Felix update

So it looks as though posting on felixsalmon.com is going to be light to nonexistent

for the foreseeable future: my day job, blogging ten times a day at economonitor.com,

seems to take all the blog right out of me. For the time being, I’ll try to

put up some links here to economonitor pieces of slightly broader interest.

Yesterday, for instance, there was this

one, on my hobbyhorse theme of journalistic innumeracy, and this

one, on how the New York Times seems to believe creationists saying that

the Grand Canyon is 6,000 years old more than they believe the Daily Telegraph

on the future prospects of Jeb Bush.

I should also, in the wake of my Antarctica trip, respond to my sister, who

recently wrote


I really struggle with Antarctic tourism. Having heard so much about the

White Continent from me, and invested so much time and love supporting me

while I was down there, I was happy [Felix and Michelle] could go and see

it for themselves. But in the big picture? Something doesn’t sit right. And

I know that’s hypocritical. I am concerned. Not just about the physical impact

of tourism on this delicate environment. I also wonder about the experience

of the individual. A selfish part of me feels that people should only go to

Antarctica if they can really invest the time to truly be immersed in it’s

wonder, and digest it afterwards. But maybe a short trip, and a memory pill,

serves the same purpose. Tourists could be both Antarctica’s greatest danger,

and strongest ally.

It’s a long post, so I don’t blame Rhian for not spelling things out even further,

but of all the dangers facing Antarctica, tourists are surely at the bottom

of the list. What could Rhian mean when she says that tourists could be Antarctica’s

greatest danger? No one is building hotels on the continent, or anything like

that – indeed, the number of tourists who actually spend a night on the

ice is vanishingly small, especially compared to the total number of people

in Antarctica at any given time.

Rhian is right that tourists are, potentially, Antarctica’s strongest ally.

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO)

has observer status at Antarctic Treaty meetings, and is invariably at the most

stringent end of the spectrum there when it comes to regulations and protocols

protecting the wilderness and the environment. Which makes sense: the reason

to visit the Antarctic is that it’s a pristine wilderness, so the tour operators

have every incentive to keep it that way. By contrast, the amount of activity

and pollution going on at, say, McMurdo Station makes the impact of tourism

utterly negligible. I’m not saying that McMurdo should be torn down –

far from it. I’m just saying that it’s worth keeping the impact of tourism in


And I hope Rhian will forgive me for not being grateful that she’s so concerned

about the "experience of the individual" on an Antarctic tour –

especially since the experience that she seems to value the most is no tour

at all. I can assure her that the experience of all the individuals on our tour

(run by the excellent Antarctic Expeditions,

who I can highly recommend) was that of, literally, the trip of a lifetime.

Going to Antarctica was the most amazing and wonderful journey I’ve ever taken,

and I can promise you that if you go, the trip will be the most amazing and

wonderful trip you’ve ever taken, too.

But that’s not enough for Rhian, it would seem: She worries that the trip should

be even more amazing, and even more wonderful, but mainly,

I think, just longer – on the grounds of we tourists needing

to "invest the time to truly be immersed". Rhian, of course, has had

the wonderful privilege to spend not weeks, not months, but even an entire winter

in Antarctica – so she knows what she’s talking about. Obviously, the

experience of living there is more immersive than merely visiting – but

then again, it’s a lot more environmentally harmful as well. And more to the

point, not everybody is like Rhian, which means that not everybody would necessarily

react the same way to a longer and more immersive experience.

I haven’t taken any "memory pill", but I doubt I’ll ever forget the

experience of driving around icebergs in a Zodiac. The white continent is so

breathtaking that nowhere else you ever go is likely to compare. So it depresses

me that Rhian would deny that experience to people she’s never met, on the grounds

that it’s not "immersive" enough. Maybe once you’ve lived there, a

mere visit isn’t quite the same. But for those of us who haven’t wintered at

Halley, a tour to Antarctica is something I can’t recommend highly enough.

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6 Responses to Felix update

  1. Stefan says:

    Yo, how about some photos for the rest of us plebs?

  2. Rhian says:

    Felix, you’re quite right, I should have written an entire piece just about my thoughts on that subject.. which, as you know, are still undecided.

    I’m wrangling. I would never want to deny the Antarctic experience to anyone. The ‘pill’ I referred to was reference to my own recent experience in Patagonia, and the fact that I haven’t yet had time to digest it properly due to being catapulted back into this way too fast reality. The reality that is also hindering me from truly figuring out what my issue is with tourism. I had meant my point to be about society only allowing us three weeks leave… not about how we spend those three weeks.

    As long as IAATO exists, I am not worried about tourism, I am one of IAATO’s biggest fans and they do an amazing job at also telling the national operators to be more environmentally aware. But big ships don’t have to join IAATO. In fact, IAATO don’t want big ships to go to Antarctica anymore than I do. (And by big I mean enormous). But there is nothing to stop them. And nothing to stop a hotel being built either.

  3. Tom says:

    You could argue, Rhian, that having been to the Antarctic (more than once?) you have used up your credit. If it is so wonderful, as I am sure it is, why are you more deserving of another trip than someone who has never been before? Indeed, you going again would be whimsical and solipsistic, in the extreme, would it not?

    As someone who has lived and travelled in many odd and obscure parts of the world, I have some sympathy with your point of view, however. Working in rural Uganda, I often found tourists to be wholly self-serving and uninterested digging a little deeper. But, it’s a free world and people should be allowed to travel as they please without fear of sanction from the ‘overseas experience police’. Indeed, the ‘I’ve lived the dream brigade’ can be just as tedious as the worst type of happy snaps package holiday tourist.

    More pointedly, rather than talk (or write) about the potential environmental damage of flying, why not commit to actually not taking a flight for at least a year or two? Sure it’s tough, I made that commitment 2 years ago. My immediate family (all of them) live in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand either being retired or working and it kills me not going out to visit them. But, if the people who are talking the talk, can’t even walk the walk, then what hope of convincing anyone else?

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