On the move – a lament

With each new disaster unfolding on our TV screens it becomes more and more evident that our little planet is warming up to the extent that extremes are becoming the new normal. I heave sighs of relief that I don’t live in the path of the hurricanes that have been howling across the islands of the Caribbean before dumping excessive volumes of water on the southern states of the US of A or that my home has been washed away by the Indian Ocean monsoon. But with updates from meteorologists and atmospheric scientists readily available on the world wide web, it is easy to see which way we are heading: out of balance with nature and with increasing social and economic turbulence in regions affected by droughts, floods and other weather related misery.[1]

Have the leaders of our nation states appreciated the basic truths of what is going on or will they continue to try fooling people into believing that business can continue as usual by pumping oil and burning coal? Does Mr. Trumpet ever turn on the taps in his bathroom and feel the difference between hot and cold? Do he and his dangerous cronies understand that higher concentrations of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) are making the air and the seas warmer, or are these ”facts” beyond their apparently very limited intelligence? Why do hordes of otherwise articulate and well-informed, influential public figures appear to be locked in mind-sets of pathological denial whenever climate change is mentioned?

Maybe the answer lies in the dominance of short-term perspectives and the culture of instant gratification that have characterised our societies over the last 50 years or so. As Jim Morrison of the Doors sang back in 1970: ”We want the world and we want it now!” Learning to set aside, to conserve resources and to ignore the powerful messages to consume more of everything as soon as possible, is largely beyond us.

The contradictions are particularly uncomfortable for restless travellers like me. Since my teenage days when I got a taste for mobility I have had a hard time resisting the temptation to pack my bags and get on the road (or head to the nearest airport). Having been employed as a roving adviser regularly immersing myself in exotic surroundings in Africa, Asia and Latin America hasn’t made things any easier and since the 1980s I have been accustomed to treating the whole world as my destination. But the GHG emissions associated with my behaviour are forcing a re-think.[2]

I also like to think of myself as a global citizen, concerned about the fate of people in far away places and keen to get first hand impressions through face-to-face dialogue in order to find solutions to problems of environmental mismanagement, forest degradation and so on. However, as the techniques of digital communication – such as low cost skype links and video conferences – have become routine, there seems to be less and less need to travel. At the same time I am increasingly turned off by the swarming crowds at airport terminals, queuing for entry tickets at the sights that everybody “must see” and struggling past thousands of selfie cameras waving in the cobbled streets and outside the monuments of every European city.[3]

Perhaps my traveling days are over. I am very conscious of the inequalities that prevail in my freedom to choose where to go, while millions of people are unable to migrate to where they could expect to find a better life.[4] The downside is that I would like to see more of this fascinating world and continue to dream of safaris in southern Africa, of the sounds and smells of South-East Asia and of seeing the northern lights in the Arctic. But if I am to reduce the impact of my carbon footprint, to respect the share of the total carbon budget available for emissions from rich countries, then I had better stay put and maximise enjoyment in the forests and fjords nearby!

[1] The key messages are in the 2014 fifth assessment report published by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Panel’s sixth assessment report is expected in 2019.

[2] There is no doubt that the livelihoods of millions of people will be affected in the coming decades as the earth continues to heat up. There are some bleak scenarios and there do indeed appear to be planetary ”limits to growth” as predicted in a famous study by the “Club of Rome” way back in 1972.

[3] Demand for air travel increased by around 8 per cent from 2016 to 2017. The need to reduce aircraft GHG emissions is slowly being translated into technological innovations, with talk of electric planes, a revival of giant zeppelins (airships), etc. Meanwhile the problem of how to manage mass tourism isn’t limited to Europe. A recent article in the Economist (23.09.17) describes how the “clean and pleasant” landscapes of New Zealand are suffering from pollution and overcrowding as the number of tourists has soared from 2.7 million five years ago to 3.6 million in 2016-17.

[4] Closing borders and cutting back international cooperation (through Brexit for example) don’t seem like the best ways to tackle global warming, although they appear to be the preferred choices of many European politicians in response to popular fears about jobs and security. Better ideas are outlined in a recent survey of 100 solutions to the “wicked problem” of climate change: www.drawdown.org

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