TRAVEL sustainability: environmental & social impacts

Seven billion people need sustainability. Learn from ecotourism and nature travel.

Our strong drive for travel has filled every corner of the earth with humans, who now dominate the earth. Our surging population of 7 billion people must now protect other species and sustain the natural world from which we ascended.

The term ecotourism arose in the 1980s to encourage socially responsible travel, personal growth, and environmental sustainability in destinations where we’re attracted by natural flora, fauna, landscapes, and/or cultural heritage. Conventional mass tourism has often trampled or disrespected the places that draw visitors, whereas ecotourism aspires to sustain the quality and character of destinations. Caveat emptor — “let the buyer beware” of green washing marketing which makes claims but fails to substantially nurture nature or support social concerns. The following countries have set admirably high standards for ecotourism and overall sustainability: Costa Rica, Belize, NorwayNew Zealand, and Switzerland. Go and see for yourself. Wherever you travel, insist on resource sustainability in your spending choices. Each consumer decision eventually adds up to affect all life on earth.

Machhapuchhre (or Machhapuchhare), the Fish Tail Mountain is a sacred peak, illegal to climb, in the Annapurna mountains, Himalaya range, Nepal.

Right: On a monument at Annapurna South Base Camp, Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags invoke compassion for all beings. Sunset illuminates Machhapuchhre (Fish Tail Mountain) in Annapurna Sanctuary, the Himalayas, Nepal

Global human impacts: As transformers of the earth, we’re now in charge of sustaining other species.

Surging human population pressures now force the extinction of other species at a disturbingly high rate. Global human impacts are now a force “on par with volcanism or tectonic shifts” (said National Geographic Society in 2002) on land, air, and sea:

Human impacts on land:
  • People have transformed 40% of earth’s land area through planting, grazing livestock, paving, and building. Untouched wilderness has become a rare commodity. Harried urban dwellers are finding green escapes to be ever more crowded.
  • Half of all forests that stood 8000 years ago have been replaced by farms, ranches for grazing, damaged land, or single-species tree farms (for example in New Zealand).
    • Example: In Greece, farmers replaced native cedar forests with vast olive groves on mountainous terrain, causing an environmental disaster over a period of 6000 years: the topsoil washed away, creating the dry, rocky landscape seen throughout much of Greece today. Crete used to be 90% forested, but is now only 17% forest.
Human impacts on the air we breath:

Air pollution from humans has left few places on earth untouched. Visibility in remote Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona) is often clouded by car exhaust from distant Los Angeles.

Global warming and climate change:

For 650,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide has never been above this line, until after 1950 through now, when levels have skyrocketed in a short time.

For the past 650,000 years, heat-trapping atmospheric carbon dioxide has never been above 300 ppm (parts per million), until after 1950 through now, when levels have skyrocketed in a short time, due to the human industrial age. 

Human impacts on oceans:
  • 75% of the world’s marine fish stocks are either fully exploited, overfished, depleted or recovering from overfishing, according to the United Nations FAO 2004 world fisheries report.
  • Due to humans elevating atmospheric carbon dioxide by 35% since the industrial revolution, ongoing acidification of the oceans poses a serious threat to marine food chains that support shellfish and fishing economies. Between 1751 and 2004, the ocean surface acidified by almost 30% (from pH 8.25 to 8.14 according to Jacobson, 2005).
  • Since the 1990s, sea level rise has increased to 1.3 inches (3.2 centimeters) per decade due to melting glaciers and warming, expanding oceans. See for yourself in Venice (Italy) and other low coastal areas worldwide.
Photo gallery of global warming and climate change

Above, browse the gallery and thumbnails easiest with a mouse device. But mobile devices display just a fixed picture, so please touch (click) to enlarge as a set of images with full captions (where Add to Cart button lets you buy photos).

Take action to help sustain livability on earth.

  • Eat lower on the food chain — consume more vegetables, fruit, nuts, and whole grains. Eat less meat and less processed food.
    • For each calorie eaten, meat demands many times more of earth’s limited water and land resources than a vegetarian or vegan diet.
    • Pound for pound, beef production generates greenhouse gases that contribute more than 13 times as much to global warming as do the gases emitted from producing chicken, and 57 times as much as for potatoes (says Scientific American magazine).
  • Reduce consumption, recycle waste, and conserve energy. Avoid the “Tragedy of the Commons,” where independent actions in self-interest can deplete shared resources, contrary to everyone’s long-term best interests.
  • Share rides, combine errands, and ride public transportation.
  • Support education and family planning worldwide to promote quality of life for humans and all other species.
  • Vote for leaders who are willing to compromise to benefit a civil society in balance with nature. Don’t let extremists sway your better judgement.
  • Think globally, act globally. Our consumer buying decisions reverberate worldwide. Everyone is connected.

To better balance global human impacts, my wife and I support environmental and social organizations such as:

Everyone worldwide is genetically one family.

Today, science confirms that “race”, skin color, eye color and other physical features are genetically superficial, on a genetic continuum, with gene differences of less than 1 out of 1000 between us. Our differences are only skin deep, and everyone on earth belongs to the same closely related family, who spread from Africa less than 2500 generations ago. Accepting these scientific DNA findings helps us feel closer to people from other countries, cultures, and tribes.

According to DNA marker studies, all humans who are alive today are descended from a single woman who lived only 150,000 years ago and later from a single man who lived 60,000 years ago, both from central Africa. All non-Africans living today descended from a small tribe who left Africa only 50,000 to 60,000 years ago (according to Y chromosome marker studies by Dr. Spencer Wells and others) — this one tribe spread aggressively and replaced all earlier types of humans (such as Neanderthals). Read more from books:

2007: 2004:

“Race” is genetically superficial.

Everyone on earth shares 99.9% of the same genetic code. But what about race? DNA evidence says that all non-Africans alive today had ancestors with brown or black skin less than 2500 generations ago. Sometime in the past 2500 generations, one letter out of 3.1 billion in the DNA code mutated in one person, disrupted melanin deposition in the skin, and produced the line of white Europeans. In the first Asians, a small independent genetic change reduced melanin in the skin by a different process.

Evolution can happen much quicker than scientists thought previously. According Hans Eiberg and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen in 2008, the genetic mutation for blue eyes happened only 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, well after agriculture was invented, in one individual somewhere around the Black Sea. Darwin’s blue eyes may have come from a misspelled letter in the DNA of a Neolithic farmer! (See “Modern Darwins” in National Geographic Magazine February 2009.)

Surprisingly, human genes differ very little from those of a mouse, except in how our genes are regulated as we grow from cells. We are closely tied to the web of all life. As the supremely dominant species, humans must take responsibility for earth stewardship.

Machu Picchu, Inca archeological site in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, Andes mountains, Peru, South America.

Right: Spanish conquistadors passed in the river valley below but never discovered Machu Picchu, which is at 7870 feet elevation in a remote location of Peru. In 1983, UNESCO listed the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site, which is now one of the most visited places in South America. (Panorama stitched from 3 overlapping images).

Sheep graze in a pasture beneath Tararua Wind Farm, largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Location: North Island of New Zealand, 10 km northeast of Palmerston North on a ridge in the Tararua Ranges.

Above: Humans have migrated to the ends of the earth to cut farms from virgin forests and compete for new resources, such as on New Zealand. Sheep are dwarfed by the towering turbine blades of Tararua Wind Farm, the largest wind power installation in the Southern Hemisphere, located on ranch land 10 kilometres northeast of the city of Palmerston North, on a 5 kilometre long ridge in the Tararua Ranges, North Island, New Zealand.

Photo gallery of human impacts on world ecosystems

Images below by Tom Dempsey stimulate thoughts on how people have impacted world ecosystems over human history. People have modified vast ecosystems by burning ancestral forests into grasslands, industrializing agriculture, and paving and building to support today’s worldwide population of 7 billion. Human transformation of nature is often irrevocable, as when species are forced into extinction. Plant and animal pioneers can quickly reclaim areas left alone by people, but invasive weed species introduced by humans often overwhelm previously-diverse natural environments.

Above, browse the gallery and thumbnails easiest with a mouse device. But mobile devices display just a fixed picture, so please touch (click) to enlarge as a set of images with full captions (where Add to Cart button lets you buy photos).

The joy of travel.

Love for world travel fills my life with wonder and purpose. Travel is the best education.

When we visit other countries, most people eagerly welcome us, gladly accept money in exchange for goods and services, and want to practice their English as we attempt to speak their language. Most people worldwide are peace-loving, friendly, and smart enough to treat you as an individual, not as a representative of your country’s current political regime. Most countries proudly welcome their guests, treating people with the Golden Rule − the ethic of reciprocity.

Fairly-regulated free trade with other countries encourages world peace through mutual interdependence. While we travel with humility and submit to the kindness of strangers, let’s seek mutual understanding, scientific knowledge, environmental sustainability, and human rights with reasonable responsibilities.

See also: Truth in journalism: check facts here.

Tom Dempsey (see my About page) is a photographer based in Seattle, Washington. My formal education includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Atmospheric Science and a Minor Degree in Statistics from the University of California at Davis, with High Honors (1975-79). But personally, a lifetime of world travel has been more important than my formal education. See also my profile on linkedin.com

Thought for the day:  “The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.” — poet Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)

Recommended books

Recommended nonfiction books

2012: 2012: 2011: 2009:
2011: 2009:

  • Ideas That Matter: The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century (2012) by Anthony Clifford Grayling, “winnows a universe of ideas, ideologies, and philosophies into a personal dictionary for understanding the new century.”
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt, explores the origins of our divisions (culturally dependent moral intuition) and points the way to mutual understanding. Our tribal groupishness leads to our greatest joys, religious divisions, and political affiliations. In a stunning final chapter on ideology and civility, Haidt shows what each side is right about, and why we need the insights of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to flourish as a nation.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) by Steven Pinker, analyzes and describes historical declines of violence since ancient hunter-gatherer societies evolved into civilizations with centralized authority and commerce. Progressive morality has risen to a peak, which suggests grounds for guarded optimism. The most violent societies per person have been pre-state tribes. Violence has declined per person over human history because nation-states (the “Leviathan”) and rule of law have assumed a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Desperately poor countries are the most likely to have civil wars. Most murders are done by people taking the law into their own hands, in moralized self-interest. Religions have been a net negative violent force, often against Enlightenment values, against the flourishing of individuals, and against human rights. Excessively moralistic ideologies (tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical) throughout history have caused the most war, conflict, and death. Pinker warns that historical trends in the decline of violence (especially after World War II) are not necessarily guaranteed to continue. His thesis is descriptive, not predictive. Books, reading, and education have an empathetic value to reduce violence through the understanding of others. Reason allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points.
  • Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (2009) by Maarten Troost, takes a pointedly funny look at the complex nation of China.
  • Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks (2011) by Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings, makes a great gift for anyone who loves maps.
  • Heroes of the Environment: True Stories of People Who Are Helping to Protect Our Planet (2009) by Harriet Rohmer

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