How Traveling Destroys Nature – and How I’m Part of the Problem Too
I love travelling more than anything. I love the thrill of finding secret places on my way; places that you can´t find in any travel guide or read about online, places that still have great undisturbed atmosphere and you stumble upon them by accident, be it a small pub full of friendly locals, a waterfall hidden in the mountains, or secluded viewpoint that no one has discovered before you. Sadly, these places are becoming rarer and rarer. And it´s my fault. Your fault. Our fault.
Česká a hodně zkrácená verze článku dostupná zde.
Česká a hodně zkrácená verze článku dostupná zde.
Not so many years ago, the Horseshoe Bend, a stunning meander of Colorado River cutting into the red rocks in Arizona, used to be a relatively secret spot. There are still people alive who watched sunset there alone. Now it has become Instagram-famous, so you have to fight your way through the huge parking lot - but apparently, not huge enough to accommodate all the cars and busses in peak season - then through the shuttles ferrying lazy tourists, and then through crowds of other tourists. You might stumble into someone´s shit on the side of the road, and you may wonder if used tissues and empty plastic bottles became some new kind of native plant.
After these trials, you can rest peacefully in the queue waiting for the best viewpoint. You take a few pictures of the meander alone, then few selfies, and few suicide-like ones when you try to sit on the crumbling edge of the canyon as well, and (if you survive), you tag them correctly and upload on Instagram, feeling like a king. Only there are hundreds of the same exact ones already there. By the way, you can experience the same in Norway on your way to Trolltunga to take a picture above the fjord. Only there are no shuttles... yet.
There are many, many layers of what is problematic about the previous paragraph. I call the first one human detachment problem. The way we humans treat each other inevitably transfers to our relationship with the world around us.
When you "travel" the way described above, you are just a part of an anonymous crowd hungry for easily achievable, ecologically straining, short-lived experiences. Individual (adjective) individual (noun). Try to imagine busses full of tourists who stop for a few minutes on a giant parking lot in the middle of national park, taking a picture and hurrying to the next item in their itinerary. What do you feel?
I feel empty. I remember when we climbed Aragac mountain in Armenia and there were some locals having a family picnic near the lake. Suddenly they started shouting something at us (we didn´t understand). We assumed they need help with something, or maybe were even angry at us - soon it turned out that they were inviting us to join them. And at first we weren´t sure what to do, because something like this had never happened to us in the West. But we pushed away our shyness, had a toast of the most horrible homemade hooch I ever tasted, indulged in some great local food, some a bit weird one as well (like Khash, broth-based soup made from goat feet - with the whole goat feet still in it when served), and despite the language and culture barrier we had so much fun. With complete strangers we just met along the way. In Georgia (the Caucasian one), everybody was always inviting us for a drink or walnuts or just anything they had (and believe me, they didn´t have much) and we exchanged stories in really rusty Russian, and it felt great. Warm, human and genuine. I wonder when people in the west stopped being these things.
This human detachment problem is deeply interconnected with the social media problem. When I discovered that because of Justin Bieber's music clip, my favourite Icelandic canyon Fjaðrárgljúfur had to be closed because the subsequent wave of tourists devastated the area, I was staring with opened mouth. I visited the canyon in 2015, and I met six people. Six. Not six hundred thousand... Not a crowd of teenage girls in flip-flops calling hysterically at their fathers: "Daaad, I need the pic´ exactly as Justin has!"
Well, fortunately, my blog is a medium with a small reach, so I upload pictures there more calmly. But when it comes to social media, I try to think a little before I publish something. It does not make sense in the case of already popular places. But for those yet hidden ones, upon which one usually stumbles by accident, it is sometimes worth not to mention where they are. Worth to keep their magic for a little while.
Travelling should not be just a chase for selfie. But everything is terribly ambiguous. What distinguishes me, a self-proclaimed traveller, from an Asian tourist with a selfie-stick? After all, we have the same right to see the world. (Except, wait - Do we? I mean, have a right to see the world?).
And so I finally discovered that the difference that I subjectively perceive is in relation to the place. That the tourist merely consumes the place and contributes to the creation of completely monotone, "global" places with the same entertainment attractions; a stall where instead of local products, you can buy a couple of trinkets made in China, huge parking lots, so no one has to walk too far, large resorts with golf courses, swimming pools and... Is there really such a big difference between swimming in a hotel in Brno or Zanzibar?
True traveller avoids this consumerism of the location and tries to get to know the country as it is every day for its inhabitants. He just touches the place, soaks up the atmosphere, but it's not just another item in his itinerary to check. He does not leave any undesirable traces.
Oh, but in reality - he does.
I always thought I was "better" than those lazy tourist with their Lonely Planet guides and shoes absolutely unfit for the trek. But now I am doubting myself. When it comes to consequences, is there truly any difference?
And that takes me to the last, ecological footprint problem. Even a traveler destroys nature by travelling, though inadvertently. We can talk about emissions. Most often from transport. I would like to go to Canada and the USA. To Kyrgyzstan. To Chile. Asia could still be done on foot, but America? I don´t have a choice; I have to fly there. So, unless there is a real "green revolution" by then, and aviation gasoline price does not rise again, I will fly and leave ecological footprint I will never erase again.
Is that really such a big deal? Well, according to my environmental studies professor, one return flight from Prague to Israel equals five years of driving to work by car. Yes, you read that correctly. Five years of exhaust fumes. For one trip to Middle East. Surely you must have walked around traffic jam. Endless rows of cars are fuming clouds of grey smoke, and you are slowly suffocating. Now imagine this is happening every day for five years if you would fly for a few hours to get dip in the sea. I don´t know about you, but I feel absolutely horrible.
And I think it would be great if people at least stopped flying from Prague to Budapest (I mean, have you ever heard about trains or buses?) but in the end, I have almost the same amount of blame as they do.
What am I trying to say? That I have no idea how to confront my love for travelling and nature with my environmental guilt. I deliberately do something I know is wrong and destructive, and I do it anyway. I travel at the expense of the nature that I love and want to protect, but I also contribute to its destruction by travelling and exploring the very same nature.
The dimensions of the negative impact of tourism - or travelling - are simply endless. Just think about the local impact on a particular place, be it a national park, a single canyon, an indigenous village or even a city. And it doesn´t just destroy genius loci. It can destroy whole culture, and it helps to destroy our planet in general, because who are we kidding - everyone will rather take a 1,5-hour plane to London than to travel whole day and night by bus. The whole mass-tourism industry just does what any industry does. It pollutes.
There is no obvious answer to how to resolve this. World without traveling would be even worse, wouldn´t it? No intercultural communication, no exchange of unique skills, no sharing of culture, philosophy views, experiences, flavors... Well, I guess only some devoted voters of radical nationalistic political parties might be happy. I guess all we can do is try to think more about our travelling and change it from an industry-like affair into more organic experience. Eva Urbanová on her blog offers alternative way of traveling, slow and better travelling. First step is to think of a purpose of your travel. Then, you should spend quality time on preparations and look forward to your trip. The expectations are huge part of the whole travel experience - before it even starts. And then truly soak up the place. Take a lot of time to understand it. Stay with local family in one place and really experience it, don´t just drive from one item in itinerary to another.
But either way, we still have to get to the place somehow, and that will leave ecological footprint. And there is also a question of individual human behavior and all the waste we leave behind. Think about plastic waste. Garbage. God, I would kill for littering. There's really nothing simpler than putting the wrapper back into your backpack. Sometimes I think that people who do not respect such basic rules should be banned from visiting nature. What are they doing there if they obviously don't care about it?
But then I think about myself and ask why, if I care about nature, am I going to drive to Norway and burn who knows how much greenhouse gases? Yes, it is invisible. I can´t see its immediate impact. But it is equally polluting as a plastic bag forgotten in the forest. Maybe even worse, because we can´t just pick it up from the ground. We can´t see it; hence we don´t truly realize it´s environmental impact. But I am conscious of it. So why am going to continue to throw away more invisible garbage anyway?
Oh, I see. I´m just a hypocrite.
How do you feel about travelling? Do you ever wonder what trail you leave behind when you walk through a foreign land?