Thursday, June 23, 2016

Full-scale Disneyland (with canals!), and sustainability issues

We recently returned from a 2-week trip to Italy.  Two of our children and their spouses live in Europe.  One couple lives in a small town in northern Italy, the other in central Switzerland.  The latter drove down to Italy where we all enjoyed seeing each other, which is not easy given the distances.  But while this vacation/family gathering was very pleasant and, to us, important, it raises some less pleasant thoughts about sustainability in our time in history.

My concerns are personal, but in a sense also global, and to some extent they relate to societal inequity: not everybody can just drop a few thou and travel across the ocean for a couple of weeks' dinners with family.  But beyond unfairness, my concerns are about other issues.  This was a very energy-bad vacation, and we weren't alone!

We flew from the east coast to Venice, the most convenient airport for our purposes.  We flew on a large plane, maybe 2/3 full of passengers. As we all know, one of the worst ways to contribute to global warming is to fly. The aircraft was largely filled with people taking cruises in the Mediterranean.  The trip was about 3700 miles each way, not including the various train and car junkets we took during those two weeks.

And then there's Venice itself.  We stayed a couple of days there to recover from jet lag, and to see the sites.  We'd been there for a science meeting once before.  Bella Venezia!  Once home to a world-leading trade empire, and to many great cultural and architectural wonders and of course its romantic lacework of canals.  The glory days were then, but what is the city today?  Venice takes in something like 100,000 tourists a day, well more than the number of people who actually live there.  The piazzas, side streets, walkways, and bridges--and they are very scenic indeed--are often a shoulder-to-shoulder river of tourists.  They (and we) sightsee in museums, shop, eat, shop, stay in hotels, eat, and shop.  It is obvious that a huge amount of money pours into the city, every day, all year, and has been doing so for decades if not centuries.

Even forgetting their thought-provoking historical value and more trivial entertainment value, and just thinking of them as Disneyesque curiosities for selfie-ops, these museums, shops, and hotels are staffed by an army of people who earn their living from the tourist trade.  So while Venice is in a sense unique and beautiful, it is also in a perhaps deeper sense something of a fake, a touristic Potemkin village, a hyper, full-time, full-scale Disneyland entertainment park, there today mainly to pluck the pockets of the relatively idle affluent and wasteful denizens of our planet (I certainly include myself in that category!).

St Mark's Square, Venice; By Nino Barbieri - Own work

Venice is but one rather small city on the global tourist map.  If you think about the amount of fuel used to transport everyone to, from, and around Venice (and even take into account that the gondolas don't require fossil fuel!), and then multiply that by the hundreds of tourist sites around the world, you have to wonder what hope there is for containing global warming.  There is no sign of self-restraint of any kind here--even on departure to return home, the airport luxury shops do a booming business as tourists part with whatever dollars they've not yet spent.

But what can one seriously do?
It is easy to chastise people who take such totally needless trips, even if accompanied by a self-incorporating mea culpa.  After all, this really is a nearly total luxury.  For most of human history those relatives who moved or sailed far away never saw their family again and corresponded by mail (if at all, if there was such a thing as 'mail').  That was just how life was!  Our family get-togethers are a new, pure luxury.  In a seriously conservation-dedicated world, we could dispense at least with the purely sightseeing, self-indulging kinds of global vacationing.  That would seem like something trivial, a luxury that a resource-conscious world could easily forego.  But even if we all were so equitable, fair, future-aware, and so on, things aren't nearly so simple.

The world is crowded with people and much of it is industrialized, with the number of people who live on the land, as subsistence farmers, declining every year.  We have hugely diverse economies, in a sense creating occupations that earn money so we can swap that for food and so on.  Most of it isn't really necessary.  Among these non-food related activities is tourism, which is huge because so many people are now wealthy and idle enough to take global junkets.

In turn that means that much of the world depends on travel and sightseeing.  Countless peoples' livelihoods are involved.  This is in a sense quite antithetical to global sustainability.  If we seriously slowed down travel to save fossil fuels and reduce warming, then tourism, air travel, cruise ships, and the people involved in the manufacture and operation of planes, ships, trains and buses, their ports and terminals, would lose their jobs. The manufacturers of tourist-related goods, including Venetian carnival masks, post-cards, luxury shopping goods, hotel supplies, restaurant foods, chefs, waiters, menu printers, clerks, etc. would be hit.  Venice, already a shell of its former self, would cease to have a reason to exist.  Even those who deliver all these goods during the night, and those who remove the trash, invisible to the tourists sleeping quietly in their beds, would be affected.  Society would somehow have to do something about their employment needs.  

This means that the idea of just paring back on consumption really is a dream--or, as every even mild economic depression shows, a nightmare.  And just the one example of tourism, essentially a luxury trade, involves countless thousands of people.  Needless to say, all of this is grossly unfair to the huge majority of people living on or below the margins.  It shows the inadvertent implications, even the distanced cruelty, of those idealists who want quick changes in sustainability directions.

It is difficult to have a non-selfish moral position on these issues.  If we say "let's change things slowly so as not to be too disruptive to too many people", the normal human tendency is to think the problem isn't so real, and not even go along with 'slowly' with much dedication. That's why car companies begin making and hawking, and consumers purchasing, bigger cars and trucks the moment gas prices drop.  [I insert this post-posting editorial change because today's NY Times had a story about the return of gas-guzzlers, in the same spirit of what this post is about]

If we say 'we must rush' then too many will find rationales for not going along ('OK, it's a good idea, but I can't do it--I have to see my family overseas!').  So where is a feasible ground to be found, and to what extent should we personally expect to be affected by it?  What will we give up for the cause?  The question, for me, is not abstractly how much one must cut out of what one does, but how much I must cut!  That gets pretty close to home, so to speak.

I can't help but add a rather gratuitous, if snide, side comment. The problems are compounded in an ironic way.  We have agricultural sustainability issues, as everyone by now should know.  The 'developed' world suffers common diseases largely due to bad nutrition and that means to over-eating. So while much of the world barely scrapes by, many in the rich world waddle along largely over-weight (these are not the minority of people struggling with genetic or epigenetic problems that make weight control a real challenge).  The obesity epidemic is why we hear complaints about airplane seats being too small!  So I remark snarkily that, as a consequence, one reason air travel is so environmentally unfriendly is the countless tons of human bulk that are being transported daily across the oceans in tourist-filled aircraft.  One thing leads to another.

We just took what was clearly a very energy-bad trip, no matter how understandable our desire to be with family and our decision to go.  We could, of course, have talked with our family members via Skype--indeed, we already do that often.  I complain that leaders in sustainability and climate change, including the very organization that documents it for the UN, fly all over the world and meet in fancy hotels to discuss the problem and tell everyone what they (that is, they) must do to 'save the planet'. The leading spokespersons for sustainability and climate-change avoidance could set a very public example and work only via Skype! 

In the context of global conservation, sustainability, and climate issues, who should feel guilty about what?  If do as I say not as I do is not acceptable, then what justifies our personal exceptionalism? For me, the answers are far from clear.


Edward Hessler said...

I missed the two of you.

Thanks for this post. The issue and the questions you raise are always at me.

I thought of a quote from Aldo Leopold, "“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Most of the things I do to lesson my impacts don't add up to much but I insist on doing them. Personal change doesn't equal social change but it is a start...isn't it? No, not much nor revolutionary nor....

Ken Weiss said...

There is no easy answer to the conundrums of life. The recent elections show the conflicts between daily life for most and the arrogant preaching of the few. Even when it comes to long-term sustainability, the elite message is "do as I say, not as I do", and from time to time (e.g., yesterday's Brexit vote), the done-to rebel. Mass-scale deprecation of the earth seems inevitable unless or until our population is reduced and we return to a less manufactured kind of life , I think. Of course, the end of humans might be a cause for great celebration by whatever species survive us.

Unknown said...

Dear Ken,

Your essay made me to think Prisioner's dilemma. Our ( your and mine) decisions and acts will certainly influence on climate change and survival of our species (in a short time scale, 100 million years from now we may be just a paper thin layer in archeological deposits). The impact may, however, be small unless we are able to collaborate with our fellow citizens. How can we make such a collaboration to happen? How can we make Brexit to happen to our sucidal life style?

I read with great interest your stories about Venice. We will fly to Verona opera festival (they perform La Traviata and Aida) next week and will also visit Venice. I have been ther once before but for Karin this will be her first visit.

Your friend
Jari and Karin

Ken Weiss said...

We were in Verona this trip, too, because it is near where our kids live. We didn't see any operas but we did see the sets,there in the coliseum arena. I imagine it will be a fine experience. It was just as jammed with tourists as Venice, but we did not understand why. I hope you have a good time!

As to ecological Brexit, who knows what it will take beyond some clear catastrophe.