Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Is Polar Tourism Really That Dangerous?Polar tourism has been a moderately hot topic around the fringes of the respectable press lately. None of the scientific experts that I know of approves of it, and I see that President Obama has announced that he wants to restrict it, I assume by international agreement among reasonable and civilized men and women like himself, and myself as well. I concede I have not been to either the Arctic or Antarctic regions to observe and confirm first hand what is going on, but I don't doubt that the reports of dramatic melting of ice shelves and glaciers, or the softening of the permafrost in Alaska that is destabilizing the foundations of buildings there and so forth, are true. While I am not absolutely convinced that all of this is the direct result of human fossil fuel energy consumption--overall the earth and the atmosphere still seem, intuitively, rather too vast and complicated and inexorable to be affected by human activity to that degree--that it might be so is I suppose plausible. Apparently we are getting very close for example to depleting some of the major fish stocks in the world's oceans, which also seems intuitively impossible. Yet right here in New England the cod, which was one of the foundations on which the entire region was settled and built, has, it is said, been virtually extirpated from the seas, and is not expected to come back in anything like its former numbers any time soon.

Granting all that however, I still don't see how a few cruise ships full of largely docile tourists is a threat to the polar ecosystems that needs to be stopped right away. While I am partially reassured by their ads that the Exxon corporation does care deeply about the environment, I would think activities like oil exploration would have the potential to be a lot more damaging. The continent of Antarctica is bigger than Europe. Baffin Island in the Arctic is far larger than Britain. There isn't a hotel or resort or casino or railroad line or anything resource-depleting directly attributable to tourism there to my knowledge. Greenland is half the size of Australia and has a population smaller than that of Portland, Maine, which my relatives in Pennsylvania mistook for the end of the world when they came to visit us there. I have driven around quite a bit in the sliver (on the map) of territory in Quebec that is along the U.S. border--supposedly the inhabitated part of the province--and it is for the most part staggeringly, almost terrifyingly vast and empty. A hour or two north of Montreal the roads and settlements end altogether and you've still got 7/8ths of the province of Quebec before you, untouched woods, rivers, and so on, for the most part. And after that you still aren't to the polar regions. The idea that 35,000 people over the course of a year passing through that area on ships is a mortal threat to that environment seems preposterous. I guess the idea is that they are uniquely sensitive and crucial, that the ice levels affect the ecological balance of the whole world in a way that bludgeoning all remnants of nature from the British countryside or the coast of Florida does not. Being my uncredentialed, half-educated, petit bourgeois self however, I of course think that the experts and the powerful--the really powerful, since anybody booking a cruise to Antarctica is probably in the top 5% of income and educational distribution himself--it isn't a cheap ticket--just want to nip this trend very early on, before the idea does start to trickle down--horrors beyond imagining! (and I mean that in all sincerity)--to people like me, who are the great ruiners, the great enemies, of all the finest and noblest thoughts and creations, of man and nature alike.

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