A Traveler’s Conscience

Nepal mountains

First, a note: this is kind of a heavy post, so I’ve interspersed it with some pretty pictures.

Henry Wheeler Shaw was once as famous for his wit as his contemporary Mark Twain, but his reputation has not survived nearly as well. One saying of his that I’ve encountered a few times really resonates: “It’s not only the most difficult thing to know one’s self, but the most inconvenient.

For instance, the more I learn about the world, the more I think people are nice and governments are not. Far from an original thought, of course, but the scale of it is what’s shocking. You don’t have to study a lot of history to see that no Empire was ever established by good manners or polite pontificating, and so it’s not a surprise that the current one (the USA) is, to put it colloquially, kind of a dick.

I’m not sure if a country should have different standards for their people and foreign ones, but in this case it’s irrelevant. It’s pretty clear the elite of the US have kept both their citizens and (more devastatingly) those of most of the developing world. (See, for instance, The Chomsky Reader.)


What is a person of conscious to do? Henry David Thoreau went to prison. In a story that may be apocryphal, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” To which Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?

He didn’t change the status quo, but he was the change he wanted, as they say. I’ve done some research and learned about others who made similar moral stands.

Thomas Jolley was one of many who moved to Canada to protest the Vietnam war, where he renounced his citizenship and became stateless as a form of political protest.

There’s Mike Gogulski, who left the US to teach in Slovakia. He has raised money to aid Bradley Manning, and fought to end the drug war. Most symbolically, he is a man of the world now; he gave up his USA citizenship in 2008.



Even more interesting was the original stateless man: Garry Davis. He flew a B17 bomber in World War II, acted on Broadway, and renounced his citizenship in 1948.

Once stateless, David founded the World Service Authority, which issues World Passports to stateless people. He first used his “world passport” on a trip to India in 1956, since then over 180 countries have accepted it at one time or another. He later issued and disbursed a world currency based on kilowatt hours of solar power produced, an idea proposed by Buckminster Fuller. These “kilowatt dollars” were the earliest documented emissions reduction currency.

Becoming a world citizen should be a perfectly acceptable choice for those who, for matters of conscience, don’t want to endorse a belligerent state. Alternatively, it could be for those vagabonds and expats who don’t have a home country.

This Harper’s article details the options a person has in renouncing their citizenship. Spoiler: none of them work very well.

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Most developed countries don’t accept the World Passport. Becoming a stateless person is symbolic but completely impractical. Sadly, the citizen of the world designation is an idea that might never catch on, at least until we get rid of the silly ideas of nations and countries entirely.

2 responses to “A Traveler’s Conscience

  1. I really like the idea of a World Passport. But then, if it started gaining steam, I’m sure there’d be an organization put into place to keep the World Passport holders in checks and balances, and that organization could potentially end up as dickish as a country.

    I didn’t realize it was even possible to renounce your citizenship to your country, and not take another one on–so there are a few people out there who really are citizens of the world (or the parts that recognize it)?

    • Ah, you make a good point. Maybe it’s good that this idea never really gained traction.

      But yes the USA IS one of the countries that lets you renounce your citizenship without having another one in place. A lot of expats do this because they have to pay taxes in their current country and in the US.

      But a few have done it at great inconvenience to their own lives for ideological reasons, which is pretty rad.

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