Guest blogger Caspar Henderson is appalled but not surprised by a new low in travel journalism
When I first started working on climate change at an environmental policy unit at Oxford University in 1992, a joke said to be doing the rounds among senior business executives was that if we were all going down on the Titanic one might as well go first class.
The attitude Après moi la deluge is of course nothing new, but I was not impressed by a recent feature in the travel section The Guardian/Observer – a newspaper which claims to pride itself on ethical green travel – promoting Ten wonders of the vanishing world…and how to get there. Link…
The destinations recommended include the Maldives:
“Like a string of pearls… made up of hundreds of tiny islands, [these] are many people’s idea of the perfect tropical paradise: white-sand beaches, palm trees and a handful of tasteful, luxury resorts where wooden bungalows perch on stilts over the cobalt blue sea. But they are also poised on the brink of extinction…At a time of rising seas, melting ice caps and increasing storms, experts warn a large number of islands are likely to become submerged in the next two decades.”
All this can be yours…for seven nights from £1,380 ($2,740) per person, room only, including flights and transfers. But don’t worry about the environmental impact of flying, says article co-author Joanne O’Connor: “Tourism has proved itself to be a powerful tool for encouraging local populations to protect their natural resources…[and] Ripping up our passports and vowing never to fly again will not solve the problem of global warming.”
The first claim – that tourism can be a force for good – looks like a trump card for the keep flying lobby. There is substantial evidence that well run eco-tourism projects can bring substantial benefits to a few poor communities.
But a rational and ethical approach – one that takes account, for example, of a likely global average temperature of 3°C and perhaps more this century if we continue to behave as we do at present – quickly undermines the case. Any gains in the very short term are extremely likely to be destroyed by these medium term changes.
Further, there are far too many poor people in the world dependent on primary resources such as reefs and forests ever to be reached by eco-tourists. This great majority will not receive the benefit of eco-tourist dollars but will suffer the impact of the tourists’ pollution. Very often eco-tourism is a stalking horse mass tourism, which is hugely destructive of the environment in both the short and long run. If you are genuinely concerned about the welfare of those who you think would benefit from eco-tourism don’t fly there for pleasure. Instead, send your money to a responsible, locally based and owned organization that helps people build more sustainable livelihoods for themselves.
The second claim – that one or two wee flights more won’t make any difference – is, at best, a classic example of the psychology of learned helplessness. Call me old fashioned, but let’s go back to Kant’s categorical imperative– which, broadly speaking, means act in such a way as you would have everyone else do.
The disproportionately large damage of aviation to the atmosphere is abundantly documented and reported, not least by The Guardian/Observer. So don’t give me this codswallop.
But the greatest piece of irresponsibility in this article is the assertion that the natural wonders it describes are dog meat whatever we do. It is far from certain that this is the case. It is also certain that encouraging people to fly will make it more likely.
Take coral reefs, in which I have a particular interest. Climate change is far from being the only threat to them. In the Philippines, for example, around 95% have been destroyed by destructive fishing practices.
That said, there is abundant evidence that reefs are the most vulnerable global ecosystem to anthropogenic climate change. Some scientists are predicting, for example, that “bleaching” (due to heat stress, and potentially very damaging to corals) could soon be a yearly event on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Already last February a company in Australia was reportedly marketing tours to the ghost reef.
But we cannot with confidence say it is already too late. So, Guardian/Observer: nul points.
Caspar Henderson is contributing editor at chinadialogue.net and author of a new book on the fate of the world’s coral reefs (forthcoming 2008 — http://coralstory.blogspot.com/)