This piece was prompted by a brief debate on the Facebook Group of “Terra Incognita” an organisation promoting eco-tourism. https://www.facebook.com/groups/425114481292734/
This is from Meike Becker.
. . . . I really found it hard to justify the passion for traveling at all while explaining how it is important to lower your impact on the environment.
I thought about how I could make my travels a greater good for environmental protection and so the idea is now, to collect examples of people and projects I meet on the road who are already doing great work in sustainability. I started to write articles about people who make an example and publish them on the blog to inspire people back home or elsewhere who are maybe still finding it hard to just start making a difference. This can be very small stuff, for example one story I am currently writing down is about a couple who built a fully (tiny) home just doing upcycling, means using things they found somewhere which got thrown away.
I still think about how to fully deal with this difficult topic of “sustainable travel” . . .
It could be the cynicism of old age, but I no longer believe that there are positive choices we can make in how we live which will have any noticeable effect on the climate/ecological crisis. I do scrupulously recycle everything I can and live in an almost carbon-neutral house but I don’t really think these choices will disturb the ever rising curve of fossil fuel emissions which is pushing us remorselessly towards an almost uninhabitable earth within the lifetime of my grandchildren.
If you are one of the rapidly growing minority able and willing to look clearly at what is happening to our world, and if you live in the so-called developed or Western world you will find yourself living parallel and incompatible lives. One side of your brain lives and works in the “normal” world of conventional economics where we measure our wellbeing by how much we consume and judge our future by how much economic growth we can achieve. The other side sees a world on the brink of collapse in which some form of severe hardship looks inevitable.
Those of us with a life expectancy of less than 20 years have a get out clause – “not in my lifetime”. We can be forgiven for continuing to live and think as we have done for most of our adult lives. This doesn’t work for me though. As the natural world retreats from the human onslaught, I seek ways of getting closer to it. If I can deepen my understanding of the living world, perhaps I may find a way to reconcile these parallel worlds in my head.
To that end I have spent the last 5 years trying to find places where I can get close enough to the remnants of Britain’s wildlife to photograph and record them. For various reasons I am not comfortable in groups – especially groups of people like me – and prefer to travel alone, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to find places where I am not jostled and disturbed by the ever-rising numbers of people seeking the same thing. We are all inspired by the astounding images of wild creatures shown on our screens and we all want to get out there and be with them. In the “normal” world we are part of a large and growing business.
An astonishing 75% of British households are reported to feed birds in our gardens, spending an estimated £200 million to do so! Not quite in the same league as the £1.2 billion we spend on crisps, but you get the picture.
The RSPB claims that the re-introduction of the White Tailed Sea Eagle is worth £5 million in tourist spending per annum to the Isle of Mull alone, and generates 110 local jobs there.
Nature Reserves are hugely popular. The reserves managed by English Nature for example are estimated to generate £22 million in economic activity. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in 2018 had 200,000 members, attracted just over a million visitors and generated an income of £21.8 million.
We are generally encouraged to see figures like this as a good thing. They show that there is real concern for the future of the non-human life that shares our living space.
I’m not so sure.
It can also be seen as an abusive cycle: we use the fabulous incomes that economic growth has given us to buy more and more stuff and travel ever further and more often. Then we spend more of this fossil fuel-driven income on things that make us feel better about it – Nature Conservation for example. We drive our high emitting cars or fly in even higher emitting planes to special places where we pay a whole army of professional conservationists to repair some of the damage we have done.
It could even be argued that all this activity serves no better function than to ease our consciences and allow us to continue with our comfortable and exciting lives.
I think most of us who care about the natural world would agree that a much better approach would have been not to have done so much damage in the first place. We all want to find ways to reverse the damage, and there is an appealing logic in bringing tourist income to places where, to feed their families humans are driven to destroy the environment. The flaw with this argument is that it involves even more economic activity, namely travel, by the wealthy countries; more of that very consumer spending which has caused most of the damage.
There is an alternative, and it’s one which may be forced on us anyway: pull back, do less. This is at the heart of the now fashionable concept of “Rewilding” – the restoration of pre-farming landscapes by, in particular, the re-introduction of ancestral grazing animals and their predators.
Somewhere in the heated debate this movement has generated is a way forward which might offer a better solution than the half-century old “Conservation”. I have just ordered EO Wilson’s “Half-Earth” to learn more about an idea which, when I first came across it seemed ridiculously unattainable. What these three concepts share is the idea of setting aside land where non-human species can flourish. The big difference between Conservation and the others is the point I am trying to get to with this piece:
Conservation involves intensive human management from engineering through to captive feeding. The others promote the opposite – a retreat, a deliberate neglect. There is of course an element of overlap. For any tract of land which has been under human management for many years, a rapid return to bio-diversity can be greatly assisted by, for example, controlled tree planting, or managed introduction of grazing animals.
Even if we agree about what we should be doing, we are still faced with the impossibly enormous question, the super-sized elephant in the room, possibly the greatest challenge humans have ever faced;
More specifically, how can we make space for nature and the climate to recover without condemning at least half our population to a nasty, brutish and above all, short life.
In the worst case scenario that will happen anyway.