In a typical year, my family’s biggest source of CO2 emissions is — by quite a wide margin — air travel. We use less gasoline than a typical American family, but we more than make up for it by traveling long distances to visit our family, scattered around the east and west coasts.

A few years back, I started strategizing about how to reduce our air travel. And I settled on a two-step plan.

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  • Step one: convince my sister to move from San Jose, CA to Seattle — which would not only mean that we could see much more of each other, but also save our families at least 8 round trips per year (4 for her family, 4 for mine).
  • Step two: give up traveling to see our east coast family for a year, and vacation close to home — saving at least one cross-country round trip flight for our family of 4.

So this year, we put both steps into action. My sister and her family will be moving into our neighborhood (yay!) and we decided to go car camping rather than traveling to the east coast. We’ll be flying a lot less as a result.

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But as things have turned out, I’m not sure our plans have saved a single drop of fuel.

My sister and I will soon live close enough to swap child care and borrow cups of sugar — for both of us, it will be both a treat and a relief to have family nearby. And luckily, my brother-in-law’s employer was flexible; he was reluctant to change jobs, and they’re letting him work out of his company’s Seattle office. But — and this is the crux of the problem — they’ve asked him to fly back down to San Jose at least once a month to check in at the main office.

So instead of at least eight annual roundtrip tickets between the two families (four for us to visit them, and four for them to visit us) we’ll have at least 12 (all for my brother-in-law to keep his job). So sure, my attempt to save fuel worked for my family — but may have actually increased the total airplane fuel consumed by the two families combined.

Something similar happened with our family vacations. We camped on the Olympic peninsula — and consumed about 5 gallons of gas per person in the process. Fairly fuel-thrifty, as vacations go, especially compared with cross-country flying.

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But (and it seems like there’s always a but) both my in-laws and my mother decided to fly out for a visit. Which was great: we missed them, and we wanted our kids to spend time with their grandparents. But overall, it meant our families combined saved a single round-trip ticket.

I often wonder which is more important: aligning my own life with my values, or trying to change the system under which we all, individually and collectively, make our decisions. It seems to me that here’s an instance where the system matters more than the individual. Sure, I tried to make choices that would conserve fuel. But reality had other plans.

I’m not sure there’s a lesson here, really. But if there is, it may be this: if you want to really change the world, simply looking in the mirror may not be enough.