An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 44-47.
"Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished...the first thing we see as we travel around the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind" - Claude Levi-Strauss (1974)
It cannot be denied that tourism and travel issues are at the heart of a huge amount of environmental destruction, and that increased travel and communications have caused a drastic reduction in cultural diversity . However, it must be noted that the human species possesses strong nomadic tendencies, and for this reason it has dispersed itself across the entire planet . Indeed, such tendencies have at one time or another been essential to survival; it is therefore perhaps improper to condemn "travel" or "tourism" outright; rather we must examine what these two words have come to mean, whilst also trying to define what we mean by "sustainable travel" (bearing in mind that such phrases are very much abused by those who stand to gain from the current socio-economic model)
As campaigners, we must look to a situation where "Progress" won't necessitate yet another runway, motorway, or other mal-development mobility scheme. To do this, we need to understand what processes make us want to travel .
In the words of one activist: "To me, outside the normal network of paths I follow to work, live and sleep, I want to travel further in order to see, understand and learn about something different which I could not fully encounter at home. This process enables me to relate what I have experienced at home with what goes on outside those boundaries, so that I may return with new insights and with the hindsight of seeing home from far away; from a broader perspective or context."
If we accept that it is in our very nature to roam, it may well be that people have a need to travel...to go on what might be called a "pilgrimage" to places other than their home at least a few times in their life. But this must be done in a way that does not advance monoculture . Wherever we are travelling, it is the way we travel and the relationships that are formed with the people we meet along the way which will determine whether the net disturbance we cause is positive or negative. It should at best leave the people we have visited with a sense of pride, satisfaction and empathy; that someone came and visited from afar, lived alongside them, sang and spoke in their language and helped them in the fields; someone who thought that their way of life was different but equal to their own .
It is easier to feel empathy when one is humble, and empathy leads to a feeling of fraternity and human interconnectedness which is both empowering and enriching. Western culture has not, however, endowed us with such a sense of humility; rather, many seem to be under the misapprehension that this culture is somehow superior to any others they may encounter . Most would dislike being branded as racists, yet this cultural fascism is perhaps the strongest possible manifestation of this phenomenon . Its implications are extremely dangerous; the highly damaging Western way of life is being promoted across the planet by those keen to exploit new markets . Other peoples are being coerced into adopting an increasingly centralised economic and social hierarchy which ill-fits their basic needs, in which power is transferred from communities to the State or to Multinationals. People are becoming less and less able to determine their destinies. Perhaps we in the West would do better to question what is happening here at home, and ask who is controlling our individual destinies, rather than promoting a system elsewhere which has consistently failed people and the environment . We need to start learning fundamental truths about what constitutes a good quality of life from other cultures .
By travelling more slowly and deeply we can actually learn something from these cultures and taste the fabric of societies that live in different ways, without causing damage to them . The people we meet may be living in different surroundings, growing different crops and speaking different languages, but this can be a way of seeing and believing that the world is as large and beautiful as we might imagine it to be. Indeed it is all part of diversity; we are, after all, living organisms, and, as a species, our adaptation through culture has enabled us to live in almost every geographic region, in the past in ways which were most appropriate for meeting our basic needs in harmony with nature .
"Look fierce and don't smile for the camera." Those were the instructions given by this French television crew to Dzu Bushmen living in the Tsodilo Hills. Today few Bushmen, if any, live as simple hunter-gatherers in the manner of their ancestors. Paid to shed their western clothes - and to pretend to stalk the crew's helicopter - they are being used to perpetuate a commercial fantasy. True diversity perishes when made into a commodity. Tourism is the embalming fluid of culture.
To enable us to visualise "sustainable" methods of travel we must ask ourselves why we want to travel so far and fast in the first place. People often seem to say "I have to fly"; this "fly" can include speeding down motorways to work or holiday destinations, as well as catching a plane . The fact that we now seem to need to travel further in order to satisfy our wanderlust is one of the greatest indicators of the developing global monoculture. To understand why this is the case, we have to see distance as something you put between home and a place which is different enough to satisfy your yearning to travel. In this respect it is interesting to notice how much further you will have to travel in 1997 to reach such a distance than in 1897. Cobbet, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, describes in his travellings a Britain wonderfully rich in rural diversity, and with far more people living on the land. However, much of the diversity of human, and other life, has been systematically destroyed by a phenomenon we, in the Western countries, call "Progress" . As this process has accelerated, places that were once far away and very different are brought closer; they can be reached more quickly and become more and more similar. "Progress" is creating a highly unstable, unsatisfying monoculture of human activity, inappropriately adapted for local environments and lacking in the diversity we need to experience in order to enrich our consciousness. Those of us who can afford it have to travel thousands of miles to experience what we used to have only a hundred miles away. Cornwall's language and culture was finally wiped out just a hundred years ago. We should be helping the people who are trying to piece it together again, not supporting the global travel industry as it commodifies the few truly distinct cultures and unspoilt destinations that are left.
Unspoilt destinations and distinctive cultures are the finite resource of the tourist industry . Independent travellers and 'adventurers' (who often look down upon the common tourist) to some extent act as the spearhead; they are the trailblazers who "open up" places for the package hordes that follow - eg. Goa, South-east Asia, Morroco, and even the Majorca of 30 years ago. Yet these people are constantly fleeing the hordes; trying to keep one step ahead, seeking out the ever dwindling number of "unspoilt", "authentic" cultures, where the cycle will begin once more. Given that a whole swathe of the tourism industry known as 'destination development' is devoted to bringing new locations "online", there is a danger of even those who travel well serving as unpaid scouts for these cultural stripminers .
If people aren't prepared to put some time into a journey, then that journey may not be worth making . If people don't have such time, that is a fault of the current work-ethic, not be a justification for the patterns of consumption and travel in the present day. It is the "work society" which creates the current need to travel; to go from 50 weeks of frenetic activity to 2 weeks of enforced "leisure", inactivity and sun-worshipping. This 'segregation of pleasure' is a deeply unhealthy practice. Perhaps it is impossible to have a true holiday in a society where individual lives are circumscribed by work. It is ironic that studies show that the average holiday, far from providing relaxation, is one of the most stressful experiences people have (it's always stressful when you MUST have fun; there won't be a chance for another year).
Sustainable travel, devoid of commercialism, takes time. It really is, perhaps, pilgrimage. Certainly it is spiritually rewarding; or at least much more so than jet-setting around with no time to see anything in depth. With the above in mind the alternatives to ever-increasing road, rail and air travel become easier to imagine . In India, for example, pilgrimage is carried out by thousands of people over thousands of miles each year...sustainably. People set aside time to leave their communities; a sort of sabbatical, and make their own way lightly, often on foot, staying for a while in communities along the way to share experiences. This also acts as a fine way to convey news of events and changes. But how to reach a place like India sustainably? The mind boggles with opportunities, adventures and possibilities if only we can give each other more time to travel.
One of the things that most troubles the people of the West is the notion of a fulfilling life. What is a fulfilling life? Here are a couple of personal accounts .
"I feel liberated now that I have got rid of my car. OK, I get wet in the rain when cycling past all the cars, and there is a feeling of vulnerability to lorries, but when I get home and have a nice cup of tea I feel more fulfilled than I used to when I travelled by car. However, the car was very comfortable, was very warm and dry and had nice music. On balance, and after some thought, I feel more healthy, more invigorated, more awake, more alive and happier now that I have given that machine up. To me, comfort is nice, but on its own, without some discomfort, how can you enjoy it fully? Real progress for me would enable a balance of discomfort and comfort during each day; some exercise followed by some rest; some challenge followed by achievement; some getting cold and wet followed by getting nice and warm and cosy."
"In Ladakh a young villager described himself to me as being a part of the village; the village called Shara-mo, a small village just south of the larger village of Shara, both lying in a winding valley leading down to the Indus river. He identified himself in a most wonderful way: both as belonging to the people of the village and wider community, and to the place; to the fields and houses which he had helped to build, and to the wider landscape in which the village nestled; the meltwater streams and high pastures where nature could be observed as the seasons and years went by. I then tried my best to describe myself to him; from three cities in the UK, er... four schools, always moving around you see, presently a student of biology..nature...though I have only ever spent one week observing it on a field course, don't know where I'll be next year, no close long-term friends because it's so hard to keep in touch and so expensive to visit them. I'd like to ask who leads the most fulfilling life? Who does the World Bank define as Poor'"
It seems that if we can learn anything from traditional ancient cultures, we can learn about fulfilment in life with simple things; relationships, places, songs, daily tasks, nature. If we can learn the value of other cultures as case studies in sustainability; in providing basic needs simply with appropriate technology, then perhaps we can see how to redefine progress to fit our culture and particular locality in the most appropriate way. There is never going to be one lifestyle which is sustainable for the whole world; each region will have its own variations on the theme.
Perhaps if we all spent more time and effort trying to make the place we live in more pleasant and habitable rather than clamouring for more material wealth we wouldn't feel the need to "get away from it all" in the first place . If we need a holiday (as defined by the tourist industry) then there is something wrong with our life. (John Davies, Tarmac's Press Officer, seemed to confirm this when he said, with uncharacteristic honesty: "I want to make lots of money so I can have material possessions and go on holiday to nice places of the world - before they are destroyed by people like us, I suppose." [!] ) It is much harder to accept this and do something about it rather than just think it is normal . Drastic changes are needed, not only to allow other people to have a chance for future happiness living in harmony with nature, but also to free ourselves from the daily grind of boring pointless work and constant pressure to do things we don't want to do.
Supporters of the status quo suggest that we have no right to interfere with the supposed "freedom" to travel and consume. Many such people even claim that their tourism benefits the communities they visit . This may be due,at least in part, to a latent sense of guilt : they know, albeit rather subconsciously, that they are part of a damaging phenomenon and feel the need to justify their overconsumption; to shift the blame away from them as an individual . They often like to think they still have a social and environmental conscience, but fail to translate this except in the most superficial manner to their own patterns of living.
People caught up in the "work society" are so weighed down by restrictions and obligations in the bulk of their lives that when it comes to their little slice of freedom on holiday, there can be no constraints. Nothing must stand in their way, everything must be laid on. Whilst this is an understandable reaction to having the fetters temporarily removed, it expresses itself as an unwillingness to confront the awkward issue of their social and environmental responsibility in the dream destination. It would mar their temporary utopia - it would be 'too much like hard work'. But their slice of freedom comes at the expense of others; the freedom of the local people who wait on holiday makers hand and foot, enabling their indolence. Maybe they'll need a holiday themselves soon...
In these people's eyes, until we find a solution that doesn't inconvenience anyone in the rich world who is living above the poverty line, we must continue turning the world into a monocultural desert dotted with tree farms, superquarries, theme parks, toxic waste, oil slicks and megalopolitan prison camps from which we can escape every now and then .
This article is not suggesting there should not be progress, but progress towards what? Progress towards cramming even more things into our lives for the sake of consuming and experiencing things, or towards building a considerate society where human activity is not to the detriment of the wider natural world or to other peoples?
A happy and fulfilling life must surely be possible without causing all the death and misery that is so prevalent in the world. The most disgusting argument for "progress" is that the billions who we enslave in order to fuel our mad consumption are somehow going to be worse off if we stop. Perhaps this is more of a threat than a fact.