Paul Andersen: Fair Game
August 4, 2008
It has become trendy to visit the glaciers of Greenland and witness up close and personal the effects of climate change. Elites pay big money to stand on the decks of bobbing ships to watch the drip, drip, drip of global weirding.
Some folks pay huge sums to travel to the very poles of the Earth so they can witness icepacks where water transforms momentously from solid to liquid. You can watch the same transformation in a gin and tonic right here at home, but it’s just not the same.
The notion of traveling to the far-flung reaches of the world just to watch a glacier melt strikes me as absurd. How much of a carbon footprint does one leave flying to the Arctic? How much faster are the glaciers melting because of these dubious eco trips?
There is enough recorded, scientific evidence of receding glaciers that no one really needs to stand there watching them melt. But, such is the nature of the new travel genre I like to call “eco-apocalypse tourism.”
Not only can you personally touch a drop of a melting glacier, you may also gawk at penguins waddling around on a doomed ice shelf, watch polar bears clinging to shrinking icebergs, glimpse rhinos struggling to survive in Africa, observe beleaguered tigers in India, or view the most doomed species of all ” Bush-era Republicans in Washington.
Perhaps it takes a personal connection to the eco-apocalypse to really motivate us to curtail carbon and save species. But if all six billion of us humans sign up for the tours, the ice caps will tip from the weight of down parkas and disposable cameras alone.
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Still, there is something to be said about eco-tourism as a spur to environmental activism. An online travel industry article claims biodiversity hot spots threatened by rainforest logging can be saved if eco-tourists can only get there in time.
“In the past, the very concept of tourism has been criticized, as wetlands have been destroyed to create mega-resorts, and fragile ecosystems have been invaded by camera-bedecked ‘ugly Americans’ blithely trampling local sensibilities as well as coral reefs. But today, ecologists and travel organizations are discovering responsible tourism can have environmental benefits, and a whole new segment of the travel industry has evolved. It can be demonstrated that tourism encourages conserving resources for long-term gain rather than destroying them for short-term gain.”
The article explains that tourists ogling endangered animals can produce higher, more sustainable incomes for indigenous peoples than if they take up careers in poaching and clear-cutting. The egregious tourist carbon footprint is seen as a reasonable off-set to the benefits of awareness and conservation.
Some eco-tourism even involves hands-on opportunities to pitch in on revegetation, trail improvements, habitat protection and scientific research collecting plants and insects. Instead of a golf bag, tennis racket and scuba gear, you bring butterfly nets, hip waders and a magnifying glass.
“Honey, I’ve got just the trip for us! Let’s fly to Malaysia, camp in the jungle, and collect leaches and malarial mosquitoes. We’ll be in the field most of the day, but cocktails are served at 6 sharp, poolside.”
Environmental sweat equity is supposed to kindle the personal activism that attaches people to ecosystems and species they might not otherwise have known. How can you achieve a deep connection with a tsetse fly unless you swat at one with your pith helmet? How can you come to terms with an equatorial swamp unless you stumble through one?
As the world goes green, the trend is that tourism will go green, too, spurring activism all over the globe. One day, Club Med will locate its guests in steamy jungles to plant rare fungi and catalogue arachnids. Norwegian Cruise Lines will enlist eco-passengers to scrub sun-tanning oils off coral reefs.
So, as you plan your off-season vacation, consider eco-tourism. What could be more rewarding than incubating beetle larvae in Burma, eradicating invasive kudzu in Botswana, or shivering in Greenland at the mouth of a melting river of ice?
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.