Cruising through the end of the world

The Northwest Passage has always been a subject of nearly mystical fascination, the Holy Grail of sailing, the thing Europeans desperately wanted to open up access to untold riches. It was also not really a thing, because the Arctic was frozen. In recent years, however, sea ice has been clearing up in the summer months, and this year, a massive and extremely expensive cruise ship took a bunch of rich people through from Alaska to New York, allowing them to goggle at the results of climate change in exchange for tickets costing tens of thousands of dollars (including both the cruise and the liability insurance).

This whole endeavor struck me as sort of oddly poetic, an accidental indictment of the world we live in. First, there’s the Northwest Passage itself, the thing that shouldn’t exist, but does — researchers believe that the Arctic is going to be largely free of sea ice within this century, which means that I will live to see the polar ice cap vanish. That’s very disturbing to me, and an emblem of the rapidly accelerating forces of climate change — losing sea ice will make this problem much, much worse for a variety of reasons, including sea level rise and reduced heat reflection.

The Arctic is a beautiful place, and a remote one, and a dangerous one. I’ve never been and probably never will be, but there have been cruises of various shapes and sizes in the region for years. This, however, was the largest ship to traverse the Northwest Passage and it’s raising some questions about environmental and social sustainability. As the Northwest Passage opens up, more and more cruise lines are going to want to get in on this, and they’ll bring their biggest and best. For Native communities along the Arctic, this may be bad news — tourism can be a huge disruption, especially for small communities. While people like to project it as a force for net good, it can actually be tremendously damaging. There’s a discussion about whether the size of ships and number of people allowed ashore should be limited in order to preserve communities that have existed in the Arctic for centuries.

There is also, too, the question of this mammoth example of conspicuous consumption and what it reflects about what is causing climate change and who is paying for it. I am not entirely innocent here — I travel for both work and pleasure and am contributing my own carbon footprint to the world. But some forms of travel are more intrusive than others, come at a higher cost. Wealthy people are the ones who engage in them, because they are usually resource-heavy and technically challenging. The people touring to see the results of climate change are contributing to it, and bizarrely, some people even recognise and do it anyway, laughing this off with a sort of nervous guilt. I mean, someone’s going to do it, so it might as well be me. I recognise that what I am seeing is actually a tragic manifestation of a changing world, but also, it’s really cool, so that justifies it.

The people who can afford to pay for trips like this can also afford to insulate themselves from many of the problems of climate change. They can elevate or move their beachfront homes. They can relocate. They can add insulation and bulk up on air conditioning. They can buy water. It’s not possible to spend your way out of climate change, but you can definitely make it a whole lot more comfortable. If you can afford $80,000 for a stateroom on a cruise celebrating the end of the world (as we know it), then you can definitely afford to bathe in some of the luxuries that make a changing climate much more enjoyable.

Those small communities being exploited by cruise ships? They’re going to drown in rising seas. Those polar bears people were disappointed about not being able to see? They’re dying because of shrinking sea ice. This isn’t a simple one to one correlation of ‘if people stopped going on cruises, climate change would stop,’ of course, but it is a striking and at times painful juxtaposition. This is an interaction of privilege and reality, something that people need to consider when they’re booking their tickets.

Conspicuous consumption and class signaling are playing undeniable roles in the shifting climate around us, and interrogation in the environmental movement is sometimes a bit too simplistic, especially when it comes to placing unnecessary emphasis on personal responsibility and not enough on overall social issues that contribute to climate change. But it is undeniable that wealthy lifestyles have costs, and those costs can be significant. It is also undeniable that these lifestyles need to change if there is an interest in addressing the damage done by climate change — scaling down isn’t going to magically fix everything, but it will contribute to a cultural and environmental shift.

This is being discussed as a marvelous spectacle, an oddly enough, and it’s neither of those things: It is a troubling illustration, symptom, and cause of the problems we’re facing as a planet, all wrapped up in one on the lido deck.

Image: Arctic Ice, U.S. Geological Survey, Flickr