Since I watched Rajan Datur’s video coverage of the WTTC Global Summit on Fastrack in Abu Dhabi last month (see last post), I’ve been unable to silence a song from my childhood that replays in my head – Danny Kaye’s musical rendition of the famous tale of Hans Christian Andersen: the Emperor Who Wore No Clothes. If you have children or grandchildren with any innocence left check out the old but enduring charming film. Click the image, start 1.10 mins in and let the message soak in!
I had taken a pause from blogging for four months for two reasons – to complete a project and to turn off the chatter of an over informed brain. Pauses clarify.
While in my first post of 2013 I expressed disappointment with the position taken by the Summit’s leaders, allocation of blame wasn’t my intent.
At this incredibly portentous time in human history, we’re each and all caught up in a web of denial that has become the sticky stuff that binds our relationships with each other and the natural world.
At best we are entranced; at worst addicted. Our neurological development has not kept pace with our technical prowess and, like the King in Andersen’s story, our hubris has blinded and our constant “busyness” has deafened us to the wisdom of our subconscious.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale it took an innocent child with an unbroken heart and senses fresh and intact to see and speak the truth.
There’s been considerable research as to why humanity is acting so slowly in response to the converging change forces pushing us towards the cliff’s edge. The reptilian parts of our brains are wired to sense and respond to the personal threat that our senses register. The newer, frontal lobe that is the source of our technical brilliance and feeds off endless analysis and discussion, has not yet evolved similar response mechanisms. Furthermore, our need to belong and be accepted is more associated with this growing part of our neurological development.
We’re like movie goers on a Friday night who’ve settled down into a comfy sofa with popcorn and coke to accompany our hard earned night of entertainment and distraction. Someone yells “fire” and our reptilian brain leaps into action. But if there’s another reassuring voice saying the alarm was false and, since we can’t smell fire and no one else is scrambling to their feet, we relax deeper into our chairs. We’ve paid good money for our seats and we deserve a night off. Yet all it would take is the whiff of burning plastic and distant signs of rapid movement across the theatre and our urge to shift would be irresistible. Getting to the exit before death/injury by trampling or burning would instantly become our first priority.
So in that sense I am grateful for our lousy Spring weather – even though I am thoroughly fed up with grey skies and have felt colder here in the UK in May than I did in December. Extreme weather is nature’s kind way of arousing the reptile in us and perhaps it can do what armies of bickering scientists or retired politicians with slide decks and a huge budget have yet failed to do – wake us up to a reality no one wishes to contemplate. Research shows that the more we experience extreme weather events personally, the more likely we are to acknowledge that climate is changing faster than normal.
The Need to Focus
Over the past 2 years I’ve been invited to speak at over 20 tourism gatherings and presented my share of slides and facts joining up the dots of change, interpreting the clouds gathering on the horizon and suggesting responses. (It’s all here on slideshare). But I now realize I have sold both my audience and myself short. The message wasn’t clear and compelling enough. The metaphorical “fire” in my story is actually frozen sunlight (carbon) – the fossilized remains of other species we’ve been burning to fuel the fastest most amazing economic and social expansion in human history. Carbon is not only the most dangerous, pervasive waste product of our “industrial civilisation” but, by focussing on the problems it generates, we could also solve many equally challenging but derivative problems: biodiversity loss, economic disparity, food security etc.
We’ve got two worlds existing in tourism – the traditional mainstream that is preoccupied with business as usual (i.e., more of everything so long as that delivers more profit even if it delivers less value to the places it exploits). I don’t expect this group to like my message – yet. There are plenty of agencies and consultants all too willing to provide the platitudes and spin to make the status quo feel comfortable and, as illustrated in Abu Dhabi, even glittering and chic. They seem oblivious to the fact that the industrial model on which is it based inevitably passes its prime and starts to generate diminishing returns and less net benefit.
The other world comprises a huge but fractured, sometimes fractious fringe that is growing and spreading like multiple infections that haven’t yet coalesced. By necessity, participants in alternative tourism are forced to focus on symptoms not causes of our malaise and because there are so many varied and increasing expressions of what is irresponsible, their efforts appear disjointed and only of local relevance. But the good news is that they are growing in number and their experience is highly practical, resourceful and their commitment to building a better tourism never to be underestimated or under valued. Their weakness, on the other hand, stems from the fact that they are too inward looking – applying labels, arguing over definitions and decrying the expression of a problem but not joining up with their counterparts in society who are addressing deeper causes and systemic disfunctionality.
It’s as if we are arguing over the cut, make and style of the King’s clothes rather than admit he is, in fact, naked.
The REAL PROBLEM
The challenge facing us all transcends discussions about good versus bad tourism. Tourism – even in a better form – will not survive a failure to deal with the issue of carbon. Like junkies we are dependent and addicted.
Drug cartels and drug pushers benefit from their trafficking when they are not caught. It’s a very profitable business that absorbs participation from all levels of society. Carbon pushers – the fossil fuel companies – are now are pulling our strings but are as addicted and at risk as the rest of us.
The real crisis of carbon is only just being recognized: $27 trillion in asset value can only be realized if that resource is burned. And, if it is – to quote the courageous head of the IMF, Yvonne Lagarde – we all fry. If it is not exploited, it becomes a “stranded asset” infinitely less attractive to investors than a dubious Credit Default Swap.
The light is going on in the boardrooms of institutional investors, rating companies, and even in investment banks that fossil-based energy sources could pose a real and growing credit risk and if these fears are acted upon, it will cause the biggest market shift in human history.
I feel confident predicting that the next really big topic of conversation will be the carbon bubble that has the potential to dwarf all previous bubbles that burst in recent history. Furthermore, it’s in tourism’s best interest to prick that bubble sooner rather than later to avoid financial meltdown that will seize up markets.
Do you smell smoke? I can. It’s seeping out from the high rise offices of the financial community.
Time to move. The exit is over here (see next post). It was a crap movie anyway!