Can we start with why you’re here attending this Symposium?
The short answer is I came because there are a lot of discussions on the table that I’m interested in and that I spend a lot of time engaged in, and I think it’s both fun to present what you’ve been working on but also just as much to hear from people who are working in related fields, because you learn an enormous amount.
The conventional image of tourism is that it’s quite environmentally destructive. We’ve worked out for the Maldives that the carbon cost of all the flights of people coming in is pretty much equivalent to the domestic emissions of the country, so that does beg the question of whether tourism can ever be a net benefit environmentally.
When people talk about the ‘extractive industries’ they mean forestry, fishing, mining, the industries that clearly extract from the environment . We don’t tend to think of tourism as one of the extractive industries, but the more I learn about it the more I think that tourism should be judged on the same types of metrics that many of those other extractive industries are judged. Because tourism is an industry that uses the environment as its draw to give an experience but yet may at the end of the day be depleting the very resources upon which it is based in an unsustainable way.
Right now we are in a beautiful resort called Soneva Fushi, surrounded by these bright blue ocean waters and fringing coral reef, and I’m sure its appeal to visitors is that it’s some sense located in nature, yet it’s hardly a wild environment.
Look, the thing about tourism is that it is based on the allure of having an experience in a beautiful environment, and perhaps even on interacting with nature in a certain way. Those used to be experiences which were accessed only by a very privileged few. In the last 25 years the number of people who are travelling further and further abroad to more remote places to have these types of experiences has just gone up exponentially. So places that just a decade or two ago were truly remote indigenous communities are suddenly having to grapple with having to balance that sudden economic benefit of new waves of tourism and yet figure out how they do that without destroying the very thing that’s bringing the people to them.
You’ve done work with the Maasai in Kenya, and in other parts of the world. Have you got any lessons that you’ve taken away about how to manage tourism sustainably?
One is sustainability of operations – how are you actually operating your business, and are you operating it in a way that will maintain the natural resource capital that your business is based on. Number two is community benefit. How do we assess community benefit, to what degree is a tourism business representing a micro-economy where actual benefit is penetrating meaningfully into the local community, as opposed to a vortex where all the benefit is coming in through the business and then going out of the country.
People talk about carbon footprint but I think the thing that gets less often assessed is water. In many of the most remote places, whether they are beach resorts or safari lodges, the way that these places use water is a fundamentally problematic issue. Guests are looking for luxury, so tourism operators are afraid to ask the guests to change their narrative of what luxury is they are visiting. But I think that it needs to happen more. I think if you ask most people if they want to ruin a place during their visit of it they would say no. I think most people don’t want to feel that they came to a place and trashed it.
I also think the ‘tourism media’, the travel writers, and actually the travel agents too, have to do a better job. There’s a lot of ‘greenwashing’ in the industry… resorts claiming to be ‘eco’ and ‘green’ and promising ‘community benefit’ that are really doing very little. And the writers just buy the marketing and assist the lie. They need to investigate deeper.
This also depends perhaps on the cultural background of the tourist. I think this year for the first time the majority of the visitors to the Maldives have been from China. So no longer is this primarily a Western market.
Yes, that’s fascinating, because then you’ve got people coming out of a completely different narrative in terms of familiarity with even those concepts. Tourism operators have to be courageous in the sense that they’ve got to be a part of introducing people to that value system, not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s in their best interests economically in the long term.
Yes, because they are degrading their own capital if they don’t look after the environment that they operate in. Have you had conversations with tourist operators and owners that actually understand this?
Absolutely. I see really good examples of people going further than any kind of regulation demands that they do. The place we’re sitting right now, Six Senses’ Soneva Fushi, is really doing it right and going all the way. Not only is there a return on investment in terms of their own balance sheet, but it does reverberate in terms of their marketing – because there are more and more people who care, so you can distinguish yourself from the rest of the badly-operated places if you can demonstrate that you’re concerned with the same values as your visitors.
But the thing is they wouldn’t count the depreciation of that capital would they, because it can’t be quantified in quite the same way as your return on investment on your classic balance sheet?
Right. One of the things I’ve seen recently that’s most persuasive in terms of the new economics around these issues is this report that’s just come out of the UN Environment Programme called the TEEB report. It’s The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. I think the TEEB report is one of the best, and deepest drills that I’ve seen into the idea that basically we’re calculating our own economics, profit and loss, GDP growth, incorrectly when we fail to account for the degradation of natural resource capital.
So when you make certain decisions like cutting down a mangrove swamp to make more shrimp farming, you calculate a certain amount of quote unquote ‘economic growth’ through that, but unless you account for the losses of sustainable resource to people who made their livelihoods out of the swamp, and on fisheries, then you haven’t actually done a proper sophisticated analysis on whether that was a good long-term investment decision or not. And I think that TEEB makes a very persuasive case that things that we have accounted as GDP growth or profit when properly accounted for represent impoverishment or loss.
This is an incredibly important way of approaching the question of environmental preservation and sustainability because it helps us move away from the 20th century strategy of arguing for the intrinsic value of nature, and into what I think is going to be the strategy for the 21st century which is the argument that people cannot thrive if we don’t account for the underlying economics of ecosystem services. And that’s a profound shift.
We want to believe that all the fights of the 20th century, to fight for the preservation of nature, of national parks, have been important and have been victories, but at the end of the day in the most important sense it hasn’t worked. The speed of degradation, the loss of biodiversity, the degradation of ecosystems, the carbon loading in the atmosphere, and the economic impacts of climate shift that are going to result from it – these are all accelerating. So you can’t by any real measure say that the strategy of the ‘environmental movement’ in the 20th century worked. And so that would seem to demand a very fundamental change of direction in terms of strategy.
And what I think is really exciting about this TEEB report is that it represents a very important strategic shift in the way we address this question of protecting the environment, because it’s carrying the argument directly to the finance ministry. It’s saying that we’re going to make this case on the numbers, and all of this reverberates down to the tourism industry too, because the tourism industry faces the same confrontation, which is your long-term business model is fundamentally flawed if you allow your business to degrade the environment that it’s based on.
It’s a long-term thing, isn’t it – because in the short term you can make a rate of return which is much higher by not protecting your resource over the longer term. Which is why there has to be regulation, and laws, and a government there to make sure that the interests of the long-term are protected.
Exactly right, which is why I think something like the TEEB report is important, because it’s a high-level economic discussion, and in that sense it has the capacity – more than all the well-meaning environmental advocates in the world – to drive policy decisions. Even with all the well-meaning actions by individuals in the world – it’s not that it has no impact because it represents a collective commitment to getting our mind around these ideas – but fundamentally we know that if these changes aren’t made at the national policy level pretty quickly we’re not going to get there. And I think that’s why we need a new underlying economics to all of it.
I think it is interesting to come to a resort like Soneva Fushi – yesterday we toured their waste treatment facility and really asked a lot of questions about how they’re desalinating water, what their energy costs are, what they’re doing with their waste. In the Maldives unfortunately the regulatory baseline is still basically that any resort can collect their waste in the most rudimentary septic systems, take it out to sea and dump it. That works in the short term, but in the long term in an interisland nation, if you’re dumping waste you run the risk of fouling your reefs by putting too many nutrients on them, and the reefs are already being challenged by temperature warming.
It’s a learning curve, but it’s gratifying when you run into people who are in a certain industry and they’re not waiting for things to happen at the policy or the regulatory level to try to move their business forward into some kind of a more sustainable configuration. Six Senses is doing it. Richard Branson is doing it. Those folks are inspiring and smart.
The thing I can’t get my head around, and I hope you’ll forgive me for this, is to talk with someone who’s had such a high-profile, successful Hollywood movie career about the economics of waste management, and the peculiarities of certain septic systems. Isn’t that a weird combination?
I think the defining challenge of the era right now is that we have recognised that we are living our lives and operating our civilisation in a way that will not sustain life as we know it on the planet. And if we are living in the moment when that kind of clarity has been reached, then I look at that as a generational sort of mission. I don’t think an artist any less or more than anybody else should stay out of that conversation. I think artists, if they are serious about what art can do, are trying to engage in the times they are living in.
But do you find it difficult to be taken seriously? People might think it’s some celebrity fad..
I think people should never throw generalisations about those types of things. I mean, look, I think that these particular issues are ones that everybody should get involved in. I don’t think anybody should look down their nose at an actor or a musician any more than a lawyer, or a doctor or an economist. People are starting to engage with these issues from all sorts of different angles. For instance, what can someone who works in a storytelling medium bring to the equation? I’ve sat with lots of climate scientists, or biodiversity specialists who are just absolutely incapable of articulating a narrative of why that matters to the average person.
So when I got asked by the UN to be an ambassador for the biodiversity programme I don’t engage with something like that flattering myself that my qualifications come in the category of biology or science, but I do think that I am in some ways more capable than some of the scientists in the field of explaining that story to other people – of taking examples, case studies, things that I’ve learned about and helping rearticulate them in a way that a new generation of people can begin to see what’s the connectivity between a very abstract idea like biodiversity and me and my life. And that is storytelling.
That’s actually how humans actually receive information successfully, isn’t it, storytelling?
Absolutely, and that’s part of the story we’re living in now, we need a new narrative. We need a narrative where we relocate ourselves literally within the biosphere. We have looked at ourselves for a long time as exceptional, as disconnected from the natural systems on the planet that support us, and we need a new narrative in which people on a broad global level become conscious and aware of their interconnectedness with those systems. So helping to get that story out there, helping people reframe their sense of themselves in the world in a way they understand that they are reliant – and their children are reliant – on the health of these systems, so they care about it, is important.