After getting his Ph.D. at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, Joep van Dijk, via a Swiss grant, got a job as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research at the University of Colorado Boulder.
There was just one problem. The nearly 4,800-mile flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Colorado would produce more greenhouse gas than Van Dijk, who studied climate science, could stand.
So, as an “experiment,” van Dijk gave himself three months to move to the United States without flying. Instead, he went by bus, boat and bike, saving 95% of the CO2 emissions he would have created on a flight.
Van Dijk said he was “kind of aware” of climate change before starting his graduate program, but he felt he couldn’t make much of a difference as an individual. During his studies, he was reconstructing temperatures from millions of years ago.
“I literally started to see the data pop up on my screen on how hot, how warm the world is,” he said. “It scared me so much that I started to change.”
He became vegetarian, used his bike to commute and avoided plastic. He also started to get frustrated with the day-to-day choices of others, he said.
After a period of “some serious anger,” van Dijk said he realized he wouldn’t change people’s minds by trying to force them to follow him. Instead, he decided to just show others what he does and be positive about it.
Ahead of his trip, van Dijk’s family gave him a drone and asked him to document his experiences. He’s now making a short documentary on his journey that he hopes will show others how this kind of change is possible.
“People feel powerless, they feel they can’t do anything,” he said. “I started to realize all these climate change documentaries that are out there, they’re so pessimistic. I wanted to be optimistic.”
Van Dijk started by taking a bus to Spain and then got on a Catamaran sailboat.
“The moment when I was walking in, I seriously considered bailing,” he said, but the thought of getting on a plane made him feel even worse.
While the trip started off “a bit scary,” and with some seasickness that left him bedridden for two days, van Dijk eventually got into the rhythm of living on a boat. The boat went to the coast of Africa and then crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Islands.
It took about 21 days to cross the ocean, he said, which got emotionally difficult.
When he reached the Bahamas, van Dijk found a postal boat service that let him ride along after he asked to 20 times. It took three postal boats to get him to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he got on a bus to New Orleans.
From there, he had 20 days to bike 1,600 miles to Boulder.
Along the way, van Dijk made friends with people he met while filming for his documentary, including a taxi driver, bike shop workers and those who let him crash on their couches. He would talk with them about his trip and interview them for the film.
He stayed at homes of people he found on the Warmshowers app, which provides a community to support bicycle tourists. While there were a few hiccups, like the time he got lost in a forest because of Google Maps and the time he got food poisoning, he arrived just in time on March 31. On April 1, he went to work at CU Boulder.
“It is an amazing experience and you definitely learn much more not only about yourself, but also about other people and other cultures,” van Dijk said.
While it cost him about 6,000 euros for the boat trip and his bike equipment, van Dijk said making the same trip with all of the stops would have been more expensive by plane.
He’s now made the commitment to never fly again. He plans to return to Europe by sailboat in a few years, once the grant has run out. Van Dijk said he won’t attend conferences that require flights, as “the career benefits definitely do not outweigh the disadvantages for the planet.”
While he hopes it doesn’t happen, he’s also decided not to return to Europe if someone in his family dies. If they get sick, he’ll try to travel by freighter.
“It’s a difficult conundrum to be in … I still think the main philosophy still holds: Am I as an individual worth more than individuals five generations from now?” he said.
While his parents struggled with the idea, he said they are starting to understand his mindset more.
Van Dijk’s movie, “Carbon Dioxide? That’s Not Right!” (translated from CO2? CO-nee! in Dutch), was crowdfunded this summer and should be finished by March, he said. He plans to advertise it at film festivals in Europe. His main goal is to get the story out there, rather than make money off of it, he said.
“I really feel that many people right now are doing this and we’re all frontrunners of a new era of travel, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” he said. “I want to mobilize people, not demobilize them.”