International Service Learning Study Abroad Handbook/Resources
“Do volunteers do more harm than good?”
Any self-reflective and sensitive volunteer should take time to contemplate the question, “does my service do more harm than good to the community I am serving?” In addition to the cultural questions of empowering the local population to sustain the changes and improvements that you envision, a perceptive volunteer must determine whether the cost of these changes, in both the depletion of resources and the increase in the local carbon footprint, are justifiable and sustainable. In the past, some have criticized international volunteerism by describing it as “invasions, conquests, and colonialism.” In far too many instances, host populations have suffered more from the negative effects than have benefited from the positive ones of volunteering because too often volunteers have used an excessive amount of natural resources that the country clearly cannot sustain. It is more profitable, as well as efficient and sustainable, for communities to employ local people to plant trees, build houses, educate the youth and administer health clinics. The local people have an appreciation and sensitivity, not only for the local customs and practices, but for the scarcity and value of local resources. For volunteers, the most important resource is the local people. Utilize them to help identify resources, reduce waste and maintain the smallest carbon footprint possible. Whatever the service you are performing, insuring that your presence is felt only in a positive manner of empowering the local community is the goal. Disregard for the value of resources, leaving behind unacceptable waste and having an attitude that implies you “know best” only reinforces the negative stereotypes of volunteers and does not forge new sustainable and culturally sensitive relationships.
Traveling to any other country besides Mexico or Canada from the United States almost always means you will book a flight. While flying is certainly the most efficient method of travel in terms of time management, airplanes are extremely harmful to the earth and greatly accelerate global warming, according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor.
In 2007, aircraft contributed three percent of the total emissions that exacerbate the detrimental conditions of the atmosphere. While this seems to be a trivial amount, the reality is more and more people are traveling by air, an annual increase of about five percent. If the trend continues, Boeing reported the number of airplanes will likely double by 2020 to meet passenger demand. One of the chief reasons aircraft negatively impact the environment is their proximity to the atmosphere. Airplanes emit not only carbon dioxide, the common pollutant associated with climate change, but nitrous oxide, which is believed to be twice as harmful as carbon dioxide.
The environmental consequences of air travel are well known and before committing to fly, it is helpful to think about your purpose for traveling and what you think of the impacts involved. Will the work or activities you do abroad justify the environmental cost of the flight?
I attended a workshop where participants examined their own consumption of resources a couple years ago. Toward the end of the day, the facilitator explained his personal dilemma with leading the workshop. He is a professional speaker and flies all over the U.S. often discussing the issue of climate change in large hotel conference rooms. People often drive to participate in his workshops. He asked if this was all worth it: the energy consumed by hotels that provide a meeting space, the pollution from the cars people used to get to the hotel, and, of course, the emissions from the plane he took to get there. These consequences all occur in order for people to become more aware about their impact on the environment. Is it worth it?
The means you use to get to your travel destination are, of course, only the beginning of your trip’s energy consumption. The travel website Green Passport points out that, like choosing transportation, your other choices about where you stay, what you eat, and what you do will be the significant determinant of how your adventure impacts the planet. One of the best ways to make such choices is to consider steps you can take to reduce carbon emissions. Some suggestions: research transportation and accommodation options that utilize sustainable practices. Look into how climate change impacts the specific region you plan to visit. Different ecosystems, elevations, proximity to the ocean etc. will be effected in their own ways by global warming. Although it is heavily promoted and encouraged here in the Northwest the reasons still apply abroad: eat local food! Consuming local meals and, for that matter, buying local crafts or supplies counts toward reducing overall carbon emissions for your trip, because the food and other goods were not flown from hundreds of miles away.
Sustainable Use of Natural Resources
"Resource efficiency means using a country’s limited resources in a sustainable manner". Our resource uses in foreign countries have impacts on the environment and can result in serious consequences for the country. For example, coming from the United States, we are used to the abundance of water that allows us to take long, hot showers. Overseas, you might not have that same luxury. When you take a shower in developing countries, their limited supply of resources only allows them to offer you a bucket full of the same water they drink and cook with. An alternative way to take a shower that is a sustainable use of natural resources may be limiting the amount of bucket baths you take during your stay. Countries depend on their resources for the survival of its population and to keep its economy functioning. It is perfectly possible to produce more value with fewer resources, to lessen our impact on a country’s environment and to reduce cost in its economy. Also, a wiser use of resources reduces greenhouse gas emissions and many other environmental and health problems. Small changes make a big difference in reducing your carbon footprint in a foreign country. For example, reduce, re-use, and recycle are some of the simplest ways to decrease your carbon footprint.
Spending time abroad can provide you with a new way to think about using resources. Being in Kenya for a six week period definitely made me more aware of the scarcity and preciousness of water. One day, our group of students from Western joined with a local school and a community-based organization to go out in the village and clean the some houses belonging to widows. As part of the cleaning process, we collected their clothes so we could wash them. This process looks much different in rural Kenya than it does the United States. It involves filling buckets with water and using your hands to scrub the garments clean. When my group tried to accomplish this, I realized how difficult obtaining water can be. A large group of us were gathered around the water pump, trying to get it to work. When the pump failed to provide us with any water, we had to locate water elsewhere. Many of us used the rainwater that had gathered in the ditch beside the road. By showing me a glimpse of the dangers of water scarcity, this moment really showed me how invaluable water is. When traveling, especially to areas suffering from drought, it is really important to be aware of their access to resources and to be sensitive to the local ecosystems.
When studying abroad, it is important to consider how your spending choices will affect the local economy. Discussing food economy is a good model as to why your choices may have such a large impact. The industrialization of agriculture has changed the focus from quality to quantity. Large-scale, monoculture farming is becoming more widespread as mass production, marketing, and processing is desired primarily for export. As mass production has increased, many consequences have arisen such as increased chemical usage, decreased need for human labor, and the increasing distance between food producers and food consumers.
There is a huge disparity between the place of production and the place of consumption of our foods. For example, in the United States food travels an average 1,300 miles to our plates. This model of agricultural distribution has resulted in overall decreased income for farm income as a larger cut of money is required for processing, packing, storage, and distribution. The distance between producer and consumer has resulted in the loss of environmental accountability and connection between the farmer and the public. Little communication can travel over this distance, so consumers have little knowledge about the process of producing their food and remain unaware of the environmental and health impacts it may have.
Take an interest in learning about where your food comes from. Use local people as resources to learn how to support the local economy. By connecting directly with the farmers growing our food, environmental accountability and knowledge of what we are putting into our bodies increases. You will putting money into the farmers whose faces you recognize, not anonymous people from thousands of miles away. Do what you can to preserve the livelihood of local farm families and communities.
In our everyday lives, we each contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions and accumulation in these gases in the atmosphere that are causing climate change. Individuals can produce greenhouse gas emissions directly or indirectly, and you may not even be aware how much of an impact you are making in your daily routine. Personal habits and choices, the mode of transportation you use, the kinds of foods you eat, and how much you recycle are all considered when calculating your carbon footprint.
World map of countries shaded according to their ecological footprint in 2007 (published on 13 October 2010 by the Global Footprint Network). It is measured by the amount of global hectares that are affected by humans per capita of the country. Lighter shades denote countries with a lower ecological footprint per capita and darker shaded for countries with a higher ecological footprint per capita. The total ecological footprint (global hectares affected by humans) is measured as a total of six factors: cropland footprint, grazing footprint, forest footprint, fishing ground footprint, carbon footprint and built-up land. Image and caption by Jolly Janner courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When we travel, our individual impact increases when considering the transportation required in reaching our destinations and our unfamiliarity of how to reduce our carbon emissions in our new environment. Remember that our individual choices in where we live, what we eat, and how we manage our waste has an impact on our carbon footprint. When in an area you are unaccustomed to, it is difficult to consider these details when you are not sure what the customs are. For this reason, it is important to become acquainted with local residents and learn from them.
Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
The links below are for different carbon footprint calculators. You may also visit the homepage for the different organizations if you want to learn more about carbon emissions and climate change.
After you calculate your own carbon footprint, take a moment to reflect on ways you could reduce your impact on the global climate. Think of small goals that are within reach. Instead of driving to school, could you walk or take the bus? Consider using the stairs instead of the elevator. Could you designate one day a week to not use your car? Maybe consider a vegetarian diet a few days a week. There are many little changes you could make in your life that can reduce your individual carbon footprint.
These questions are posed to you as a way to encourage reflection. You may find you can't settle on one answer. What impact is your trip going to have on the earth? Does the amount of emissions/energy expended by your trip affect you in any way? How mindful will you choose to be about carbon emissions on your trip? Before and after your trip? What connections do you see between resource use and poverty? What will you do to reduce carbon emissions?