It’s easy to overlook a situation when you haven’t experienced it first hand.
For us living in the UK, we’re pretty sheltered from what is going on around the world, particularly when the environment is concerned. Climate change can easily feel like only warmer summers and the, ‘Oh, it doesn’t snow like it used to,’ conversations. It definitely did for me.
Throughout my teens, I was fairly passive with my environmentalism. Despite being made aware of pressing issues by my family, things like global warming felt a million miles away, the stuff of documentaries and articles, not an imminent threat that required drastic action.
"Global warming felt a million miles away, not an imminent threat."
My hippie parents were once worldly, but after they’d had me they wanted to stay in one place. Naturally, I wanted to do the exact opposite. As soon as I was able to earn money as a teen, my existence became working to save and then travelling the world. And I did it well. Travelling was my passion and by the time I hit 20 I’d hiked the Atlas Mountains, followed elephant tracks through the jungles of Borneo, tried to cross the Darien Gap solo and countless other ventures.
I was truly blown away by vibrant cultures and new experiences. Seeing landscapes and wildlife and peoples and cultures that had previously been reserved for films and documentaries inspired me beyond belief. But it was all facilitated by flying.
For the most part, these global experiences didn’t expose me to the environmental horrors which seem impossible to overlook now. In the 2000s, as a teenager, it was very easy to swing gung-ho through life and not think of the consequences.
"As a teenager, it was very easy to swing gung-ho through life and not think of the consequences."
Thanks to the hippie parents, I was brought up a veggie and relatively aware of my individual impact. When I met my partner Sarah seven years ago we both spurred each other to lead more eco-friendly lifestyles, quickly becoming vegan and more active with our environmentalism. Still, we had the travel bug, and after a year of saving, booked flights to Sri Lanka and then to South East Asia.
It was here that really changed things for me.
South East Asia is filled with some of the most vibrant natural beauty I’d experienced, from the geology and landscapes to the animals and fauna, tropical fruits and vegetables. It really was mind blowing but after nine months of backpacking through the region, it wasn’t these aspects that stuck with me.
I could never forget the hapless tourists treading over bleached corals, protected ecosystems that had been destroyed in the name of ‘progress’, countless animal species that were now extinct in the wild, whole islands of floating plastic in the ocean and small villages whose only water source had been polluted by ‘eco’ hotels.
All elements of beauty and intrigue had been commodified in the name of tourism and ‘development’.
My journey then took me to Hanoi, Vietnam. I worked there for almost a year and this is where I truly realised the gravity of the situation.
The air pollution was often so thick you’d be lucky to see 100 metres ahead, your eyes and ears black with all the chemical and organic matter just floating around. Your hair fell out because of the polluted water and the lakes bobbed with bloated, dead fish. There was virtually nothing wild and living inside the city so the closest national park received a constant exodus of city-dwellers, resulting in piles of rubbish every 5 metres, like termite mounds, and the whole ecosystem on verge of collapse.
"The air pollution was often so thick you’d be lucky to see 100 metres ahead."
It was impossible to ignore the impact humankind was having.
I got back from this trip sobered and open-eyed. Whilst it was virtually impossible to find scenes like that of Asia back at home, I understood that it was all the circumstances of our own personal choices.
It was 2017, and, though there was far less information than there is now, I understood that flying to South East Asia produced more carbon emissions than whole villages in developing countries would produce in a year. The answer seemed obvious and so I decided to clip my wings. It actually had a greater impact than I could have ever imagined.
"The answer seemed obvious and so I decided to clip my wings."
With a constant hunger for adventure and new experiences, my energy took me outside and with that blossomed a mad passion for outdoor pursuits. I’d always loved hiking and camping but ditching planes really encouraged me to embrace local surroundings. You quickly realise that, with a little imagination, there are outdoor experiences around every corner, and so I was quickly hooked.
From cycling, climbing and scrambling to outdoor swimming and wild camping, I developed a massive interest in human-powered adventures – activities with virtually no impact that can be done in pretty much every country around the world – and knew it was something I wanted to explore and promote.
Over the next few years Sarah and I became one of the few mixed-sex couples to complete the gruelling UK Three Peaks Challenge by Bike and before COVID showed its face we were 1,000 miles into a UK to India cycling challenge.
I’ve not flown for more than three years, but in that time I feel like I’ve discovered more than during the nearly two decades of flying previously. It really did change my life but, much like with veganism, I understand it might not be so easy for others to do the same.
My personal experience has taught me that we really don’t need to fly so much. In the UK we are blessed to be surrounded by awesome landscapes and opportunities that many of us overlook. Now is the time to embrace them because it’s our responsibility to look at our individual lifestyles and make choices which prioritise the environment.
"My personal experience has taught me that we really don’t need to fly so much."
Whether it’s Vietnamese lakes, Indonesian corals or UK greenbelts, we’re damned lucky to have our natural world. It’s something which absolutely needs fighting to preserve, and I for one will be driving all my energy into doing exactly that.
Read more from Josh and Sarah at their website, Veggie Vagabonds.