The ethical traveller’s guide to enjoying capitalism
Unlike humans, the albatross is monogamous. Most birds are, but the albatross especially does not stray unless there is a crisis. Hence, the albatross chick has an additional parent—the faithful father. This is one of the reasons why the great bird has thrived in time. Morality, in albatrosses, as in humans, is primarily only a good idea. But what is good for evolution might be oppressive in a lifespan. High environmental sensitivity, for instance. How must we escape the hard logic of the right thing?
In February, Condé Nast Traveller sent me to Antarctica. I flew to the southern tip of Argentina, from where I boarded a cruise liner that sailed for two days through a beautiful storm. Finally, here was a cataclysm an Indian from the Coromandel Coast could enjoy without guilt because no homeless people were going to die in it. Maybe we should not have so much respect for social guilt that we suffer it on the way to Antarctica, but it was the sort of ship and the sort of journey that constantly relayed to the voyagers that the natural residue of happiness is guilt. The dominant virtue on the boat was environmentalism. We were, after all, going to the sanctum sanctorum of nature where a precarious balance, apparently, held off apocalypse. In those circumstances, to be human was to be a delinquent.
In some passengers, their environmental ethics was like a glorious wound, an open wound they flaunted, like the flaming heart of Jesus Christ. Quark Expeditions’ leadership was reassuringly tyrannical about the environment. The vessel did not expel any waste into the Antarctic waters. When we reached Antarctica, a vast roll of midget mountains lying beneath hundreds of metres of ancient and primordial snow, our sophisticated handlers sterilized our boots before we boarded the inflatable boats that would take us to the mainland. The fact that most of the ship’s white-collar staff were marine biologists somehow seemed respectful of nature. They did not permit us to leave anything behind on land, not even urine, nor bring any rock back with us. They instructed us not to cross the cordons that marked the colonies of the penguins, or to speak to the birds, or touch them. To fly a drone over Antarctica, you need to get a permit before you set out on the voyage. Also, we were not called tourists, who are foes of nature. We were “explorers”. Our vacation was not a vacation, but an “expedition”.
On the ship, if you said, in a careless moment, that you did not believe in climate change, someone might have thrown you overboard. There was a young American tourist who, every day of our expedition into Antarctica, kept a watch for unrefined people who would wander beyond a cordon into the penguin colony, or step on an ancient fossil. And he would scream, “Watch it.” An ignorant fur seal, unaware of his goodness, chased him on a beach one evening. He looked very embarrassed as though he himself had violated nature.
There were many others on the ship who had become fierce guardians of the world. One night, some explorers led by an endearing mountaineer called Mandip Singh Soin gathered in a room and took an oath on a bottle of Antarctic water that they would save the continent from other humans.
This was a place where people thought poorly of those who belched smoke from a smokestack. Yet, that is exactly what the giant ship did. Scores of similar “expeditions” every year expelled thousands of explorers into the fragile wild of Antarctica. Almost every day in the summers they came in polluting ships; surrounded seals and whales and shot pictures; laughed in a manner that made the birds leave their perches. Then they went back to the ships and listened to their scholarly handlers who gave PowerPoint presentations in the auditorium that demonstrated the threat humans posed to Antarctica. As in the outside world, everybody on the ship articulated a moral objective so that they could justify an amoral act.
It was appropriate that the ship should belch smoke from the smokestack, because the boat, like any other giant chimney, was a creation of capitalism. Every passenger had spent at least half a million rupees to be there; many had spent much more. They were aware of it. Their high-strung activist reactions were, in fact, compensation for being material consumers. The ship’s guides, who were great lovers of Antarctica’s wildlife but whose high income depended on the mild pollution of the continent, never slacked while making tourists conform to every little rule.
Those who did not overreact to Antarctica were the victims of capitalism, or those who lived on its fringes, people who had somehow gathered enough money to go on a pilgrimage to nature’s holiest place. A rickshaw-puller from New York saw in the purity of Antarctica the greatness of the universe and the smallness of wealth and success, which he did not possess. A young nomadic couple saw in the extraterrestrial quality of Antarctica the confirmation that they had not wasted their best years doing nothing.
But most of the others, the consumers, the bankers and merchants and people who had thrived on capitalism, wondered how to be ethical travellers in a delicate place and still enjoy the capitalism of high-end travel.
One night on the ship, a poet and her friends were chatting, and as they considered the bleak future of Antarctica, they decried capitalism. But then it occurred to them that there is something very wrong with complaining about capitalism while sitting in a luxury cruise liner. They began to whip themselves in the familiar ways of those who are rich and conscientious at once. They termed their materialism “a contradiction”, which is a word for hypocrisy in nice people. But then is hypocrisy really such a big sin? Especially in those who do not earn their income or respect from self-righteousness? In most of us who have never claimed to be more noble than the others, isn’t hypocrisy actually a fundamental right? We want to save Antarctica and we wish to go there in a steamship. It’s all right. Like a bit of junk food and practicality. It’s all right. In some circumstances, even the albatross strays.
The ethical traveller, once in Antarctica, may find an attitude very useful in minimizing damage to nature. It is an attitude that might be useful in all beautiful places, actually in any place where one stands and stares—the quiet acceptance that it is not all about us. The world and the universe do not exist for us, certainly not to make us happy; we do not need to take so many amateur pictures of elephant seals from so close; and we do not have to laugh aloud or convey thoughts or create other forms of noise in the presence of natural silence, which has its own vital fragility. Besotted with nature’s most sacred places, the capitalist need not abstain, but could consider the second best form of conservation—austerity.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.