Q. Dear Umbra,
I met my boyfriend when I was studying abroad. We’re from two different countries and are currently in a long-distance relationship. Whenever I think about traveling to see him, or vice versa, I feel conflicted. I’m so happy we get to see each other again, but I also think about the impact on the environment and am saddened.
How can I reconcile my feelings?
Long Distanced and Conflicted
A. Dear LDC,
I have been in 2.5 long-distance relationships, and a few months after the most serious and heartbreaking one ended, I wrote about it.
It is a unique nightmare to revisit things you wrote four years ago, especially when those things deal with past relationships. But because you, beloved readers, are important to me, and because my conflict dealt directly with your question, I’ll resurface it:
“It’s not that long of a flight,” he said. “We could probably visit each other once a month!”
I racked up in my head how many flights that would be, and thought about rising sea levels, and terrible heat waves, and hurricanes in New York and New Orleans. And then I thought about our relationship of 3+ years and how much I loved him, and felt – ironically enough – so, so selfish for thinking about those other things.
Even looking back, it seems so, so selfish and silly to not fly to visit someone you love. “The plane is going anyway!,” etc. And yet, once you’re on the plane — if you are even a little bit climate-aware — you feel a twinge of bad. It’s hard to ignore the thought, “This is probably the biggest thing I do to contribute to climate change.”
You and I are absolutely not alone in the climate guilt of long-distance love. I got more responses to my ask of whether anyone else had experienced this than any other Ask Umbra question! (Quick reminder for everyone reading: SEND YOURS IN!)
The fact that you are feeling guilt at all is actually pretty remarkable. I don’t mean to set the bar low, and I know I’ll be criticized for applauding you. But I am! Fuck it! Long-distance relationships are absolute torment — take it from me! — and you are voluntarily choosing to bring another element of conflict into an already fraught situation by considering the moral implications of your happiness. Either you’re a masochist, you’re trying to find an excuse for your relationship to be over, or you’re really, really worried about climate change — and maybe really in love! (We’ll get to that.)
I’ll boil down the wisdom of all the very kind and generous people who wrote in to share how they manage the climate guilt spawned by their most intimate relationships: You make the sacrifices where you can. And many people, even the most climate-conscious, decide that they simply cannot sacrifice the time with the person they love. So, they make their climate renunciations elsewhere — by not eating meat, not driving, not buying unnecessary things.
But the essence of your question, really, is whether the person you’re with is worth those sacrifices. For millennia, humans have asked themselves the seemingly unanswerable question: Is this person worth my time/stress/periodic celibacy? The modern-day variation on that question, which we’re attempting to answer right now, is: Is this person climate-worthy?
Let’s test this with some scenarios.
You’re at a steakhouse with your boyfriend, and you’ve ordered a delicious T-bone. The hunk of meat is looming towards you on the plate, the waiter is bringing it this way, oh thank god! You haven’t eaten all day. You’ve been hiking, and you got lost on the mountain and you and your boyfriend are actually still fighting about it. It was his fault! There’s no such thing as a “fun little off-trail shortcut!”
As the plate is just about to descend to the table, the waiter says to you: “Actually, you can only have the asparagus and never eat meat again — or you can never see your boyfriend again.”
Remember! He just got you lost in the woods! What do you say?
Through a great stroke of luck, you’ve found yourself on a whale watching cruise. A huge orca surges out of the ocean, and you’re suddenly overwhelmed by the exquisite fragility of our ecosystems. Even these gorgeous carnivorous torpedoes are endangered by our most seemingly inconsequential decisions! The boat docks. You need to talk to someone about this, so you pull out your phone.
Are you dialing your boyfriend’s number?
Alexander Skarsgard and your boyfriend approach you at the same time. They both say, simultaneously: “Ma’am” — your boyfriend calls you “ma’am” in this hypothetical universe, because he’s respectful — “I need you to spread hot butter and jam on my upper abdominals right now, also I love you, and you must never see this other guy again.”
Whose abdominals do you tend to?
Your boyfriend is exactly the same as he is now, but he suddenly insists on paying for everything in bitcoin. Everything! When you go to the grocery store together, he just waves his phone at the cashier and yells, “CRYPTO PLEASE?!?!!” He also refers to every other currency as “meat money.”
Do you: Gently explain to him why bitcoin is an environmental scourge; or, run screaming?
You laugh! Hopefully you laugh, because I’m trying to make you feel a little better. We need you, and you’re being pretty hard on yourself. By we, I mean the humans on this Earth who stand to suffer tremendously from climate change, and by you, I mean someone who is clearly concerned about it on a visceral level. And for you to be the strongest climate warrior you can be, you will benefit from being in a relationship that you love.
But the basis of a strong relationship is that you can talk about what you care about — orcas! climate change! — and you’re willing to sacrifice some things to be with the other person — steak! the opportunity to slather a hot Swede in dairy products! If it’s not that strong, it’s not worth the distance, babe.
But if it is, you’re pretty lucky.
With love from afar,
P.S. For what it’s worth, working toward being in the same place as the people you love is a pretty worthwhile climate goal!