Flashback to this time one year ago, when I was taking the required first-year 185 course in the frozen tundra of Decorah, Iowa, bundled from head to toe in 3 layers of clothing and my parka. Flash forward to the present day. While I have to admit that my attire and the weather conditions are essentially the same, geographically it’s a bit different here on the other side of the Atlantic, where I am currently studying abroad in Germany and the United Kingdom for a Paideia 450 course, Green Europe.
The focus of the course is environmental sustainability, with particular emphasis on renewables and low-carbon technology including wind turbines, solar panels, and nuclear power. As an Environmental Studies major and member of the Sustainability House, this course is exactly the kind of experiential learning I want and I am incredibly grateful and excited for the opportunity to travel around Europe. Yet I cannot help thinking about the many implications (good and bad) involved in my decision to take this course. In my opinion, the largest negative implication of this trip is the sheer amount of transportation costs (in terms of CO2 emissions) inherent in travel abroad. I have already flown some 4,500 miles just to get to Berlin. Because the course is on a time constraint, we also have to fly to the United Kingdom versus taking the train, plus flying back to the United States at the end of the month. Using one of those nifty carbon calculators, I found that just the trip from Chicago O’Hare to Berlin, Germany emitted 1.03 tons of CO2 emissions per person! Taking this into account, isn’t it just a bit ironic that for a course titled “Green Europe” a round trip for our group of 25, would contribute an extra 50 plus tons of CO2 to the atmosphere?
Of course this is a vast oversimplification of the environmental costs of this trip, which also include travel by bus and train, as well as our electricity consumption, and other environmental costs such as the plastic waste inevitable with so many meals-on-the-go. Clearly, the environmental costs of this trip are steep—but the real question is are they worth it? Can the goal of “Green Europe” be achieved despite these costs?
These are difficult questions to answer, especially in the limited format of a blog post, but personally, I believe that a trip like this is worth the environmental costs. Obviously, the greatest benefits of this course—including cultural immersion, experiential learning, and personal exploration—are intangibles that cannot be quantified as CO2 emissions can. These three benefits are generally strong arguments for Luther to continue to support and encourage all of its January Term trips—despite the College’s own commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Granted, Luther does not even account for emissions from January Term trips (a topic for another time), but even this action reflects the underlying issue—are the environmental costs really worth it? More specifically, can the goal of “Green Europe” still be achieved? I suppose that the question is dependent on the specific goal of the course. The focus of Green Europe is on sustainability, and clearly trans-Atlantic travel is not currently a sustainable practice. But if the course’s goal is to show us how the energy transition is taking place, to allow us to learn and experience different facets of the transition, and to ultimately make each of us a more conscientious and hopeful human being committed to being a part of these positive changes, then yes, it is worth the costs—and Green Europe does not require quotation marks around it.