The Global North/South school retreat encounter in the era of climate change

By Kevin Miller

The goal to develop in a student a “well-educated solidarity,” a phrase coined by former Jesuit Superior General, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, summarizes the intentions behind International immersion trips, in which a retreat group from the Global North has an encounter with a community in the Global South.  

Done well, retreats by high school and college groups are impactful for both the students and the communities they create relationships with, and are an edifying alternative to the traditional “Spring break beach trip.”

But, does climate change require us to reexamine this international travel and the CO2 emissions they create? And, are they more impactful than an eco-retreat or a well-done local immersion retreat? 

Examples of the latter are a college group learning from and advocating for Native American people facing an oil pipeline through their lands, or a work project in a disadvantaged neighborhood near a high school or university.   

Father John Savard, SJ, has coordinated international trips for over 20 years and wrote his 2010 doctoral dissertation on their positive impact on students. In an email on this subject, he wrote that it is important to discern carefully before such trips. 

“It is the global South that experiences much of the deleterious effects of climate change, and hopefully those who are planning these trips can take this into account… Stating why it is worth going on the trip even with the negative impact of the carbon footprint.” He continues, “I think that immersion experiences should be scaffolded. Hopefully starting with experiences in the United States urban areas and with border issues.” 

Father Pedro Walpole, SJ, founder of the organization EcoJesuit, recommends that before an international trip is planned: “That [students] first have an experience of the poverty and marginalization in their own countries, and then see what questions this raises for them.”

Given two facts, that air travel accounts for 3-4% of U.S. emissions and continues to increase, and that carbon offsets do not work as intended, does the benefit to the student and society outweigh the risk to the environment, and are they more impactful than local retreat options?  We offer no definitive answer, but instead recommend a strengthening of the discernment process, focusing on the pillars of the Laudato Si’ Movement. One pillar is the development of advocacy. Frequently, local encounters and connections are where advocacy is most powerful.  

We open ourselves to sustainability and eco-conversion, two of the other pillars, by just tussling with the knotty problem of emissions openly. In the era of climate change, a discernment process that confronts climate change, in tandem with the immersion retreat, might be an integral step to the development of a “well-educated solidarity.” 

Kevin Miller is an ophthalmologist in Fort Bragg, CA. In college at UC Davis, he participated in immersion trips to Tijuana, Mexico, and was a volunteer after college in the Rostro de Cristo program that welcomed immersion trips to Guayaquil, Ecuador (and loved the experience). As an ophthalmologist, he has lived and worked for three years abroad in Tanzania and Honduras. Having burned his fair share of fossil fuels, he is working with the medical community to decrease air travel to annual professional meetings and increase the adoption of virtual meetings on video conferencing platforms.  

Recent Stories