The Ethics of Exploration

Standing on the cruise ship’s deck, staring at the brilliantly blue wall of ice in front of me, it was hard to tell which I wanted more: to see and hear the glacier calve with my own eyes, or for our ship to sail away and leave the wild Marjorie glacier as we’d left it. It didn’t take two minutes for my inner conflict to be resolved. A rumble of thunder, a puff of ice slivers, and a rapidly expanding circle of ripples indicated that some portion of the glacier had simply slipped away into the frigid Alaskan water. By the time the ship moved along fifteen minutes later, the glacier had calved four times.

The convenience and accessibility of contemporary means of travel has had a dramatic impact on the way humans interact with the world and each other. The very fact of our online ‘zine attests to the fact that people are traveling more frequently and more casually, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to claim that a lot of us in the so-called Millenial Generation view international travels as a rite of passage between adolescence and early adulthood. For many of us, those experiences abroad have a significant impact on our self-perceptions as our lives mature. But what kind of impact does our travel have on the world?

To go back to the glacier story, let me point out a couple of things. The first is that calving is a natural part of a glacier’s lifespan, occurring as the massive ice shelves shift and “travel” along mountain valleys in response to the weight of snow accumulation. The second is that there’s a huge heap of evidence that most glaciers are receding- that is, are calving faster than they’re forming new ice. The third is that, as I mentioned, I was standing on the deck of a cruise ship…and cruises constitute the vanguard of environmentally irresponsible forms of travel. What I was witnessing wasn’t just the product of snowfall pressure miles and miles away, but also the product of the water and fuel usage of the ship carrying me along.

Environmental concerns aren’t the only thing worth mentioning, however. Travel opportunities have certainly expanded in the last few decades, but the people to whom they’re accessible are a limited segment of the global population. You don’t have to be rich to travel, but you do have to be able to afford time off from work, documentation, travel tickets, and your food budget. On top of that, the places we’re visiting are impacted by our decisions as well: as Lillie’s posts have highlighted in the past, local economies and cultures are becoming increasingly dependent on tourism for economic survival, even bringing children into the equation. And, of course, in some areas this means that unique and rich cultures have been reduced to their most marketable elements- on Okinawa, Japan, it’s impossible to find a shop that isn’t trying to sell cheap shi-shi dogs to the thousands of tourists they encounter daily.

I realize that this article is starting to sound preachy, and I don’t want it to- if for no other reason than preaching on this subject certainly makes me a hypocrite. The takeaway point shouldn’t be to stay in our homes and never explore the world for fear of being unethical tourists. Rather, the point is that it’s so easy to get caught up in the amazing things we see around the world that we forget that our actions have effects. If a cruise is what you’re dead set on doing, do some research to see what various companies are doing to reduce their environmental footprint. When considering tourist activities, look into how the business enterprises in the area give back to their communities (if at all). And as always, take the time to learn local cultural expectations of politeness and respectful behaviour. Taking the time to do these things not only does great things for the places we’re visiting, but can give us much more enriching experiences to tell our loved ones about when we get home.