Stewards of place may seem like an obscure title for a post, but for global citizens, it is an imperative rather than a choice. Travelers, hikers, campers, tourists, and anyone else who steps out of their home to wander – all have a responsibility to act in a way that does as little environmental damage as possible. Unfortunately, there are all too many people that choose to abuse the place they find themselves in, knowing that they will eventually be going back to their home country or city. Anywhere I lay my head is home must encompass an understanding of your impact on that particular place.
My wife and I were recently making travel plans to visit Thailand, a country that we both had wanted to go for a number of years. With a little disappointment, we heard that many of the beaches we’d seen in videos and pictures were closed due to overwhelming environmental damage from trash left by tourists on vacation. We were heartbroken over not being able to explore some of those beaches ourselves, but we were MORE heartbroken that tourists and travelers (global citizens) had wreaked havoc upon such natural wonders.
I began to think more deeply about the impact of trash from non-native populations. Most tourist spots are overwhelmed every tourist season by planes, buses, trucks, and boat-loads of foreigners descending on certain places to take advantage of the price/view/hospitality/convenience that is found there. Most are responsible for themselves and their parties, often adopting the age-old hiking and backpacking adage of “leave no trace.”
However, we are far beyond the leave no trace era. We have stepped into the “remove the trace” era of global citizenship. It is not enough to simply NOT contribute to the trash problem. We now have to actively fight it. Thai scientists have petitioned the government to close some beaches permanently – the only real way to let the environment heal after such devastation. Unfortunately, those areas represent too much of a monetary pull for the local populations. Closing the beaches would mean financial ruin for large segments of the populations that rely on tourist dollars. The last I read, the government had tentatively agreed on a three-year closure – to be discussed as studies were conducted further.
When my wife and I visited Umm Al Quwain in the United Arab Emirates, we found ourselves appalled by the wanton disregard for the environment at the beaches there. Revelers came from Dubai and literally trashed the beach overnight – leaving bags, styrofoam, bottles, debris, plastic, and half-eaten meals to rot on the beach and be carried into the waves by the wind. As days passed, little hint of the devastation remained visible on the beach – but the ocean had consumed another metric ton of trash courtesy of those party-goers.
Even on Little Corn Island in Nicaragua, where tourism is still not in full swing – trash would wash up on the beaches after storms. Sandals, buoys, canteens, ropes, bags, bottles, and myriad other detritus hug the treeline that marked high tide.
There are organizations – like Ocean Conservancy – that organize volunteer efforts to clean up the oceans. Click here to find out how you can help.
The problem isn’t just about travelers and tourists. It’s about educating everyone about their impact on the environment. However, Hiker Bible is advocating for ethical tourism. We’ve always believed that growing and learning from stepping out of your comfort zone is a cornerstone of travel, but another is leaving the place better than when you found it. When I’m walking through the streets of any city on earth, I often pick up trash and toss it in the nearest bin. When my family goes to the beach, we bring an extra trash bag to gather up bottles, cans, and plastics on the beach to dispose of in the receptacles either on the beach or in the nearest town. We do that as good stewards of place. Any place.
Our son has taken up the mantle and now enjoys picking up trash to dispose of in bins. We try to model for him what we’d like to see in the world. We try to model to other travelers what we feel is in their – and everyone’s best interest. Furthermore, when locals see that tourists are actively trying to beautify the area, they are emboldened to do the same – and to feel good about those that come to spend time in their backyard. This really isn’t about having a savior complex while traveling. It is about cleaning up the messed of those who may not know any better – or worse, don’t care. There are those that are living this experience, already: be like this guy.
The trash we leave as we move through the world gathers and ends up in our oceans, streams, waterways, and sewers. Out of sight, out of mind is no longer a viable perspective when it comes to our personal responsibility in keeping our places clean. And I use the word “clean” – not as a term to mean cleanliness – but as a term to mean unsullied, un-trashed, devoid of refuse. Unfortunately, more developed (richer) countries use less developed countries as their dumping grounds. The policies of the state need not be the policies of the people. We, as global citizens, should regard ourselves as ambassadors of travel. We are the face of diversity in the places we go -let us not squander goodwill by leaving our muddy footprints in the halls of our hosts.
I’m aware that trash in bins is destined for the dump – and that dumps are often cesspools of disease and environmental harm. That topic is for another post. Collecting trash and putting it in a specific place is better than dumping it into the streets, gutters, alleys, rivers, streams, and oceans of the world. Until we, as a planet, can come to some consensus regarding how, why, and where our trash is made, collected, and dumped – we must at least try to be stewards of our own environment.
Stewards of place represents our individual responsibility to helping the environment wherever we find ourselves. Global citizens have a duty to be ethical travelers. It is our privilege to go to places that most people in the world cannot afford to go. We must not abandon our common sense to the fantastical places we find ourselves in. Hiker Bible global citizens must “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead
We have a responsibility. Let’s act on it.