Returning to the Wanderlust in 1980 on a dhoni 'manned' by boys.
We were very pleased to see that last week, the editors over at the New York Times added another great blog to their mix: Dot Earth, which will focus on sustainability and climate change and is written by science reporter Andrew C. Revkin. In his introductory slide show, Revkin describes how much of his reporting has been informed by his varied travels, so we decided to ask him to delve a bit deeper about the place where travel and sustainability collide.
Before you became a reporter, you sailed around the world. Can you tell us a bit about that experience and how it led you to do what you're doing now?
As a senior about to graduate Brown University with a biology bachelor's degree (I had visions of being a marine biologist, thanks to Jacques Cousteau), I won a fellowship allowing me to pursue a proposal to study "man's relationship to the sea" in some isolated villages on islands—Fetuna, Raiatea, and a couple of places in the Tuamotus, in French Polynesia.
After a few months, I headed to New Zealand for a big international science conference and while in Auckland saw a sign that said simply: "Crew Wanted, Yacht Wanderlust, headed to Mediterranean. Inquire Marsden Wharf." I'd grown up in Rhode Island sailing, but not bluewater cruising. Nevertheless, that was hard to pass up. I sent a letter back to the fellowship committee at my school and said I was going to study man's relationship to the sea in a more intimate way. . .
I was on the boat for 17 months, 15,000 miles, and about 15 countries as we sailed around Australia, through Indonesia, across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, and around the Mediterranean. I saw the splendor of untouched reefs, the troubles created by poverty and pollution, we almost sank twice, and all of that prompted me to take a lot of photographs and return planning to be a writer, not a scientist.
Through your varied reporting assignments, I'm sure you've returned to many places and noted how they've changed over time. What are some of changes that have impacted you most?
When I first stayed in Fetuna, on Raiatea, it had no paved roads, one telephone, and no electricity. We lived a dawn-to-dusk life, mainly drawing on the reef for fish and the hillsides for yams and other produce. I returned in 1988 and it had pavement, power, phones, and every single aspect of life had changed. They were watching American soap operas dubbed into French on their TVs, eating frozen fish, and selling beer and soda through a cutout counter built in the side of the thatched house. I'm sure they saw the changes as an improvement. To me, it felt like a mistake, but who was I to make that judgment? That question—how much is enough?—has been something I've been focused on ever since.
I'm planning on going back in 2008 to see how things have played out.
The Maldives were a sleepy island chain with about 155,000 people in 1980 and now that population has more than doubled. Malé, the capital island/city, had no buildings taller than two stories then. Now it looks like a cookie cutout excised from, say, Tampa and stuck in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
There's an ongoing debate in the travel sector about whether tourism in endangered places should be limited. Some people say that stopping people from visiting precarious spots will help protect them—while others say that seeing these places will inspire people to save them. What do you think?
I do think places can be loved to death. But I also think it's vital for people to experience this wonderfully variegated Earth, and human tapestry, to build an inner sense that we're all really neighbors on a small planet. The most extraordinary ecosystems need careful monitoring and limited access. Slightly less extraordinary places can probably absorb more visitors. I haven't been to the Galapagos yet, and I'm very eager to do so. That is a place where striking a balance between access and preservation is clearly vital, but particularly tough.
One of the new trends in travel is buying shares to offset carbon emissions from flying. Do you see these practices becoming more widespread? What changes within the industry would you like to see?
Aviation is a small, but fast-growing percentage of total greenhouse-gas emissions, and a tough one because there's no such thing as a hybrid jet engine (yet). I wrote about Sir Richard Branson's new push to develop a biofuel-based aviation fuel. That's a sector where such a fuel could be an important advance and—if the energy required to grow the fuel crop is low enough—a significant plus in the fight to limit carbon dioxide emissions.
For the moment, there's no reliable way to gauge the real climate value of most of the offsets that some airlines purchase, and some flyers can purchase. I wrote about that question not long ago as well here. The offsets industry is trying to develop standards, but for the moment it's mainly "buyer beware."
Thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship, I'll have some extra travel funds and plan to go to south Asia, Bhutan (I wrote about their notion of "gross national happiness" in 2005 from afar, but need to explore it up close), Africa, and—of course—China.
I'll also be exploring suburbia and cities closer to home, particularly efforts to reinvent our structures, communities, and lifestyles that reduce our climate and environmental impact while enhancing our lives.
A blog better reflects the nature of the challenges we face in the next few decades, which are wrapped in substantial uncertainty and will require a lot of learning by doing, and resilience. My blog will be an open-ended exploration of trends, ideas, and news instead of an old-style report that implies we know everything now.
It's also interactive, and because the world is such a big place, I'm counting on readers to pitch in when they see something that's relevant to the framing question: how do we head toward nine billion people on a finite planet with the fewest regrets?
Photos: above - (c) Andrew Revkin; below - Andrew Revkin stands near a sign erected by scientists
on the sea ice 30 miles from the North Pole in 2003. The change in the
sign -- from North Pole Is Here to North Pole Was Here -- reflected
that the ice camp was drifting about 400 yards an hour.
courtesy Peter West/ National Science Foundation.