Tourists say ‘no’ to climate change impacts

Pamela Null, who is making a documentary in India, tells how she was bemused and shocked by the attitude of some tourists.

I've just done the first interview for, Climate Change - No Thanks!, my climate change impacts film.

And I'm still reeling.

I've been embedded in a village in southern India for most of the last five years, researching and making short documentaries about social, environmental and cultural issues.

My new film features interviews with people who are mainly affected by climate change, or who are mainly creating climate change.

Unsurprisingly for those who’ve a basic grasp of the issue, the first group are Indians, the second group are Westerners.

Ancy, Dutch, mid-thirties, is in the tourist town of Mamallapuram. She arrived in India three days ago for a three-week holiday. She's sitting in a beach cafe reading her guidebook. “I came here because it's a country of all the senses,” she says. “I want to see the culture, have some wildlife parks...?”

She continues: “People are so helpful here. Yesterday I met a woman on the beach selling saris. She took me all around the town. It was her daughter's birthday, and the girl had a heart problem, so I gave them some money for food and medicine. She was happy.”

I think that I too would be happy if a wealthy stranger gave me money for my cats’ vet bills, and my household expenses on the strength of showing them around town and a sob story.

At the end of the day, Ancy's camera had disappeared. She reported it to the police. She still thinks the people are helpful.

I ask her about climate change. She mentions water shortages in Africa. And the owner of the guesthouse where she's staying doesn’t have sufficient water for the showers. “We are causing this problem as humans...”, she muses.

I suggest that it is mainly Europeans and North Americans who are causing climate change, and mainly people in Africa and Asia who are bearing the brunt. Ancy seems startled. “Now that's quite political.”

It's my turn to be startled. As far as I'm aware, it's a fact.

Supposing, I ask, we were joined at the table by a farmer from Orissa whose crops have failed because of lack of rain, and a fisherman from Maharashtra who can no longer fish because the lake has dried up. (Two cases cited by an Indian NGO worker I'd talked to the previous day). What would she say to them?

Ancy blanches, almost as if she senses that these individuals would not be possessed of the “happy smiling faces” beloved by westerners whenever they talk about Majority World inhabitants they’ve met on their hols. “I’d understand what they’re saying, but blaming each other isn’t helpful.” Her innate honesty cuts through. “I wouldn’t know what to say.” She looks uncomfortable.

So would this challenging hypothetical encounter make any difference to her behaviour? “I’ve got a flight to Thailand booked later this year. Am I cancelling it? No! The plane is still flying. I would contribute to research on cleaner aeroplanes’.”

She trails off, clearly uncomfortable, keen to be rid of the annoying woman making her think about the real world impacts of her actions. “I would choose other options...give out flyers about recycling when I get home...”

I thank her and wander out into the thick tropical night. Cycling home, I am haunted by George Monbiot’s words in Heat: If the biosphere is wrecked, it will be by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live.

Even the cats are powerless to cheer me up.

And worse is yet to come as interviewees backtrack on their agreements to be filmed.

13 August 2009

Fiona says:

Interesting article. But it is still the old 'blame the individual' story. Of course we need to change our behaviour and take a good long look at how we live, consume and travel and make whatever changes or adaptations we can, we do need to take some personal responsibility. But it isn't just the 'well meaning, cosmopolitan people' who are wrecking the biosphere, it is a function of industrial capitalism in pursuit of profit that is causing the effects we are seeing and that so many are suffering from. We, the well meaning, are instruments of that profit-seeking system. No matter how well we behave and no matter how substantial the changes we make, as long as that system and its institutions persist, the biosphere and all its inhabitants are ultimately doomed.

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