The Future’s Here, We Are It, We Are On Our Own

We have been put on notice – and it isn’t the first time. In 1992, The Union of Concerned Scientists – a collection of 1700 scientists from 71 countries, including the majority of Nobel Laureates – issued its first warning. It cautioned that “vast human misery” and an “irretrievably mutilated global home and planet” will result unless humanity affects a “great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it” by adopting a more sustainable and egalitarian approach to our existence.

“We will leave this place an empty stone
Or shining ball of blue we can call our home.”
– Grateful Dead

Twenty-five years later, in November 2017, the same organization reiterated the same dire warning, concluding that “soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out.” Graphic illustrations of humanity’s efforts (or lack thereof) from 1960 to 2016 were included. With two exceptions, the lines on these charts before and after 1992 are virtually identical.

A Declining Direction Towards Depletion

One small victory is the improvement of the stratosphere’s ozone layer, which is expected to recover significantly. The other charts, lamentably, indicate the opposite. Vertebrate biodiversity, total forest cover, and per capita freshwater resources continue on steep declines. Meanwhile, oceanic dead zones, carbon emissions, temperatures, and human and domesticated animal populations continue to rise at alarming rates.

Street art mural in La Paz, Mexico depicting commercial and recreational fishing

Mural in La Paz, Mexico

Besides ozone depletion, another trend has reversed direction, but not for the better. Global fishery harvests have been steadily declining since 1996. Not because there are fewer fishing boats, but because there are fewer fish. The oceans govern the planet and if the oceans die, the rest of the planet won’t be far behind.

Water, Water Everywhere

Most of our travel has been slow travel – overland with flights over oceans and unstable regions. It has also mostly been spent on, near or in the water. Starting on the island nation of Singapore in Southeast Asia, we watched turtles lay eggs in Malaysia and learned to dive in Thailand. We got soaked by monsoons in Cambodia, cruised down the rivers of Laos, and hiked across glacial valleys in Nepal.

We followed the subcontinent’s coastlines in India, and bounced from sea to sea to sea through the Middle East. Starting at the Black Sea and down to the Aegean in Turkey, we visited the water wheels of Hama and the oasis of Palmyra in Syria. After floating on the Dead Sea in Jordan and diving the Red Sea in Egypt, we finished on the Mediterranean coast in Morocco.

Slow Travel Salmon Glacier near Hyder, Alaska

Salmon Glacier near Hyder, Alaska

In South America, we found Laguna Quilatoa filling the crater of an extinct volcano in Ecuador. An Amazon riverboat brought us from Colombia to the jungles of Peru where we also made our way to Bolivia via Laguna Titicaca – the world’s highest navigable body of water – and a trip across Bolivia’s salt flats and alkaline lakes took us through the Andean Altiplano. As we headed east, we visited the wetlands of Esteros del Iberá in Argentina, explored Cataratas del Iguazú and crossed into Brazil, where we spent several weeks surfing on an Atlantic beach.

Slow Travel In A Fast World

Back in Africa, after island-hopping down the Swahili coast in Kenya and Tanzania, we enjoyed some freshwater diving in Malawi, witnessed “the smoke that thunders” at Victoria Falls in Zambia, camped on chilly wind-swept Atlantic beaches in Namibia, and went surfing in South Africa. That trip ended with nearly four months in China, where we saw dried shark fins prominently displayed in Hong Kong’s markets and barges laden with coal plying the Yangtze River, and joined pilgrims as they circled Nam Tzo – the largest lake in Tibet.

Zebras rest at a watering hole in Namibia's Etosha National Park

Zebras rest at a watering hole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park

Of course, there’s plenty of water to be explored on our own continent of North America. We’ve been skiing the mountains and glaciers of western Canada for decades, traveled the coastlines of the United States, dived all over Mexico and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and surfed the beaches of Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast.

Consumption And Choices

Freshwater resources and the oceans’ health are cornerstones of life on Earth, and every choice we make affects them. The challenge is to make conscience choices. A conscience – knowing the difference between right and wrong – is a product of wisdom, which is gained through knowledge. Most would agree that the best knowledge often comes from education, and travel is always the best education. Hence, the more we travel, the more we know and the better developed our conscience becomes. The socially conscious traveler applies the knowledge gained through travel to have a positive effect on the people and places we visit.

Dried Shark Fins for sale in a Hong Kong restaurant

All trends indicate that no real political effort is being made to curb human consumption and waste. Earth’s resources and inhabitants are increasingly polluted and marginalized in pursuit of infinite economic growth in a finite environmental system. An honest assessment of the human condition and our planet is a bleak one. And, a desire to see as much of our world as possible is not unreasonable.

So, that is what we are doing. We rented out our house, and are traveling indefinitely while we still can. Yet, mindless human consumption and waste greeting us everywhere serve as a reminder that things aren’t really getting better. This reaffirms our decision to travel … now. As water-sports enthusiasts, it also reaffirms our decision to redouble our own conservation efforts and advocate that our fellow citizens do the same.

We Are Hypocrites

Those who claim they aren’t hypocrites are also liars. With the increasingly rare exception of uncontacted Amazon or Andaman tribes, it is impossible to live a zero-waste existence and travel with no carbon footprint. But, that’s okay – nobody’s perfect. The best we can do is do our best. We can become educated about the consequences of our choices, and minimize the impact on the environment – particularly the marine environment – of these choices.

Coal barge on China's Yangtze River

A Coal Barge plies the Yangtze River in China

Traveling has an impact. The faster the travel, the greater the carbon emissions and their impact. Air travel has the greatest impact, while the slowest travel – walking everywhere – has the least. The trade-off is that the faster we travel, the more of the world we can see. And time is fleeting. But, there should be a balance in our lives and everything we do. Slow travel helps strike a balance between broadening our horizons and our impact on the places we visit.

Slow Travel and Carbon Sequestration

We have found that housesitting offers this kind of slow travel lifestyle. Although we may travel a great distance to get from one housesit to the next, once there we stay put and explore the local area. We are also fortunate enough to own a large treed property with its own water-well and a sizable garden. We purchased it with the intention of self-sufficiency – just in case the world goes to hell in a bucket. Solar panels are the next improvement. Our property sequesters about the same amount of carbon we release from our travels and other activities.

Local man poles his boat through the backwater near Alleppey, India

A local man poles his boat through the backwater near Alleppey, India

It’s hard to say if we would still travel long distances if we didn’t have this luxury. When we first traveled abroad, we owned a condo which sequestered as much carbon as our share of the unpaved area of our housing complex allowed. We used air travel to hop between continents, but traveled overland on public transportation between these hops – like most young backpackers. The trade-off was – like most young backpackers – becoming more aware of and engaged in the realities facing humanity and the planet. And we are hypocrites.

No Time Like The Present

During our travels, we concluded that the most noticeable change in the planet’s ecosystems is occurring in its oceans and other waterways. Consequently, we have chosen to see as much of the underwater world as we can. Coral reefs and marine populations around the planet continue to decline due to pollution and bleaching. Visiting as many as we can is a priority. To do so, we have decided to housesit in coastal communities on the Pacific Ocean that offer spectacular scuba diving or good surfing. So far, we have had housesits on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, Vancouver Island, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Costa Rica.

Toadfish in a coral reef near Cozumel, Mexico

A Toadfish nestles in a coral reef near Cozumel, Mexico

If things go as planned, we hope to slow things down even more and reduce our carbon footprint by traveling on a sailboat. Ideally, we would get to a point where our net carbon emissions are negative. Individual efforts and consumer choices aimed at improving the state of our planet are what drives real change. But, it is difficult to remain optimistic – in the current political reality – that the beaches along which we will sail will not be even more littered with plastic pollution, and the numbers of fish in the sea even fewer, than they are now. All we can do is prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.

Hell In A Bucket

The world’s scientists have warned that unless we take immediate and decisive action, the planet will go to hell in a bucket, taking us all with it.  Our goal is to promote sustainability and equality by sharing the experiences and insights we have gathered traveling around the world, and exploring ways to adopt a more socially conscious approach to our lifestyle – both at home and abroad.