, and will suffer the social pressures that block change, because of love for their children.

Children hiking up to school in the Annapurna highlands
Children passing us by.

Peer pressure, and the sustainability journey

When I was volunteering in the Perhentian Islands, there was a little girl who would often come by the Blue Temple House. One day, she came to me as I was walking by the village waterfront. She asked me to do a ‘cleanup’.

You see, the volunteers often organised cleanups in the village, especially with the schoolchildren. She rather enjoyed it. So, not wanting to dampen her positive association, I agreed.

We picked up the waste plastic that we could see around the area, and secured them in a nearby trash bin. On her insistence, I even went down on the rocks by the waterside to get a plastic bag that had fallen there, because otherwise ‘it will go in the sea and be bad for the turtles’. 

Make your sustainability journey visible

Afterwards, we sat on a bench and looked out to the channel in between the two Perhentian islands. There was a young man in a boat, a local boy from her own village. The teenager casually tossed a piece of plastic into the sea, a ubiquitous habit in these rural island communities.

In the past, all waste was biodegradable, so this habit never really posed an issue. But with the advent of single-use plastic, it threatens the ecosystems that the islands depend on. 

He’s throwing plastic in the sea, said the little girl, watching him. I agreed, watching her face closely.

There was confusion on it, the confusion of a little girl who had just picked up plastic waste, fretting over how wrong it was to leave it around. But here she was, looking at who it was doing the wrong thing. It was a face like her own face.

She repeated her words, and seemed suddenly unsure of whether it was in fact wrong.

So I affirmed it. And I added, we change ourselves first. We just focus on doing what we know is right. Later on, when you’re older, you can help them change too.

Sunset at the village beach, Kampung Pasir Hantu | Pulau Perhentian Kecil | Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
Teja on the village beach

Starting the sustainability journey: It is hard to be the first one.

Indeed, the faces of those who need to change are in the mirror. But the problem is, the first people who do so will have to face the tremendous pressure of being different from everyone else.

Even if no one says anything, you will know.

Peer pressure is an equal opportunity phenomenon. It does not matter whether the dominant view is beneficial or not. It just enforces it – very well.

The impulse to concede your own views to conform to the group’s interest is not necessarily an evil thing. It is in fact a very natural, human thing, that has had great evolutionary value for our species. That’s why the impulse to conform is so strong.

Barring a small minority of humans with natural resistance to peer pressure as a result of things like ASD, I have come to accept that no amount of wishful thinking and guilt-tripping will erase a program baked into us over a million years.

It is much more sustainable to work with human nature rather than against. Find something just as natural, but is stronger. Or figure out how to use that very same nature to support a better way.

FOMO – peer pressure on steroids

Yes, this is a travel blog. As a travel blog, it does advocate the value of travel for various reasons, such as personal growth and fraternity among mankind.

But in a travel-obsessed age, I want to draw the line between travelling purposefully, and travelling because of the Fear of Missing Out. 

I first became acquainted with this psychology after meeting this friend of mine. Although, come to think of it, it is just a new face for an old fear. They used to call it ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.

Travel FOMO is the feeling that you have to go everywhere, and do everything, because otherwise you’ll ‘miss out’. But this is not travel, because of the love of travel. This is just another status symbol, in the shape of travel.

The pressure is most acute if all your friends have done ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is. You don’t want to be the only one that hasn’t gone to Bali, or been to a full moon party in Thailand. It ceases to matter whether you actually are into those things yourself. If you are unable to relate to the shared experience, you are removed from the peer group. 

And that’s what you really fear missing out on. 

Sungai Tahan river tributary
Fear of being left behind

Life is all about missing out – and that’s why it’s beautiful.

We spoke about this, my new friend and I, in one of our many sustainability conversations. 

But, I said at the time, pointing out the obvious, but we only have so many years of life. It is logically impossible to do everything and go everywhereYou have to miss out. Life is a matter of choosing what to miss out on. 

And, I added another rather obvious logic, by sampling many, but only briefly, not only is it not possible to sample everything, with a FOMO mindset you would make certain that you’ll miss out on experiencing those things that require time and commitment, but for greater reward. So why is there no fear in missing out on that? 

Credit to him, he was aware of his FOMO. But he was unable to ignore the pressure.

He could not say why. Even though, as a finance professional, he certainly understood the value of investing early, consistently, and for the long-term.

FOMO is the result of a culture that will leave people behind.

The fear in FOMO is just like any other fear. It is a debilitation, a greed and a lust. It cannot be satisfied by appeasement. No amount of new things and keeping up will make it go away. 

FOMO exists because we want to rank people in terms of who is ‘deserving’ and who is not. As long as we are in a competitive culture, we will always invent new ways to determine who is cool and who is not. And as long as we do so, the race to fit in will continue insatiably.

But there are so many of us now, that in so trying, the 7.8 billion of us can destroy the Earth.

Once upon a time, it was cars and houses. Then, fashion and technology. And most lately, travel and experiences.

None of these things are evil in themselves. In fact, there is good in each of them. It is only our greed for novelty that turns them into machines of destruction.

Our landfills and our atmosphere, our seas and non-human fellow earthlings bear the waste of our FOMO vanity and insecurity. 

But you cannot cultivate a sustainable mindset, as long as you have the fear of missing out.

Because invariably, a sustainable person has to say no to many things that are not needed today, so that people in the future still have something left with which to fulfil their needs.

2016 Lunar eclipse covered by cloud | Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

The One Key Choice of a sustainability journey

It is love.

After all, why else would you say no to yourself today, for people who are not even here now to give you the stink-eye? What else can make you keep to this decision for the rest of your life? What else would create a culture where no one is left behind?

This does not mean you don’t love yourself. Indeed, there are some activists who do love others more than themselves, but they achieve it by removing love for their own selves.

Does this method help you make more sustainable habit changes in your own life? I have to admit: yes.

But it also makes you resentful of others who do not.

This zero-sum martyrdom attitude makes you feel diminished and hopeless. And frankly, nihilism isn’t inspiring to others. Not many people want to be miserable while they save the planet.

This is the sustainability mindset whose logical conclusion is that human beings should eradicate ourselves from the earth.

Is it a valid solution for the sake of other life on earth? Honestly… yes.

But is it desirable, or even necessary? Not really, and probably not.

At any rate, I don’t know how long people can keep that up for. Rarely can you bear to sustain this usually youthful fervour for a lifetime. I haven’t heard of any still-active elderly environmentalists with this attitude. Try listening to Sylvia Earle, or Jane Goodall. David Attenborough. It should tell you something that these eminent lifelong activists do not harbour hatred of our own species.

Instead, they exude love. 

Dhigurah at slack tide
Sunrise in the Maldives

Yes, on the sustainability journey, you can have nice things.

But have them because you really love and enjoy them. Not because it’s trending, and because everyone else has them.

When you choose nice things with freedom from peer pressure, you will find that you end up with much fewer things, but which you cherish more.

We don’t throw away things we genuinely love. We take time to learn about things we love – its art and its history, its craftspeople and its innovators. They get repaired, and we keep them long after they look more worn than the things we don’t care about. 

So those things for which you would spend that much interest and effort, go ahead. Have the best of them. Because you will care that these can continue to be made – and therefore the sustainability of its materials and its craft.

Go ahead, on the sustainability journey, you can have a family.

But have a family when it’s natural for you. Not because everyone else is starting one, and you feel like you’re ‘late’. Not because the people before you did it around this age, and had it to a certain size. 

Some environmentalists consider it irresponsible to have children at all. But I have observed how many people are changed, and become more capable of feeling the point of a sustainable lifestyle, when they became parents. They also last longer on the sustainability journey, when they look upon their children day by day. Undermining this element of the human change experience is probably going to backfire.

Indeed, sustainably-minded parents today are building the knowledge for how best to teach sustainability as a culture to children – a skillset in itself. We cannot sustain the sustainability journey across generations, unless we learn how to pass it on into the future in the human way of families and communities.

And go ahead, on the sustainability journey, you can travel.

But not because you’re chasing someone else’s experience. Travel for yourself, from a place of wholeness. When you do, I suspect that even those of us who claim a wanderlust will find that we need much less of it.

Travel and get to know others in the world. In time, you will learn to love people. Even those stubborn, irritating ones. And those who aren’t like you at all. Those who don’t ‘understand’ what you ‘understand’. Those who ‘aren’t there yet’ or would only go partway.

Travel’s way of intensifying life brings into focus that love must always contain mercy or it’s not love.

Its way of showing you the things we have in common shows you the universality of love.

And its way of confronting you with challenges to your existing beliefs, trains you in love’s unconditionality.

This will be your shield against the bitter pride of self-righteousness. It awakens the imagination to love those who don’t yet understand. And it is a renewable fuel that can keep you going on your sustainability journey – sustainably.

yachts | sailboats | Dhigurah | Ari Atoll | the Maldives
Meet the horizon.

If you have been moved by this article, if you believe everyone should read it, if you feel it is a useful way to help people understand and reflect on these matters – please feel free to SHARE, and SPEAK to others about it! Thank you for dropping by! 

I had an important epiphany when I tried to help my friend figure out why he couldn't think of a sustainability project like the rest of us, even though he had all the knowledge and believed that it is a necessary effort. Why is knowledge not enough?
I had an important epiphany when I tried to help my friend figure out why he couldn't think of a sustainability project like the rest of us, even though he had all the knowledge and believed that it is a necessary effort. Why is knowledge not enough?

For the first two articles in this Sustainable Traveller series:

18 Responses

  1. Wow, I really haven’t thought much about sustainable travel. This is really interesting and so true what you say about her animal brain taking over. Thanks for the enlightening article.

  2. I had thought very little on travel and sustainability prior to reading this article. You have given me much to think about. Thank you!

  3. Jem says:

    A really important article that everyone should read. You have written a wonderfully insightful article that is completely relevant in this day and age. You have a style of writing that is easy to read, especially on such a serious topic

  4. Synz says:

    This is the kind of topic most travelers these days should read. A lot of the travelers these days travel for the sake of having that check mark on that bucket list. I must admit, I’m sometimes that kind of person. But, most of the time I’m always conscious of my action with regards to the environment, and the people around me.

    • Teja says:

      Awareness is the start of everything! It’s really hard to wake up from the habits that modern life primes us for. But I suggest that the next step would be to measure your impacts – for example by using a carbon offset calculator. I personally like Terrapass.com for this, and found it surprisingly affordable to offset my emissions! Measuring also allows you to see what your impact is, compared to what you think it is. It could be as simple as starting to separate your waste – I found a lot to think about once I did that and looked at the things I was throwing away.

      Please share the message :)

  5. Hayley says:

    I feel like you’ve really grasped the crux of the issues around sustainability, in particular your theory about FOMO. I found this post more compelling than many sustainability campaigns out there and it’s given me personally a lot of feed for thought. I’m currently on a quest to say no to plastic wherever possible, but it’s incredibly challenging.

    • Teja says:

      It is – I tried doing it super seriously for a month (I did #plasticfreeapril!), and discovered just how pervasive it is. But it did highlight numerous specific things I could switch. I now use bamboo toothbrushes for example – and pleasantly surprised to find that the bristles last longer than the plastic ones! So that’s a nice side bonus!

      I feel encouraged that this post resonated. Please share the message to others; thinking and reflection is the first step to overcoming FOMO!

  6. Jyoti says:

    You’ve touched such an important topic. I wish everyone would travel sustainabley. But we have to start somewhere.
    Thanks for sharing the struggles. All the best.

  7. Nathan says:

    Great insights you have there on the topic of sustainable travel! It’s really important to ensure that when we are visiting foreign lands, we should behave in a considerate manner so that tourism does not adversely affect local culture and wildlife.

  8. Alice says:

    Very nice article. I agree with everything. It’s important to travel in a sustainable way… I hate when people don’t respect the place and the culture.
    I’m also into scuba diving myself. Always looking for the best place to dive. Going to finish my Dive Master in the next few months.

  9. Thanks for sharing your insights. I don’t know what to say.

  10. Hiral says:

    I can only think two words in my mind. Well Said! Reading this post gave me a lot of information about sustainable travelling. Thanks for sharing ?

  11. Thanks for the input of sustainability! Personally I feel for most people it is difficult to make the connection between travel and sustainability, because holidays are a time of the year people want to spent as relaxed as they can and they do not want to think too much. I think a good start would be using buses and trains whenever possible.

    • Teja says:

      Exactly! That’s why the easiest way is to start with the mindset, and in daily life. You’ll see that in all three of my sustainable travel articles, not a single one is about ‘doing’ anything specific, since they are about long-term habit shifts – and almost every recommendation will enhance the quality of the travel experience itself!

  12. Danny says:

    Insightful post! Love your style of writing.

    Ever tried scuba diving at Perhentian? I was debating if it’s worth doing it.

    • Teja says:

      Thank you!

      Yes, it’s where I got my Advanced Open Water actually. Whether it’s worth it depends on your level. If you’re an experienced diver and really only keen on picking up the BEST dive sites, then I think skip Perhentian for, say, Sabah spots like Sipadan.

      If you just like diving, then Perhentian is great because it’s cheap to dive there, the dive centres are good and most of them Green Fins certified, and the dive spots are not bad. The reefs tend to bleach less than the more southerly islands on the east coast.

      But the best is if you intend to take your first open water certification – the PADI course is very affordable here, and sometimes comes with accommodation thrown in.

      See my beach/watersports guide for more info: https://tejaonthehorizon.com/walkthrough/perfect-perhentian-islands-beach-by-zodiac/

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