Destroying the planet to save it

Ecotourism in Zimbabwe. Source: JackyR (

Flying harms the climate. Air travel is growing rapidly. Its net impact is nearly twice as great as the impact of the CO2 emissions alone, much greater than that from cars. Air travel creates nitrous oxides, water vapor, sulfate aerosols, soot aerosols, and contrails. Noted climate activist Greta Thunberg famously went out of her way to avoid flying to a climate conference on the other side of the Atlantic.

So should we all stop flying, or at least avoid flying as much as possible? In a recent New York Times opinion article, Costas Christ (of Beyond Green Travel) argued that flying as part of wildlife tourism may actually be climate-friendly. Wildlife tourism gives an obvious incentive to local economies to preserve wildlife; but wildlife tourism absolutely depends on airline travel. If we stopped flying altogether, the wildlife tourism industry would die, and the ecosystems which support this wildlife—along with the wildlife itself—would disappear. Forest ecosystems would be replaced with cattle ranches.

I can’t really fault anyone who, using this logic, flies off to Africa to see the elephants. We live in an imperfect world, and we have to make the best of a bad deal. The odd thing about this argument is that it makes wildlife dependent on the economy. But it’s precisely the economy which is the main driver behind the destruction of wildlife! Must we, with long-distance air travel, destroy the planet in order to save it?

It’s true that wildlife tourism is the most benign use possible of the land. We look, but don’t touch. But it is still an intrusion, marked by the greenhouse gas emissions which are emitted into the atmosphere to maintain it. If something else were to come along that’s more profitable than saving the elephants, they’d probably kiss the elephants goodbye. Suppose that huge ores of gold and diamonds were found in elephant habitat? Using this logic, they’d cheerfully send the elephants off into extinction—or, if they’re lucky, to zoos.

Wilderness is, by definition, a place where humans do not intrude. Otherwise it’s not “wild,” it’s just a relatively benign extension of the human economy. Haven’t we thereby eliminated the wilderness? Must humans take over every last square inch of the globe?

We could take this logic further. Instead of imagining a world in which no one flies, suppose that we imagined a world in which people only flew for wildlife? If people only flew to and from Africa (or other ecotourist destinations), I don’t think the airline industry would survive. The airline industry is already hurting because of the rise in energy prices; it depends on volume to be economical. This drastic reduction in volume would force “wildlife airlines” to charge exorbitant prices. This in turn would result in a drastic decline in wildlife tourism, and—since we presume that these elephants are only surviving because of tourism—a corresponding decline in wildlife. Soon there would just be a sole elephant herd somewhere in Africa that Bill Gates and a few multi-billionaires would visit once a year, paying homage to the wilderness that has been destroyed.

Source: BlogDeBanderas,,_Tanzania.jpg

Let’s take this thought experiment a bit further. Suppose that, in a world in which the only flights are to wildlife destinations, I decide to defy this expectation and fly to Las Vegas in order to drink and gamble, and that enough of my degenerate compatriots followed suit. This might help the airline industry to survive, which in turn would make wildlife tourism more viable! Suddenly, my frivolous trip to Las Vegas now becomes virtuous because it helps the elephants. If we take this thought experiment far enough, we could rationalize away almost anything we’re doing today.

What is wrong with this picture? First of all, if you have to commercialize wildlife in order to preserve it, then it’s not wildlife. The whole problem with the economy is that humans have completely overrun the planet and there’s no space for anything else. Almost all of the large animals on the planet are either humans or animals that humans eat. There is just a small sliver of biomass of elephants, buffalos, antelopes, giraffes, etc., and a correspondingly small sliver of the ecosystems to support these remaining animals. That’s all that’s left of the so-called “wilderness,” and that’s just what’s going on right now.

Secondly, the force that’s destroying the planet is the expanding economy. We cannot truly preserve wildlife (or the atmosphere, or anything else) unless we come to terms with fundamental limits to growth. I understand why people fly to Africa to see the wildlife, or for that matter within the U. S. to see their relatives.  What I have a problem with is an economy that forces us to make these sorts of choices. We need to embrace a much smaller economy. We should protect wilderness directly, rather than relying on the profit motive to do the job.

9 Replies to “Destroying the planet to save it”

  1. this was so interesting!
    never thought about this before… have always felt so guilty about my carbon emissions from travel so this is quite an encouraging take. What are your thoughts about offsetting flights/carbon emissions with carbon credits? Helpful? Waste of time? Scam?

    One option:

    1. Hi Hana,

      My personal response is just to avoid flying as much as possible. I haven’t actively researched carbon offsets. If you take this route, though, you should make sure you’re offsetting the total emissions effects, not just the CO2. The CO2-equivalent effects of airline travel are almost double that of the actual CO2 put into the atmosphere. Also, watch out for scams.

      This should be a political problem, not a question of individual conscience or private enterprise creating a “market” for (relatively) virtuous activities. Don’t feel guilty, feel responsible. Perhaps you could develop “activist offsets”: work for political and social change so that what you’re doing that you would otherwise feel guilty about, can’t happen.

      In terms of wilderness, we should protect wilderness directly. E. g. in the U. S., we could have something like the Buffalo Commons proposal. In terms of greenhouse gases, we should implement a carbon tax and an absolute cap on carbon emissions (including CO2 from deforestation), PLUS a similar tax and cap on methane and nitrous oxides, PLUS a tax on foregone carbon sequestration. “Foregone carbon sequestration” is the carbon that you PREVENT from being sequestered naturally through reforestation or revegetation. Translation: this refers to grazing land that would revert to forests if we did nothing.

      This is a huge undertaking, much bigger than envisioned by the “Green New Deal” advocates, and would likely make everyone in the United States a lot poorer. Consistently carried out, everything gets a lot more expensive in a hurry. We can then get into a discussion of equity; we can no longer rely on a “growth economy” to solve our problems with poverty. Poverty would worsen if such environmental taxes were applied by themselves. (For example: see the “Yellow Vest” protests in France.) We have to redistribute income directly, e. g. through a “basic income” sufficient to support a single individual.

      In the article I was just addressing one small part of this issue: whether wildlife tourism could, by preserving wildlife, either partially or entirely preserve wildlife. My answer: no. At best, this trades one problem (wildlife extinctions) for another (climate change). At worst, wildlife tourism effectively eliminates wildlife; if elephants are part of our economy, they’re not truly “wild” anymore. They just live in a very, very, benign zoo.

  2. Radical cultural shift is in our future — the age of “personal choice” is quickly coming to an end. We live, like the perhaps apocryphal Chinese curse says, “in interesting times.” The ticket cost for this dubious privilege is the loss of carefree consumption of every generation before us, save for moments of national war effort, the nature and purpose of which we must relearn as our species, for the first (or second*) time in recorded history, must act to preserve our survival (if not the species itself, the civilization to which we’ve become accustomed). Western society has set the bar for middle-class consumption too high (one source says six times too high), and the UN recognizes that the emerging middle class of developing nations, which is growing faster than overall population, fully intends to demonstrate their arrival by “eating like Americans.” that example must rapidly be revolutionized, for food, travel, technological choice, and all consumption. A wrong chess move will upset the whole board for the civilization we hold dear; a few billionaires living in their bunkers or isolated communities adapting to increasingly erratic climate is not any kind of consolation.

    A systemic shift of our society is necessary, and that means that there is both the incremental shift from a status quo of privileged consumption to an understanding that our birthright as an Earthling is both that we absolutely belong here, but now have limits on how much of the Earth is ours. This affects all areas of consumption, from food to flight to accumulated possessions — our claim to belong must comprehend the sharing of all resources to include the animal kingdom, the biosphere, and the atomosphere.

    We have eliminated the advertisement of tobacco from public places. As our understanding of high-emissions, high-ecological impact foods of questionable nutrition becomes more clear, similar “luxury tax” will be applied (I suspect that even a gradual phasing out of meat and dairy subsidies would collapse what David Simon calls “the false economy of meat” #Meatonomics). Is it a foregone conclusion that the fetishizing of world travel will also go the way of the cigarette? Is the workplace “perk” of business travel a companion to the overestimated benefit of in-person gatherings in a burgeoning age of teleconferencing and virtual/augmented reality? Maybe the carbon-soaked bacon cheeseburger of today will be joined by the sand-between-the-toes addiction we address tomorrow.

    * Arguably, navigating the Cold War and mutual-assured destruction is the first chronologically; it cannot truly be categorized as “solved.”

    1. You’ve nailed it. Some have proposed, among many other things, eliminating advertising as an allowed business expense, since most advertising is basically a public nuisance and just promotes increased consumption.

  3. You got some thoughtful responses to which I would like to add that while it’s good and necessary to critique the Green New Deal, some form of it is absolutely essential. That carbon dioxide will linger long in the air and GND will temporarily make it worse – but if we don’t have enact some form of it, we are doomed even if we all go vegan.

    1. The main problem is calling it a “Green New Deal.” This deliberately invokes images of FDR’s “New Deal.” But in FDR’s case, the purpose was to help the poor by expanding the economy. That’s exactly what we don’t want to do (and for the most part can’t do anyway). We have to address inequality directly by redistributing wealth, keeping everyone fed and warm in the winter, and at the same time making the economy smaller.

      1. Ultimately, but the infrastructure has to be built anyway and people have to build it, and that’s going to cause a temporary boom in economic growth just as temporarily we will see an increase in CO2. I do think AOC and company are looking to lift up the working class as FDR did with Works Projects Administration, etc. I don’t disagree with you; but I don’t think we can avoid putting millions of people to work changing the energy grid – solar potentially employs more people than petroleum. How do we “sell” no growth economics anyway? We sound pretty nuts to the average American.

        1. Sure, we need to build the infrastructure anyway, so why not get started? We need to see the plan first. Because:
          1. The critical decision is not whether to build renewables (or nuclear or anything else), but when and where to cut back on fossil fuel emissions. The IPCC now says probably 10 years and we’ll be past critical tipping points.
          2. AND, if CO2 emissions fall — whether because substitutes are developed, because there’s a world-wide economic collapse, or because we all decide to live in poverty (it doesn’t matter!) — it will likely propel us past critical tipping points and into a permanently warmer world, perhaps a fatally warmer runaway greenhouse world. “Inquiring minds want to know.”
          3. More questions: will renewables be able to sustain existing levels of energy consumption? I doubt it, as I argued in this post from 2017. If we don’t warn people about this in advance, we risk a mass revulsion against climate science.
          4. Without a strong emphasis on veganism and reforestation, NO plan to deal with climate change, not even living in poverty, is going to work.

          Clearly we need to so something. The one thing that we can probably all agree on is that we need a plan and the politicians need to come up with one. If they don’t, we should disrupt everything about politics as usual. So (1) politically, we should demand that politicians accept the science and come up with a solution, and (2) scientifically, we should pressure the scientists to come up with a plan that will actually work, and will address reforestation.

          This sounds like a blog, so maybe I’ll write one up.

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