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TRAVEL sustainability: environmental & social impacts

Thoughts on ecotourism and nature travel: How do we sustain 8 billion people?

Our strong drive for travel has filled every corner of the earth with humans, who now dominate the earth. Our surging population of 8 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 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 greenwashing marketing which makes claims but fails to substantially nurture nature or support social concerns. Tourism’s global carbon footprint accounted for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2013.

The following countries have set admirably high standards for ecotourism and overall sustainability: Costa Rica, Belize, Norway, New Zealand, and Switzerland. If you choose to travel, insist on resource sustainability in your spending choices. Consumer and voter decisions have big consequences for the quality of future life on earth.

Regarding smartphones, with great power comes great responsibility — says the Greek “Sword of Damocles” anecdote, as well as Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man. Unfortunately, monetized social media enables extreme memes to shout-down both civility and reality itself. To my relief, Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker restores faith in the triumph of public good in the following books:

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, Himalaya, Nepal

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

Apt video from What Is the Anthropocene and Are We in It?

Surging human population pressures now force the extinction of other species at a disturbingly high rate. Human impacts are a colossal force on land, air, and sea:

Human impacts on land:
  • People have transformed over half 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:

  • Since the industrial revolution began in the 1750s, humans have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration by 48% (from 280ppm to 415ppm as of 2021) through burning fossil fuels, deforesting land, and grazing livestock.
  • “Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surged at a record-breaking speed in 2016 to the highest level in 800,000 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin….The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, the temperature was 2-3°C warmer [3.6-5.4°F] and sea level was 10-20 meters higher [32-65 feet] than now.” – article “Greenhouse gas concentrations surge to new record” reported October 30, 2017.
  • Almost all glaciers are shrinking fast around the world, as show in my articles on Antarctica, Nepal, Switzerland, Italy, Norway, Canada, Alaska, and Glacier National Park (Montana).
  • An overwhelming consensus of climate scientists agree that global warming is indeed happening and humans are contributing to it through emission of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide).
  • The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) says that warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global sea level. IPCC and world climatologists conclude that warming is very likely (more than 90% certain) related to anthropogenic (human caused) greenhouse gas emissions.
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. (Chart from Wikipedia Commons.)
Human impacts on oceans:
  • Two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks are either fished at their limit or over fished. The UN food and agriculture organisation (FAO) has estimated that 70 percent of the fish population is fully used, overused or in crisis. (WWF reference)
  • 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

In galleries on this page, click “i” to read descriptive Captions. Click the dotted square to scroll a set of thumbnail images. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

Act now to help sustain earth’s livability.

  • 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.
  • Don’t let fake news and extremists sway your better judgement. Vote for experienced leaders who work well with others to balance civil society with nature.
  • Think globally, act globally. Our consumer buying decisions reverberate worldwide. Everyone is connected.

I have offset the carbon footprint of photo-travel by a lifetime of frugality and recycling, by driving fuel-efficient vehicles (such as Toyota Prius), by eating lower on the food chain, by not having kids (not birthing new children), by not raising pets, and by voting for environmentally responsible leaders. To better balance global human impacts, my wife and I support environmental and social organizations such as:

As a reward for a lifetime of thrift, now in our 60s, we upgraded from our 20-year-old Volkswagen Eurovan Camper (1999-2019) to the comforts of a small 22-foot RV, whose environmental impact is partly offset by maximizing solar panels and by choosing a model (Mercedes Sprinter van base) with best fuel mileage for its size.

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:

“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 now take fully responsibility for sustainable stewardship over earth’s bounty.

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 8 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.

In galleries on this page, click “i” to display informative captions. Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

The joy of travel.

Love for world travel fills my life with wonder and purpose.

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.

Over the past several generations worldwide, extreme poverty has plunged to an all-time low. As of 2024, middle class wealth is soaring in developing countries. The global death rate from wars has plummeted, despite loud news headlines. Literacy has skyrocketed internationally. In post-pandemic times, we’ve restored a golden age for travel. Our outlook need not be yellowed. More people than ever believe correctly that humans are causing climate change. Under pain of global warming, governmental policies worldwide are promoting conversion to carbon-neutral energy with increasing urgency.

Fairly-regulated international free trade encourages world peace through mutual interdependence. Don’t vote for nationalistic demagogues who undermine our fragile international institutions. As nations grow more closely interconnected every year, we need to nurture and evolve our adolescent international trade agreements and courts. 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). While scientific learning has helped train my logical and critical thinking, a lifetime of world travel has fueled my photographic creativity. Travel is the best education.

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

All purchases on Amazon links above directly support my site. Thank you! — Tom Dempsey

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