The Ethical Dilemmas of Digital Nomad Life

The Ethical Dilemmas of Digital Nomad Life

In 2018, nearly 4.8 million workers called themselves “digital nomads”– people who work remotely while traveling the world. Nomads have a home country but spend no more than a few months out of the year there, instead, working while moving around the globe.

However, choosing a digital nomad life is not without its challenges. Beyond figuring how to travel light or work with colleagues in other time zones, questions about how to live ethically as a digital nomad arise.

Is being a digital nomad selfish? Is it any different than tourism?

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to these questions. And though the COVID-19 pandemic has likely put a halt to much of the digital nomad activity, as things slowly return to “normal,” here are the ethical issues you’ll want to consider.

1. The Environmental Impact

The Problem

Nomads are, by their very definition, travelers. However, modern nomads don’t travel by camel, horseback, or stagecoach. These days, nomadic wandering usually involves planes, trains, and automobiles. And that means more pollution is released into the atmosphere every time a nomad moves.

For example, taking one flight from London to Rome releases 234 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  

The Solution

Travel smart! While the cheapest flight may be the best choice for your wallet, it may not be the best choice for the environment. Cheap flights usually require multiple stops during your travels. That may not bother you, but 25% of the emissions on your flight are generated during take-off. The more times you take off, the more times your flight pollutes the atmosphere.

As an alternative to flying, consider traveling by train to move from one location to the next. If you’re traveling Europe, for example, use the trains to travel from country to country instead of planes. Yes, it’s slower, but trains emit far less carbon into the atmosphere than airplanes. Plus, you’ll get a chance to see the scenery and meet the locals!

Once you’re settled in your destination, walk, use public transportation, or rent a bike when you can instead of taking a taxi. While some taxi fleets are switching to electric cars, choosing to walk, for example, is almost always the best choice for the environment (and better for you, too!).

Also, consider bringing a reusable water bottle and straw on your travels. It’s not always convenient, and sometimes you may have to buy bottled water, but it is a step in the right direction.

2. Taxes 

The Problem

Digital nomads don’t usually stay in one location long enough to be considered a citizen of wherever they are visiting. Or, they are there on a tourist visa and not a work visa (another issue itself). This means nomads don’t pay local income taxes, even though they are using local services. This, in turn, strains the local tax base, requiring locals to either pay more taxes or go with less.

The Solution

Many digital nomads do pay taxes, it’s just that those taxes are usually paid to their home country, not the country or countries they visit. The reality is that tax systems around the world haven’t kept up with modern changes to business–after all, large corporations establish bases in other countries for tax advantages. So why not individuals?

There’s no easy solution to this ethical dilemma. However, as a nomad, spending locally as often as you can, and donating money to worthy local causes to help support the community, goes a long way toward solving this problem.

3. Gentrification

The Problem

Nomads move to locations where their money goes the farthest. They may, for example, earn their money in American dollars, but spend it in local pesos, which gets them more bang for their buck. As a result, local governments and businesses may invest more in services that appeal to nomads because nomads are likely to spend on those services because they’re getting such a bargain. However, this leaves less money to spend on services the local population needs.

Nomads are just that: nomads. They move frequently and don’t need long-term accommodations (like a rental or mortgage). To make money, landlords are more likely to list their accommodations as short-term rentals and charge more, making it harder and more expensive for the locals to find reasonably priced long-term accommodations.

And, perhaps Nomads don’t stick around long enough to get invested in the community. They don’t make significant financial investments in it (like buying a home and paying property taxes) or contribute to the community (like cleaning up parks). While locals know nomads help the economy, they may also feel that nomads only help part of the local economy, leaving many locals behind.

The Solution

That said, even though nomads don’t stick around for long, there are things they can do to be a “good” nomad during their stay. Volunteering and donating is a start. But, to really connect with the local community, don’t act like a tourist. Put the selfie sticks away, close Instagram, and dive into the culture head first. Learn the local language and use it. Learn the local customs and respect them. Become a healthy part of the community instead of a drain and make positive contributions when you can.

Instead of keeping your understanding of a community at a mainstream level, make an effort to learn about the hot-button issues and political landscape. Read and listen to the local news. And though you may not be there for long, being engaged, thoughtful, and knowledgable about the locale in which you reside will not only provide a richer experience for you, but perhaps the locals, too.

Wander Smart

The digital nomad life isn’t for everyone. But, for those that choose it and love it, nomadic life opens their eyes to the world around them and helps them connect with people they might never meet otherwise. However, it’s important to make ethical decisions that have a positive impact on the world for now and the future.

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Photo Credit: bigstockphoto.com


By Rachel Pelta | May 8, 2020 | Categories: Work Remotely


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