The Last Holiday: Reckoning the Cost to the Planet of Leisure Travel Abroad
by Jon Swan
An ancient film – it came out in 1950 – called The Last Holiday and featuring Alec Guinness, tells the story of a modest farm-equipment salesman who, diagnosed as having a fatal form of cancer, withdraws his life’s savings, buys a set of handsome second-hand clothes and a car, and drives off to spend his last holiday at a posh resort, where he meets and charms influential people, falls in love, and encounters a cancer specialist who assures him that he has been misdiagnosed and has years to live. Overjoyed, our hero hurries back home to prepare for his new life and, swerving to avoid a dog lying in the middle of the road, crashes, and is killed.
Now, here we are – nearly three quarters of a century later and it seems that all those who can afford to travel are hurrying off to spend one last, or next to last, or just one more holiday – in Amsterdam, for example, which was visited by 18 million people in 2016 (a million more than the total population of the Netherlands); or Barcelona (population: 1.7 million), which last year attracted more than 32 million tourists; or the sinking city of Venice (permanent population: 55,000), which annually attracts 20 million milling tourists; and so on. These massive visitations substantiate the observation of German novelist and poet Hans-Magnus Enzensberger: “Tourists destroy what they are looking for by finding it.”
It’s not only the presence of so many people in such little space that creates havoc with local customs and prices, as well as the costly problem of collecting and disposing of waste; it’s the way the hordes are arriving, especially those disgorged by cruise ships. In a recent report, NABU, Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, pointed out that, while cruise ship companies try to make cruising appear an environmentally friendly tourism sector, “one cruise ship emits as many air pollutants as millions of cars.” The press release explained: “This is because sea-going vessels use heavy fuel oil for their engines, a fuel that on land would have to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Heavy fuel oil can contain up to 3,500 times more sulphur than diesel that is used for land traffic vehicles.”
Furthermore, NABU reported, cruise ships lack the kind of exhaust- abatement technologies that are standard in trucks or passenger cars, and the stuff they spew from their snow-white chimneys – black carbon, in particular — contributes “massively” to global warming. “Almost 50 percent of the warming of the Arctic is attributed to black carbon,” the report points out. Coincidentally, an August 29 Rolling Stone article by Jeff Goodell noted: “The Arctic has been heating up faster than any other place on the planet. Last winter, temperatures in the Arctic were 45 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.” The article bore the headline: “The Melting Arctic Is a Real-Time Horror Story — Why Doesn’t Anyone Care?”
While the cruise ships befoul the air at one level, the airplanes that ferry the well-to-do to their vacationland dreams are laying down layers of global-warming C02 in the skies above. In July 2017 The New York Times published an article by Tatiana Schlossberg that bore the headline Flying is Bad for the Planet. You Can Help Make It Better and that starts off by stating: “Take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year.” According to some estimates, Schlossberg notes, “about 20,000 planes are in use around the world, serving three billion passengers annually. By 2040, more than 50,000 planes could be in service.” Meanwhile, perversely if not irrationally, to encourage “brand loyalty,” airlines reward frequent fliers with so-called free miles.
On July 5 of this year Medium, an on-line platform, published an article by Douglas Rushkoff, a highly regarded media theorist, which bore the headline Survival of the Richest, with the subhead stating The Wealthy Are Planning to Leave Us Behind. It was promptly picked up by The Guardian, which ran the piece under the headline How Tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse. The article describes the author’s surprise at being invited, for a hefty fee, not to give a talk but to take part in a series of one-on-one meetings with hedge-fund millionaires anxious to know, for instance, which region will be safest during the coming climate crisis, or how do I maintain authority over my security force after The Event – this being their euphemism for environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, and so on. Aware that they would need armed guards to protect their compounds, they wanted to know how would they pay the guards once money was worthless.
They were, Rushkoff writes, “preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with … insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion.”
Both those wealthy enough to cruise or fly in pursuit of happiness and the super-rich are, in all likelihood, not unaware of the diagnosis for our survival as a species on planet Earth – doomed unless we radically alter our priorities, including reducing our dependence on fossil fuels — but appear unable to break the habits that have become symbolic of affluence and proof of our standing in society, or are just part of doing business as usual. We have been everywhere, and now look where we are – our foot on the pedal, going faster and faster, unable – unwilling — to swerve in time to avoid the smash-up of our civilization, not to mention the demise of our reckless species.
An Ethical Check-up
The ethics of air travel was perhaps most pointedly posed a dozen years ago by London’s Anglican bishop John Chartres. As reported by G. Geoffrey MacDonald in the Christian Science Monitor, the bishop said that flying abroad to vacation was a “symptom of sin,” because it ignores “an overriding imperative to walk more lightly upon the earth.” In 2006, the year the bishop spoke out on the subject, the world’s airlines carried a total of two billion passengers, 840 million of whom were classified as international leisure travelers. By 2020, the number of international leisure fliers is expected to nearly double – to 1.6 billion, out of a total world population of 7.7 billion.
Organizations that work for the public good or strive to promote social change might be expected to resist going with the flow. But an informal search of policy statements by religious groups provides no evidence that any of these organizations has drawn up a protocol specifically designed to limit or put a brake on air travel.
Take, for example, an interfaith group called Blessed Tomorrow: Caring for Creation Today. The group defines itself as “a coalition of diverse religious partners united under a call to be faithful stewards of creation.” And its website states: “We will care for God’s creation, empower our communities, and call on our fellow leaders to create a healthy future for us all.” This is laudable, but it lacks specifics, as do almost all declarations made by religious denominations, including the Presbyterians, the denomination to which President Trump once declared he was “a proud member.”
In 2008, the General Assembly of Presbyterians USA drew up a list of sustainable practices designed to “aid Presbyterians in living carbon neutral lives, including practicing energy conservation such as adjusting thermostats down, walking, biking, carpooling, using mass transit…” and so on, including “minimizing the use of plastic water bottles.” No mention was made of minimizing airplane flights. The 2018 Resolution drawn up by the Union of Reform Judaism similarly dodges the issue.
A dozen years ago, Canadian scientist and activist David Suzuki, in demand as a speaker in North America and abroad, calculated that each round trip between Toronto and London created more than 2,000 pounds of greenhouse gases per passenger — and decided to cut down on his long-haul flights. “The amount of greenhouse gas generated by flying is just intolerable to me,” he said in an interview with Vancouver Sun reporter Miro Cernetig. He would, henceforth, “cluster” engagements within a circumscribed area to cut down on mileage and would consider any invitation to speak “but only by video conference.” And, Suzuki added, “That’s had a very interesting result. Nine out of ten people immediately say, ‘We’re not interested.’”
That, at least, is a clear-cut strategy – one that works for individuals if not for organizations whose leaders must meet with key supporters and whose members must be mustered to oppose specific actions, such as the Keystone pipeline project or the appointment to the Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh. At the very least, the Suzuki program for lightening our load on the planet’s atmosphere is worth taking as a starting point for discussion. Meanwhile, would it not be helpful if not-for-profit organizations were to itemize their flight expenses and allow the carbon-debt concept to inform their decisions? Or should we all just fasten our seatbelts and go with the flow?
Mt. Everest Is Melting
by Kunda Dixit
For many tourists trekking to Mt Everest Base Camp this autumn, the trip will be an adventure of a lifetime. The thin clear air, stark landscape, and ice-tipped peaks pierce the inky sky providing great Instagram backdrops.
However, what is stunning scenery to tourists is for climate scientists an apocalyptic sight. They see dramatic evidence all around of a rapidly warming atmosphere. This is a sign of things of come, a glimpse at the frightening projections made at the IPCC Conference in Incheon Korea last week.
Visitors returning to the Everest region after 20 years also notice changes: large lakes where there were none, glacial ice replaced by ponds, boulders and sand, the snowline moving up the mountains, and glaciers that have receded and shrunk.
All these features are visible from ground level right from the start of the trek in Lukla, the busy and dangerous airport that is the aerial gateway to Everest. The banks of the Bhote Kosi Gorge still bear the scars of the deadly flash flood in 1985 which washed off a long section of the Everest Trail and the hydropower plant that served the region. It was caused by an avalanche falling into the Dig Tso glacial lake, causing it to top over.
Further up near the monastery settlement of Tengboche, the Imja Khola also bears signs of a huge glacial lake outburst flood that thundered down the western flank of Mt Ama Dablam in 1977. And below the formidable south face of Mt Lhotse is Imja Tso, a lake 2km long that does not exist on trekking maps from the 1980s. All these lakes were formed and enlarged as a result of anthropogenic carbon buildup in the atmosphere that has speeded up natural warming.
The terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier looms 400m above the summer herding village of Dughla that is now a trek stop. This is the debris bulldozed down from Mt Everest and surrounding peaks over millions of years, and represents the extent of the glacier’s advance in the last Ice Age. Today, the surface ice on the world’s highest glacier is all but gone due to natural and anthropogenic warming.
For an even more dramatic glimpse of how global warming is changing the Himalayan landscape, there is nothing like an aerial perspective, as these striking images of the terrain below Mt Everest show. The barren beauty foretells of a time when this terrain will be stripped of much of what remains of its ice cover.
The Khumbu Icefall funnels ice from the Western Cwm below Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse to the glacier below. The ice here has receded at an average of 30m/y in the past 20 years, but it has also shrunk vertically, losing up to 50m in thickness. Everest Base Camp was at 5,330m when Hillary and Tenzing climbed Mt Everest in 1953, today it is at 5,270m.
Studies estimate that Nepal has lost a third of its ice cover in the last 40 years. The situation is even more serious on the Tibetan Plateau on the north slopes of the Himalayan mountains where there are hundreds of new glacial lakes. Glaciologists say that although the main reason is global warming, up to 20% of the melting of the permanent ice is because of the deposition of dark soot particles from wind-borne pollution reducing the albedo effect on the snow.
The glacier is also getting flatter: the darker debris makes the ice beneath melt faster near Base Camp, but the thicker layers of boulders and sand further down insulate the ice. Glaciologists say this flatter profile means the ice moves slower, leading to more ponding, and more rapid melting of the ice underneath.
The velocity of the glacier is 70m/y at Base Camp, and it slows down to 10m/y further below, but is zero at the terminus situated at 4,900m. This means the ice is decelerating as it is squeezed, and the pressure is being released by the melting of the ice mass.
Researchers monitoring the supraglacial ponds say their area has grown by 70% in the past ten years alone. The ponds are fringed by ice cliffs and caves which accelerate the melting. The melted ice has carved an outflow channel through the left lateral moraine, so there is no large glacial lake on the Khumbu like as elsewhere in Nepal.
Scientists conclude that the Khumbu Glacier is not about to vanish, and the Icefall is not going to turn into a water fall any time soon. However, the permanent ice catchment of the glacier above 6,000 could start to deplete under the worst-case ‘beyond catastrophic’ scenario of +5°C warming.
Kunda Dixit is the editor of the Nepali Times newspaper in Kathmandu, from which this article is adapted (https://www.nepalitimes.com/banner/on-thin-ice-in-the-khumbu/). Video: https://youtu.be/RTnxJKo97DI.
Slideshow photo courtesy of Yu Kato