Destroying the planet to save it

Ecotourism in Zimbabwe. Source: JackyR (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mudbath5.jpg)

Flying harms the climate. Air travel is growing rapidly. Its net impact is nearly twice as great as the impact of the CO2 emissions alone, much greater than that from cars. Air travel creates nitrous oxides, water vapor, sulfate aerosols, soot aerosols, and contrails. Noted climate activist Greta Thunberg famously went out of her way to avoid flying to a climate conference on the other side of the Atlantic.

So should we all stop flying, or at least avoid flying as much as possible? In a recent New York Times opinion article, Costas Christ (of Beyond Green Travel) argued that flying as part of wildlife tourism may actually be climate-friendly. Wildlife tourism gives an obvious incentive to local economies to preserve wildlife; but wildlife tourism absolutely depends on airline travel. If we stopped flying altogether, the wildlife tourism industry would die, and the ecosystems which support this wildlife—along with the wildlife itself—would disappear. Forest ecosystems would be replaced with cattle ranches.

I can’t really fault anyone who, using this logic, flies off to Africa to see the elephants. We live in an imperfect world, and we have to make the best of a bad deal. The odd thing about this argument is that it makes wildlife dependent on the economy. But it’s precisely the economy which is the main driver behind the destruction of wildlife! Must we, with long-distance air travel, destroy the planet in order to save it?

It’s true that wildlife tourism is the most benign use possible of the land. We look, but don’t touch. But it is still an intrusion, marked by the greenhouse gas emissions which are emitted into the atmosphere to maintain it. If something else were to come along that’s more profitable than saving the elephants, they’d probably kiss the elephants goodbye. Suppose that huge ores of gold and diamonds were found in elephant habitat? Using this logic, they’d cheerfully send the elephants off into extinction—or, if they’re lucky, to zoos.

Wilderness is, by definition, a place where humans do not intrude. Otherwise it’s not “wild,” it’s just a relatively benign extension of the human economy. Haven’t we thereby eliminated the wilderness? Must humans take over every last square inch of the globe?

We could take this logic further. Instead of imagining a world in which no one flies, suppose that we imagined a world in which people only flew for wildlife? If people only flew to and from Africa (or other ecotourist destinations), I don’t think the airline industry would survive. The airline industry is already hurting because of the rise in energy prices; it depends on volume to be economical. This drastic reduction in volume would force “wildlife airlines” to charge exorbitant prices. This in turn would result in a drastic decline in wildlife tourism, and—since we presume that these elephants are only surviving because of tourism—a corresponding decline in wildlife. Soon there would just be a sole elephant herd somewhere in Africa that Bill Gates and a few multi-billionaires would visit once a year, paying homage to the wilderness that has been destroyed.

Source: BlogDeBanderas, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A320_de_Fastjet_en_el_Aeropuerto_Internacional_de_Dar_es_Salaam,_Tanzania.jpg

Let’s take this thought experiment a bit further. Suppose that, in a world in which the only flights are to wildlife destinations, I decide to defy this expectation and fly to Las Vegas in order to drink and gamble, and that enough of my degenerate compatriots followed suit. This might help the airline industry to survive, which in turn would make wildlife tourism more viable! Suddenly, my frivolous trip to Las Vegas now becomes virtuous because it helps the elephants. If we take this thought experiment far enough, we could rationalize away almost anything we’re doing today.

What is wrong with this picture? First of all, if you have to commercialize wildlife in order to preserve it, then it’s not wildlife. The whole problem with the economy is that humans have completely overrun the planet and there’s no space for anything else. Almost all of the large animals on the planet are either humans or animals that humans eat. There is just a small sliver of biomass of elephants, buffalos, antelopes, giraffes, etc., and a correspondingly small sliver of the ecosystems to support these remaining animals. That’s all that’s left of the so-called “wilderness,” and that’s just what’s going on right now.

Secondly, the force that’s destroying the planet is the expanding economy. We cannot truly preserve wildlife (or the atmosphere, or anything else) unless we come to terms with fundamental limits to growth. I understand why people fly to Africa to see the wildlife, or for that matter within the U. S. to see their relatives.  What I have a problem with is an economy that forces us to make these sorts of choices. We need to embrace a much smaller economy. We should protect wilderness directly, rather than relying on the profit motive to do the job.

2 thoughts on “Destroying the planet to save it

  1. Hana Low

    this was so interesting!
    never thought about this before… have always felt so guilty about my carbon emissions from travel so this is quite an encouraging take. What are your thoughts about offsetting flights/carbon emissions with carbon credits? Helpful? Waste of time? Scam?

    One option:
    https://www.coloradocarbonfund.org

    Reply
    1. Keith Akers Post author

      Hi Hana,

      My personal response is just to avoid flying as much as possible. I haven’t actively researched carbon offsets. If you take this route, though, you should make sure you’re offsetting the total emissions effects, not just the CO2. The CO2-equivalent effects of airline travel are almost double that of the actual CO2 put into the atmosphere. Also, watch out for scams.

      This should be a political problem, not a question of individual conscience or private enterprise creating a “market” for (relatively) virtuous activities. Don’t feel guilty, feel responsible. Perhaps you could develop “activist offsets”: work for political and social change so that what you’re doing that you would otherwise feel guilty about, can’t happen.

      In terms of wilderness, we should protect wilderness directly. E. g. in the U. S., we could have something like the Buffalo Commons proposal. In terms of greenhouse gases, we should implement a carbon tax and an absolute cap on carbon emissions (including CO2 from deforestation), PLUS a similar tax and cap on methane and nitrous oxides, PLUS a tax on foregone carbon sequestration. “Foregone carbon sequestration” is the carbon that you PREVENT from being sequestered naturally through reforestation or revegetation. Translation: this refers to grazing land that would revert to forests if we did nothing.

      This is a huge undertaking, much bigger than envisioned by the “Green New Deal” advocates, and would likely make everyone in the United States a lot poorer. Consistently carried out, everything gets a lot more expensive in a hurry. We can then get into a discussion of equity; we can no longer rely on a “growth economy” to solve our problems with poverty. Poverty would worsen if such environmental taxes were applied by themselves. (For example: see the “Yellow Vest” protests in France.) We have to redistribute income directly, e. g. through a “basic income” sufficient to support a single individual.

      In the article I was just addressing one small part of this issue: whether wildlife tourism could, by preserving wildlife, either partially or entirely preserve wildlife. My answer: no. At best, this trades one problem (wildlife extinctions) for another (climate change). At worst, wildlife tourism effectively eliminates wildlife; if elephants are part of our economy, they’re not truly “wild” anymore. They just live in a very, very, benign zoo.

      Reply

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