By Katrina Fischer Kuh
Here’s a word we never wanted to learn: “Anthropocene.” It means the era in which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. In other words: now. Human actions, most significantly the clearing of land and climate change, have increased the pace of environmental change to a rate unprecedented in history. These forces of change are now in some measure beyond repair and control, rendering us powerless to protect even our most cherished environments. Our state and national parks, monuments, refuges, preserves, and the natural sites on the World Heritage List are a testament to our recognition that some natural spaces possess a wildness, beauty, singularity, and salience that demand their preservation. These spaces warrant protection on moral and ethical grounds beyond their contribution to human well-being, but our conviction that their existence enriches our sense of self, our spirit, even our soul often drives their legal protection. (Ansel Adams’s photographs of the Sierra Nevada helped convince President Franklin Roosevelt to establish Kings Canyon National Park; in Ansel Adams in Our Time, a recent exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Adams’s photos of natural splendor were juxtaposed with modern photographers’ images of environmental degradation.)
We are at a point where no legal designation or well-intentioned intervention by biologists can completely spare a place from degradation, most especially that wrought by climate change. So many of the world’s most wild, most special, most culturally and ecologically important places may cease to exist or may exist only as whispers of what they once were in our children’s lifetimes. Here are some terribly sobering facts:
- Glacier National Park will likely no longer have glaciers (that is, glaciers will start to disappear by 2030).
- Since 2015, the Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral.
- Lebanon’s cedar forests may be gone by 2100.
- Climate change is fundamentally altering the famously diverse ecosystems of the Galápagos Islands and Yellowstone National Park.
- Of the 209 natural sites on the World Heritage List, 54 have been designated as threatened by serious and specific dangers and placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The unprecedented and well-documented transformation of the world as we know it and its singular natural places spurs an anxious desire to experience natural wonder before it is too late. It’s “see it before it’s gone” travel, or eco-necro-tourism. In selecting its fifty-two places to travel in 2019, The New York Times explained that it considered climate change “a priority” and had sought out places we are “in danger of losing.” The Ontario ice caves, Olkhon Island, Dakar, and Tahiti appear to have made the list partly for this reason.
The desire to experience unique natural places before they disappear—and to fear and mourn their loss—is deeply human and understandable. Over a hundred years ago, John Muir explained that “everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike,” and a growing body of research confirms the collective wisdom that nature is good for us, in part because it reduces rumination on negative aspects of the self. Psychologists suggest that experiences in wild nature may be particularly valuable for our psychological and physical well-being, and those who study what makes us happy and why explain that experiences, like travel, have a greater impact on happiness than material possessions. Experiences become part of our identity, connect us to others, and are less comparable (and thus less susceptible to a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses competitiveness). We derive value simply from knowing that a natural resource exists—what researchers call existence value. We derive even more value from knowing that the resource will be preserved for future generations (bequest value). In one survey, 80 percent of people reported that national parks were important to them because they enjoy visiting them; 95 percent asserted that it was important to preserve national parks for current and future generations regardless of whether the respondent visited them personally.
Here’s the worst part: It is our children’s heritage that is most at risk. These threatened environments are embedded in our collective consciousness and culture (Arctic icebergs, glacier skiing in the Alps), yet our children (or their children) may live to see a world without them. Packing away my children’s preschool books, I paused on The Polar Express, struck by the realization that someday parents may need to explain to little listeners that yes, once the North Pole was white and frozen.
Research suggests that experiences in nature with a trusted adult instill lifelong environmental values. And allowing children to witness extraordinary nature may help prevent environmental generational amnesia—a gradual societal forgetting of what unspoiled nature looks and feels like as children born into degraded environments accept that degraded baseline as “nature.” A child’s experiences in nature can thus help us, as a society, remember a more wild, more magnificent natural world and instill a desire to restore it.
So the urge to engage in eco-necro-tourism is understandable—and the experience is potentially transformative. You might be raising a little environmentalist. But eco-necro-tourism is also potentially self-defeating. Visiting imperiled environments can hasten their demise. The greenhouse gas emissions alone from traveling to far-flung locations exacerbate climate change, and a high volume of tourists can ruin a fragile environment. So by all means, travel and see the world and appreciate the natural beauty of the planet, but please consider matching your travel footprint to the environmental love motivating your travel.
- Do no harm (or at least as little as possible). Limit the direct environmental impact of your travel. The first step is to choose a location that has the capacity to manage tourism in a sustainable way (see “Educate yourself,” below).Then be mindful about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with getting there, in particular flying. Consider choosing trips that don’t require a flight, limiting emissions by taking direct flights, and/or purchasing carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are an imperfect solution but can be more meaningful if they are priced to reflect the social cost of carbon ($50 per ton), achieve the offset within twelve months of the flight, and contribute to sustainable development. You can largely satisfy these offset principles by purchasing your offsets from Sustainable Travel International, which invites you to calculate your estimated carbon emissions and then set your own offset dollar value, thereby permitting you to incorporate an accurate social cost of carbon by multiplying your carbon emissions by $50. You are then further permitted to select the type of offset project you wish to purchase; the Gold Standards Offset Projects, focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, are more likely to manifest in a more timely fashion.Once you arrive, be a respectful visitor. Follow local rules; take care not to import toxic ingredients (for example, sunscreens harm coral reefs, so minimize the use of sunscreen by wearing UPF swimwear and choose mineral sunscreens that don’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate—Vive Sana is meant to be one of the most reef-safe); and prioritize low-impact activities (think kayaks instead of airboats). Spend your travel dollars in a way that supports sustainable tourism by patronizing local restaurants and the businesses of local entrepreneurs.
- Educate yourself. Take time to research the environmental condition of your destination (what are the main threats to the natural resource? Climate change, land clearing, polluted runoff?), and consider how tourism is impacting the local environment and community. Does the location have the capacity and infrastructure to sustainably manage ecotourism—i.e., to ensure that tourism safeguards environmental and cultural qualities, respects the rights of local communities, and contributes to viable long-term economic operations? One of the many blessings of the Google search bar is that we have the tools at hand to find much of this information with little effort. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature maintains a Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas that certifies areas as being effectively managed and fairly governed, and there are a number of travel companies and sustainable tourism groups that specialize in researching and vetting locations and vendors (such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and Responsible Travel).
- Support the cause. Join in the efforts to tackle the environmental threats facing your destination. Sending a check is great, but taking the time to identify a local group doing good work and visiting in person will have particular salience. If you visit a place threatened by imminent impacts of climate change, consider contributing to local climate adaptation efforts. Another worthy climate change cause that is a little off the radar but well worth supporting is the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which provides pro bono representation to climate scientists facing harassment and disparagement.
- Spread the (right) word. Be the best kind of influencer. Beautiful photos posted to social media can function like a breathless exhortation to others to visit—“how stunning, you have to see this!”—particularly when geotagged with location data. But social-media-fueled copycat travel can stress already fragile environments. During your trip, free yourself from the pressure to photo document and post and immerse yourself in nature. (Or at least consider following Leave No Trace’s social media guidance.) And when you come home and talk about your experience, support beneficial social norms by focusing on how environmental concerns shaped your travel decisions. Explain the relevant environmental threats, be open about how the possibility of irreversible environmental loss or degradation motivated you to visit, and share how you limited your travel footprint. (If you decide to forgo flights to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, talk particularly loudly about that choice—be conspicuous in your nonconsumption!)
It is undeniably bittersweet to behold the wonder of a singular environment with the knowledge that it may soon be gone. In some sense, to engage in eco-necro-tourism is to bear witness to a generational loss of home—the term “ecology” comes from the German reference to the ancient Greek word “oikos,” signifying house, household, or family’s property. It hurts us to experience or anticipate that environmental degradation is causing or will cause changes to and loss of places that are special to us; psychologists and sociologists have coined new terms (solastalgia, eritalgia) to describe these emerging worries and anxieties, which were recently cited by a court in Australia when it upheld the denial of a permit to dig a new coal mine. But it is also an enormous privilege to have the resources to visit these environments and the time and energy to contemplate their loss. Climate change is deeply unjust in that its most immediate and severe impacts are being visited first and most disastrously upon those in the developing world with the least responsibility for the problem, the least power to mitigate it, and the least capacity to protect themselves. There’s simply no time or justification for ineffectual hand-wringing. Treat eco-necro-tourism as a privilege paired with responsibility—responsibility to cognize the full human and environmental impacts of climate change, responsibility to shrink your own environmental footprint, and responsibility to push for better environmental policies.
Katrina Fischer Kuh is the Haub Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Kuh focuses on climate change and sustainability. She has taught environmental law, international environmental law, global climate change and US law, and administrative law and torts. She was previously on the faculty at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, where she was a professor of law and served as an associate dean of intellectual life. Prior to working in academia, Kuh worked in environmental and litigation practice groups and served as an advisor on natural resource policy in the United States Senate. She received her undergraduate and law degrees from Yale.