What I’ve learned about our environment from hiking and travelling

After one year of travelling in Northern Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia I wrote a blog post about 15 things we had learnt in this time (in German here). A typical article for a travel blog. Most bloggers publish something similar  because travelling opens up a whole new world for you to discover, widens your mental horizon and provides  you with a ton of new experiences. Of course, a blogger likes to share his newly acquired nuggets of wisdom.

When I remembered this article after two years of travelling I noted the optimistic and positive attitude behind the 15 points. Somehow I missed a more critical and less introversive view.

Here is the short version in English:

  1. Travel without any expectations.
  2. Be open for coincidence.
  3. Don’t make plans far in advance.
  4. Be independent from other people.
  5. In the end it will always work out (somehow).
  6. People are friendly and helpful.
  7. Experiences in nature give us back the most.
  8. Cultural experiences aren’t gained in temples but with locals.
  9. You need less to live than you think.
  10. Unexpected (expensive) purchases happen from time to time.
  11. If you don’t like it change it.
  12. Travelling arouses more questions than it answers.
  13. Travelling shows you what you don’t want.
  14. Travelling shows you different ways.
  15. Travelling lets you see the bigger picture.

I still agree with this list. But I also want to add some more critical thoughts which I gained during travelling and while hiking for 4,5 months through New Zealand on the Te Araroa.

The simple things in life – hiking

When you’re hiking – especially for a long time – your life concentrates on the simple things. Eating, walking and sleeping. The rest of the time you’re alone with your mind. You’re able to focus on nature, yourself and the world in general. It’s a great time (for introverts ;-)); it’s a precious time because you’d rarely have the time to do that in normal life.

So day after day you’re engaged with the internal and external input your mind is confronted with and you really have the time to deal with all of it. Slowly you develop new perceptions and obtain new knowledge. You’re automatically more mindful and aware of the things around you.

When we started our hike in New Zealand we had been travelling for 1,5 years and a lot of  “mind stuff” was waiting for processing. It was the right time to do the hike so that we could digest past experiences and expose us to ourselves.

In this time I gained some new insights and came to realize one thing: The world is fucked up. More accurately: We humans fuck the planet up. We destroy it.

Trashed Earth

Author: Gideon Wright flickr.com

Environment

Humans are like a virus, which has infected its host and now slowly but persistently destroys it. While travelling and hiking we encountered many different ways of how people, governments and companies harm our planet. Sometimes it was quite obvious to the eye (Southeast Asia, Australia etc.), sometimes it wasn’t (Europe). – Well, we westerners did a pretty good job in outsourcing environmental problems. – But in every case the impact is there.

Environmental Protection

We don’t do enough to protect the environment. Nowhere.

Why? Because of governments, companies, people or more subtle: Capitalism.

Governments and companies prioritise economic interests over the wellbeing of humans and nature. Third world countries are particularly prone to regimes and dictatorships, which are supported by  western capitalistic companies through deals for resources. Together they give a shit about anything but money.

And we people don’t care too. We want to pay as little as possible for our smartphones, clothes and food. And the poor workers who produced/manufactured your STUFF don’t care too. How could they? They need to work to survive and can’t bother questioning. And if they dare to question their governments or employer, they’ll be subject to fear much worse than the fear of destroying our planet (e.g getting murdered).

So here are a few examples, respectively topics, we encountered during travelling, which show how we spoil the basis of our existence.

Nature vs Nature

If it wouldn’t be enough that humans destroy nature with man made instruments like burning carbon fossil fuel or deforestation (it’s alarming), we also managed to play out nature against itself.

Australia and New Zealand both fight against invasive plant and animal species, which they have unleashed on their endemic environment by themselves.

Let’s first have a look at New Zealand, where we spent over 5 months. The common brushtail possum is a huge environmental pest (among others like rabbits, stoats, rats etc. Here is a list). The first settlers brought them from Australia in the 1850s (because of the animal’s  fur) and since then their numbers have exploded. The population peaked in the 1980’s at around 60-70 millions and is now at around 30 millions. Possums don’t have natural fiends in New Zealand and can freely feast on plants, insects, birds’ eggs and small vertebrates. They literally eat up the whole buffet. The New Zealand Department of Conservation tries to control possum numbers in many areas via the aerial dropping of highly toxic and controversial 1080 laced bait.
Ironically, in their native home Australia the brushtail possum is regarded as an endangered species and mostly protected (except  partially in Tasmania).

Cute but not welcome in New Zealand

Australia (8 months of travelling) is a further shocking example of what can go wrong when humans intervene in nature. Due to some fancy snobs from Britain who liked to hunt in the early days of settling, the fox was introduced and is now one of the biggest threats (+ 7 million) to native animals. Or the rabbit, another result of recreational hunting. +200 million baby machines today.
But wait, it get’s better; or worse. The cane toad: In the tropical parts of Australia sugar cane farming is a big part of the agricultural economy. So no wonder people were panicking when the native cane beetle fell upon the non-native sugar cane. Well, what ya gonna do? Let’s introduce the cane toad from South America to Queensland. After all, they did the same in some Caribbean and Southeast Asian islands too. So what could possibly go wrong? I mean, they even conducted a small study before they released the toads…

Let’s start with the job suitability for getting rid of the cane beetles: The cane toad is useless. It can’t climb up to the the beatles at the top of the plant. The beetle isn’t bothered at all. Damn.

And then there is the thing with the poison. The cane toad’s skin is poisonous and dangerous to other animals (and to humans, should you decide to eat it). There are a few other animals that are able to eat the toads. However, none of them is Australian. After +80 years some Australian animals have adapted to the cane toads. But the cane toad population still has been spreading exponentially to Northern Territory and New South Wales since its introduction in Queensland.

Well, a lot of invasive species were brought into New Zealand and Australia before 1900. Today there is a lot of effort enforced to prevent new species from being introduced into the fragile environments. But globalized traffic makes this quite hard as the case of didymo (kind of a fast growing fresh water algae aka rock snot) shows. It was discovered only recently (2004) on the South Island of New Zealand.

Young Cane Toad. Author: Bidgee

Agriculture

Less and less people are working in the agricultural sector globally (No 2 after the service sector) but the demand for food is still increasing. The human population of planet earth grows continually and won’t stop any time soon. So what to do with the growing demand for food? Bigger machines, more chemicals, more agricultural land expansion, etc..

More chemicals means that we pump fertilizers and pesticides into the ground. As a result we pollute the soil and water systems, kill tons of organisms and use immense amounts of finite resources like minerals (oil, phosphorus, etc.).
Acquiring more land for agriculture means deforestation. Chopping down forests leads to desertification (disrupted water cycles), extinction of species of all kind, displacement of people and changes to climatic conditions (global warming).

How did we experience the impacts of agriculture while travelling? Diversely: deforestation, intensive farming, desertification and low biodiversity as a few examples.

Water pollution in New Zealand (Wairarapa). Author: Alan Liefting

Deforestation

Southeast Asia. Exotic jungles, lush forests and shady palms. I had those images in my head when we went to SEA. I wasn’t completely disappointed. There were even a few national parks in Thailand for example. – Something that Switzerland unfortunately lacks of. We have just one tiny one. – Lao is still in the beginning of getting rejigged by the Chinese and other economic influences and therefore still offers some untouched nature. And our visit in Bali probably isn’t the best representation for whole Indonesia. But in general we experienced overpopulated places, where every free space was transformed into a rice field or was used for another agricultural purpose (palm oil, animal farming, etc.). Slash-and-burn agriculture (for shifting cultivation) is widely applied despite being illegal in many places. Agricultural goods such as rice, wood and palm oil are high on demand and more is exported every year. All this leads to a decline of Southeast Asia’s primary forests. Half of the original forests are left but it declines by 1-2 percent each year. One of the highest rates in the world. Compared to other countries there is still some forest left but not for very long with this rate of deforestation.

I’ll get a bit more into trees in the chapter forestry.

Slash and burn framing in Thailand. Author: mattmangum

Animal Farming

The demand for meat grows every year. People from emerging economies want to have the luxurious life of westerners. The overconsumption of meat and food in general are a sign for it. If – for example –  the middle class of China (ca. 200 million people) continually increases its consumption of meat and milk products, it affects not only China but the world. Australia and New Zealand are good examples for how it affects other countries. New Zealand had some big agricultural changes over the last decade. The dairy and meat industry has grown bigger every year. The image of grazing sheep on green lush hills is still true and dominates the landscape. But the cows gradually replace the white dots. And it’s the same development in Australia. Milk powder for China, venison for Europe, lamb for Arab countries. And an unbelievable glut of meat products in local super markets.

In New Zealand pastoral farming is mostly used for having sheep, cows, beefs and deer, which is clearly better than factory farming. But the negative impacts on the environment are still huge. 5 million dairy cows still shit and fart. 3,5 million beefs and 30 million sheep too.

While hiking the Te Araroa in New Zealand we frequently experienced contaminated water systems. On the North Island of New Zealand we often had to walk through privately owned farm land.  Some of the generated waste ends up in creeks and rivers. So what do you do when you get thirsty? Treating the water with pills or filters won’t clear the water of all bad chemicals. You have to knock at people’s doors and ask for water from their rain tanks. We could experience at first hand what happens, when we turn our habitat into an unlivable place. In this case it were the excretions from animals and chemicals from fertilizers and pesticides which pollute the water and soil ecosystem. And not as obvious but still harmful: the release of methane gas emissions. The second most prevalent greenhouse gas in the world and responsible for 35% of New Zealand’s  greenhouse emissions is emitted by livestock. Together with the other emissions it places New Zealand in the top 10 of the greenhouse emissions per capita.

For further information about the harmful farting cows I can recommend the documentary Cowspiracy.

What-I've-learnt-from-hiking-1

Farting cows in New Zealand

Forestry

While hiking 3’000 kilometres through New Zealand we could witness all kinds of agricultural impacts. Forestry was a major one. Before the first settlers and even before the Maori arrived, New Zealand had been almost fully covered with trees. Now a bit more than 31% is left. In comparison to other regions like parts of Southeast Asia or South America with a much older settlement history it’s not as extreme (yet). But it’s still critical. What’s more,  you also have to distinguish between old growth forest (or secondary forest) and industrial forestry. In most countries we’ve visited there is forestry going on but the grade of sustainability varied widely.

From a great distance off a forest managed for economical reasons may look  normal. But once  you get closer you’ll see the unnatural symmetry of its shape. The trees are planted in long rows with exact gaps between each other. Like a hairbrush. The ground is bare without any scrubs. No life seems to live here. So no habitat for animals and other plants. But they would hinder the forestry companies anyway once they fell the trees.
A sustainable harvest in forestry would be to choose single trees, cut them down and extract them. Plus let the forest grow in its natural way. But that’s a pain in the ass aka not profitable. Instead they make a clear cut. This means, they fell all the trees and leave a bare, with stumps covered area behind. Precious humus is exposed and at mercy of nature’s power. If the soil gets washed or blown away it turns into a desert. We saw many such sites while travelling through Australia and hiking in New Zealand. It was freakin scary.

And what do we actually need wood for? Building houses, making furniture, producing paper and it’s still the energy resource for 2 billion people. But also for junk mail, dumbing-down giveaway newspapers, glossy catalogues (Yes, IKEA you still print over 200 million catalogues annually) or post-its.

Just google Rapa Nui to see what’s going to happen if we continue with the actual rate of deforestation.

Deforestation in Thailand due to agriculture. Author: Takeaway

Pollution

In every Southeast Asian country (and in some developed countries too) we were confronted with heavily polluted water systems and littered landscapes. Rivers full of floating garbage, PET bottle carpets at beaches and illegal dumpsites in the ocean and on land. In Western countries garbage magically disappears after the visit of the garbage collection trucks. Our waste either ends up in a refuse incineration plant or in a landfill. Both harmful to our environment nonetheless.

In many poor countries there is no (sufficient) waste management infrastructure. You either burn your waste in front of your house, ditch it on the street or have your own little dumpsite in your backyard between your chickens and your vegetables. The next rain will take care of it anyway. And sooner or later all the garbage ends up in the sea.

Swimming in a river in SEA? Mostly unadvisable. Swimming in the sea? Not at every beach. At our last stop in Bali it was strongly recommended not to swim in any place where a river joins the sea. Too much pollution from agriculture, sewage and garbage disposal.

Plastic bottle beach in Malaysia. Author: espos.de

Connection to Nature

It seems that there is no connection to nature anymore among most people. Politics, war, economy, news, terror acts, smartphones, facebook and so on. Lots of topics which seem more pressing, more urgent to deal with. The distractions of modern life disconnect humans from their natural environment and let them forget the basis of all life: nature.

If nature is screwed, you’re screwed. If you can’t produce enough food because the earth is toxic or there is no oil for fertilisers, you’re screwed. If there are no rare earth elements left, you can phone with your old tin can telephone and write with a typewriter. If you live near the sea, climate change screws you. If you live in a third world country, you’re definitely screwed.

So, we destroy our planet and the majority of people does not care. The results are obvious to scientists and even to most people. Unusual weather cycles, draughts, floods and pollution. I guess most people have already been effected by the symptoms of the human caused destruction of nature. We have got enough evidence but still give a shit.

It’s the same plot like the one of Game of Thrones (aka The Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin). Seven Kingdoms respectively a number of high-born families fight against each other for an uncomfortable iron throne. Nothing is more important than politics and fighting wars. And in the meantime there is an army of White Walkers and their zombie-like Wights marching south to kill everybody. (After making this connection I found an article with a similar comparison :-). Here is the Link). The elite is ignorant of the obvious and doesn’t listen to the people of the Night’s Watch.

During travelling we could experience this disconnection in several countries and cultures. But it already had started back home as well. Living in one place quickly makes you blind to the many different excesses of how humans ignore nature. And especially in rich Western countries like Switzerland you easily forget the rest of the world. Towns and recreational areas are clean (unless it’s weekend) and environmental management looks after the few remaining places one might consider as natural environment. Companies greenwash with all kinds of bogus methods and people eat organic meals in fancy restaurants to which they’ve driven in a hybrid SUV. Hallelujah, what don’t we do for a better conscience. Back in the days we payed absolution with money and prayers. Today we just pay a bit more for our “green” consumer goods and the world is saved. Or at least we think so.

earth day should be everyday

Author: naturalflow / flickr.com

In countries where they don’t have the luxury of functioning infrastructure, education and democratic rights it’s even worse. Plastic bottle beaches don’t spontaneously emerge; they are a result of human actions. If you try to explain why it’s not good to dispose your PET bottle right where you are (beach, sea, ship, car, backyard, etc.), you’ll most likely earn quizzical looks. Where else would you get rid of your waste? And don’t even try to start talking about deforestation or diversity.

So, do people just don’t know better? I’m not sure about that anymore. Surely, education is the most important part if you want to change people’s behaviour. And education will be of great help to improve the environmental situation in poor countries by making people aware of problems and displaying solutions. But there is still a big fraction that doesn’t care. In western countries kids learn about environmental pollution and recycling in school. And everybody does have the chance to educate himself with the web. One might assume this makes us all more aware of the natural environment around us. Nope. It doesn’t matter where you are, how much money people have or how well educated they are, nature is far away for most of them.

So far, so good. Writing this article turned out to be a bigger endeavor than expected. I still have some topics to write besides environment but not as much time as I had while travelling. So for now I stop here with the first part of “What I’ve learned …”. A second (or third?) part will follow sometime.

2 Comments

  • Therese says:

    This is a very informative comment on your travels. It is sad to hear how widespread the issues of pollution and deforestation are. I am still inspired to make a difference with my own actions at home each day.

    • Philippe says:

      Hi Therese,
      Nice to hear from you.
      Every action counts :-). Therefore I hope to raise awareness of these issues through my action of writing this article and cause reactions ;-).
      Cheers
      Philippe

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