Taking the Slow Boat

photo of crowds on a beach

People sunbathe at Levante Beach on July 22, 2015 in Benidorm, Spain. Photographer: David Ramos/Getty Images Europe

This being Amurrika and all, I started linking to the business press a little more regularly sometime ago, to be aware of how the world looks to those who see everything through the prism of money. Bloomberg Green has some good reporters and this digression on Mass Tourism’s Carbon Impact is valuable:

a model built by and for the masses, one that thrives on low-cost flights, all-inclusive hotel resorts, giant buffets and endless sangria. Spain, the world’s No. 2 destination with 83.7 million visitors in 2019, is a magnet for mass tourism (it’s no coincidence that package tours were invented not far from where I was standing). In total, the industry flew, accommodated, fed and entertained a good chunk of the world’s 1.5 billion tourists last year.

Globally, it was a booming sector before the pandemic, growing at about 4% every year, employing 10% of the world’s workers and representing 10% of global gross domestic product. The enormous cruise ships, fossil fuel-powered planes and the hotels in remote, water-scarce locations make it incredibly carbon intensive too. Total footprint is estimated at around 8% of overall human emissions.

The sector’s climate record before the pandemic was already discouraging. Efforts to lower the carbon footprint have mostly been limited to climate neutrality pledges and headline-grabbing small steps like eliminating mini-shampoo bottles, replacing plastic straws with paper ones and serving sustainable food on flights.

Just calculating the impact is hard. Any serious account should include carbon emitted directly from tourism activities, but also from the whole supply chain, also known as Scope 3 emissions. That would involve food, accommodation, transport, fuel and shopping.

Scope 3 emissions are an important benchmark, and we should be aware of how to think about carbon footprint. As for global travel, I have been an active participant for more than twenty years. I remember at one point looking into the cost/feasibility of traveling to Europe by ship instead of plane for a completely different set of reasons. Considering it again, it still makes sense – and is completely unaffordable vs. comparable flights. The reality of mass tourism is a conundrum – yes, people need to travel, to expand their mindfulness of and about the world. Yes, small communities without other industries need viable economic lifelines. Yes, it creates an environmental disaster in more ways than ten.

Things Fall Apart. Look at the photo up top. Look at what has become of Venice. Without factoring in the true costs of these experiences – cruise ships, quick trips, cheap tour packages – the viability of these this places and practices have already fallen into great peril. They are at risk, even as they continue unchanged. The cruise ship industry is revving their engines, despite the inherent contradictions of scale. We need to re-think broadly. Disperse the destinations. Stay longer, take longer to get there. Yes, it costs more. These experiences already costs more than we think.

Flowr powr

Not that kind, but it will be increasingly important to sidestep the common stereotypes that have barnacled themselves to the various ‘isms’ promoting the environment, marginalizing its proponents as merely dirty hippies, hopeless and idealistic, man.

One of the cognitive leaps, and there will be a few, about embracing a new energy future is imagining what that future will be like and getting familiar with yourself and your surroundings within such a mental space. Then the climb down in consumption likely begins to seem more natural and preferred rather than punitive and lesser. Much as we self-identify with our cars now, you have to become one with several ideas, including but not limited to input problems related to carbon emissions and recognizing that the energy issues must cease to be framed by thinking that fossil fuel is energy rather than a material substance that has chemical energy.

How might we go about this? Maybe one of the places to make inroads on both counts is video games. This flies in the face of my own instincts, which is why I’m offering it up so deliberately, to both show and try to tell why this might work, in some small way. Because both issues referred to above are psychological, we seem to want to understand them less than we might be able, settling for merely what we know. It’s the crucial under-performance at which we excel. Present company emphasized.

So this game company, actually that game company, came up with this concept, and part of their description stuck out at me.

The game exploits the tension between urban bustle and natural serenity. Players accumulate flower petals as the onscreen world swings between the pastoral and the chaotic. Like in the real world, everything you pick up causes the environment to change (emphasis added). And hopefully by the end of the journey, you change a little as well.

So… I don’t know, and am willing to stand corrected. But I think that’s part of it.