On Monday, Airbnb announced a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity": a one month, all-expenses-paid trip to Antarctica, where five winners will work as citizen scientists alongside microplastics researcher Kirsitie Jones-Williams, in collaboration with the Ocean Conservancy.
The volunteers will first fly down to Chile, where they’ll get a crash-course in glaciology and field sampling. Airbnb said in an email that they will stay “in a variety of accommodations for the Chile portion of the trip, including Airbnb listings and camp sites."
Then, the volunteers will take a plane to two sites in the interior of the Antarctic continent: the Union Glacier camp, and the Three Glaciers Retreat. There, they’ll collect snow samples that may or may not contain microplastics. After visiting Antarctic sites like the South Pole, Drake Icefall, and Elephant's Head, the volunteers will return the Chile and analyze their snow samples.
According to Airbnb, the goal is for the volunteers to become “ambassadors” for the world’s oceans. “In this advocacy role, they will deliver insights on how the Airbnb community and others can help minimize their collective plastic footprint to support Ocean Conservancy’s mission,” the Airbnb website says.
“Our goal at this juncture is to better understand how travel can be a positive catalyst for change,” an Airbnb spokesperson said in an email. It’s worth noting that the travel and tourism industry accounts for about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Research into microplastics is important, but these volunteers won’t just be “ambassadors” on behalf of Antarctica, or the oceans, or environmental science. They’re also, by default, ambassadors for Airbnb, informing the public that the company cares about the environment. Airbnb said in an email that it hopes the Antarctic Sabbatical will "inform educational and advocacy efforts."
However, Airbnb has not committed to carbon neutrality. The company said in an email that the Antarctic Sabbatical trip specifically is “more than 100% carbon neutral” because of carbon offsetting. Airbnb has tweeted that it considers “carbon offsetting” to include activities like donating to protect the Peruvian rainforest after booking a plane flight. As Naomi Klein spelled out in her book This Changes Everything, activities like these are known to not fully “offset” emission-heavy activities.
When asked about how Airbnb is limiting emissions, the company said that it has limited corporate plastic use by eliminating plastic straws, not offering plastic bottles or containers, and providing reusable produce bags in its San Francisco and Singapore offices.
“Airbnb is also conducting an environmental impact assessment to measure and understand our impact and to identify what we can do to reduce our footprint over time,” a spokesperson said in an email.
None of this amounts to making radical change. In essence, the Antarctic Sabbatical bolsters the company’s environmental image without pinning it to any firm, possibly costly environmental commitments, like carbon neutrality.
Airbnb isn't the only travel company to organize Antarctic trips that claim to be guided by the values of sustainability, citizen science, and ambassadorship. There’s a booming Antarctic tourism industry, and many of the companies involved make their sales pitch by appealing to a sense of righteousness in possible vacationers. These companies tell wealthy vacationers that by going to Antarctica, and by having the chance to see it before climate change permanently changes the landscape, they will actually be committing an act of good and empowering themselves to advocate on behalf of the environment.
Volunteers for the Antarctic Sabbatical will be chosen by a team of five people, including Jones-Williams, a person from an unspecified “industry organization,” an Airbnb employee, an “independent member,” and a representative from Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions LLC, an Antarctic “travel and logistics” company. ALE also runs camps on the continent, including the Three Glaciers Retreat on the trip.
There’s several barriers of entry that a person has to clear before becoming an Antarctic “ambassador.” First, they have to have an existing platform, or a pool of people who will listen to them. According to the program guidelines, applicants will be judged, in part, on whether they have the “capability to engage in dialogue with diverse audiences and educate others on complex topics in the future.”
Notably, none of Airbnb’s marketing materials for the program mention climate change. Despite the fact that climate change will alter Antarctica permanently, as highlighted by a new IPCC report, there's no indication that Antarctic Sabbatical ambassadors are expected to advocate for action on climate change specifically.
To be fair, the research on the sabbatical concerns microplastics, not climate change. But excluding climate change from the conversation has enabled Airbnb to market its program as concerning “sustainability,” a vague term that doesn’t invoke any specific or radical changes that may involve lowering emissions. In fact, sustainability is a term that evokes the promise of growth. The logic of endless economic growth has consistently empowered utility companies, oil and gas companies, and the like to prioritize shareholder profit over the long-term health of the people they serve and the planet at large.
Airbnb has already exacerbated severe shortages in affordable housing in urban centers that desperately need it, even though affordable housing is actually a crucial part of mitigating the worst effects of climate change.
Airbnb claims that it "values healthy travel," and takes pride in the fact that "64 percent of guests" view it as an environmentally sustainable travel option. But valuing sustainability is not the same as requiring hosts to meet robust environmental standards, or committing its corporate facilities to ambitious environmental goals.