Sustainable tourism is a much googled, much discussed movement in our travel community. But what made us decide to tread lightly?
David Wallace-Wells is an American journalist whose beat is the environment, and who rocketed to fame in 2017 with the publication of a harrowing article in New York magazine about the horrors that await us if we don’t take a more aggressive stance on the climate crisis gripping the planet.
This article provided the basis for his first nonfiction book, The Uninhabitable Earth, which I recently read and which opens with the line: “It is worse, much worse, than you think”.
(Um okay…that’s shitty and terrifying because I already thought it was pretty bloody dire.)
Drawing from hundreds of scientific studies, Wallace-Wells elucidates, in graphic detail, that if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (just shy of the two-degree threshold for catastrophe), then we must engage in “rapid and far-reaching” changes across every single sector. In other words, we need to urgently pull our collective socks up.
In addition, we must also entirely eliminate carbon emissions by 2050, because if we don’t, we’re dooming ourselves to a nightmarish world ravaged by deadly heat spikes, unspeakable rises in sea levels, widespread agricultural failure and rampant disease.
Armed with this knowledge, how could I not commit to treading more lightly?
A notion that Wallace-Wells and other leading environmental activists purport is that we (as in humanity and our planet home) are at a point where individual actions – as honourable as they are – aren’t enough. It’s going to take global efforts to make the changes we need to avoid catastrophe.
Obviously this means education is important. Informing people about the climate crisis (we can all agree that ‘change’ is no longer the appropriate term) needs to be a global priority so that we can collectively halt the effects causing the demise of our planet.
Having said that, approaching environmental education and activism through an intersectional paradigm is equally important. Intersectionality is about acknowledging the different social categorisations, such as race, gender, class and religion, that apply to an individual or group, and that overlap to create interrelated systems of disadvantage.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 18.8 million people were displaced as a result of natural hazards and the effects of climate change in 2017 and were forced to relocate to other parts of their home country. Displacement across borders also happens and is often linked with other issues like conflict or violence.
The people most adversely impacted by environmental problems generally hold less privilege than those talking about the climate; less privilege to make ‘simple’ changes that we take for granted and less privilege to voice their own experiences and exposure to the consequences of climate crisis.
If poorer nations cannot build infrastructure to protect themselves against natural disasters (Mozambique’s recent devastation after Cyclone Idai is a perfect example), how can we expect them to make the raft of other changes required to lessen said natural disasters?
If we want to see change, we need to support minorities through the process. Intersectionality needs to become a vital component of environmental activism. We need to be aware of how environmental issues affect people across the world, especially in different, less privileged circumstances to us.
In regards to the climate, we need to remember that sometimes people are facing oppressions – often multiple layers of oppression – that might prevent them from making the changes environmental activists suggest and that we deem ‘simple’, like avoiding plastic, reducing or cutting beef from our diet or avoiding fast fashion, and we can’t shame them for it.
For example, the five countries (all of which are in South East Asia) that produce the most ocean plastic are also some of the world’s poorest and they don’t yet have waste-management infrastructure in place to tackle the problem. Rather than condemning these countries, we should instead concentrate our global efforts on interventions to reduce plastic production and consequently plastic waste, and conducting ocean clean-up efforts in these areas.
We need to make the conversation less about shaming, finger pointing and blaming and more about tackling the root causes of oppression and the social injustices that a warming climate creates. We all need to work together to support marginalised groups and show solidarity in the face of an issue that is going to end us all – regardless of our social standing or skin colour.
I’m grateful (and privileged) to be in a position where I can use my job as a platform to equip and inspire people to make more environmentally-friendly decisions, and to do so through an intersectional lens.
On a personal level, I believe that lobbying has a huge role to play in the future of the campaign against climate change, so I’m making that my commitment to treading lightly. I’ll be writing to MPs, participating in rallies, lobbying businesses and supporting (financially and physically) NGOs, volunteer groups and brands who are environmental activists.
Admittedly, in theory, the concepts of sustainable tourism are as dichotomous as love and hate.
The global tourism industry is one of the largest in the world – surpassing that of oil exports, food products and automobiles – and according to a study published in Nature Climate Change in May 2018, the carbon footprint of international travel is four times bigger than previously thought.
Increased pollution; discharges into the sea; habitat loss, alteration and fragmentation; and the depletion of the ozone layer are just some of the harmful impacts of global tourism, which produces about 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Fortunately, there are resorts whose vision it is to reduce the impact of travel on the environment and who are making great strides in disrupting the wider tourism industry.
I’m endlessly proud to represent a portfolio of resorts that are passionate about preserving their local culture and environment, improve their environmental practices, and educate guests about sustainable tourism.
One of these brands is Soneva – the pioneers of ‘sustainable travel’. Since the creation of their first resort in the Maldives in 1995, sustainable tourism has been their modus operandi, and they’ve been refining the concept ever since.
Across the entire organisation, there are simply too many awe-inspiring sustainability initiatives to list, including their waste to wealth recycling program; drinking water purification system and solar-powered desalination plant; pioneering approach to plastic; carbon offsetting levy; and the awe-inspiring list of projects managed by their environmentally-focused foundation.
What I love about Soneva though, is their intersectional approach to activism and sustainable tourism.
One of the company’s building blocks is their ‘human capital’ (aka the value of their employees); a huge component of which is ‘human capital externalities’, or in other words, the impact of Soneva hosts on society.
Soneva hosts are hired and trained with the intention of maximising holistic returns to local communities and ecosystems, and a great example of this is the sheer volume of education and development they’re provided in regards to sustainable tourism.
Soneva is well aware that the best way to change a community’s relationship with its local environment is to provide them firstly with the education they need to understand the problems specific to their region; and secondly the tools they need to address these issues.
Their attitude is: why simply show hosts how to manage Soneva Fushi’s water bottling plant when we could enlighten them about why such a plant is necessary in the first place, what the benefits are, and how they can return to their local islands and establish one there?
Why simply introduce a program to teach local Maldivian children to swim when we could incorporate an element that introduces them to the wonder and fragility of the ocean and consequently inspires them to protect it?
I love this approach and there are endless case studies that provide similar warm fuzzies. The Soneva quest isn’t about resting on the company’s laurels; it’s about striving for the only breed of hospitality befitting of our precious planet – perfection.