I first heard about the idea of an ‘Environmental Bucket List’ while I was in Churchill, Manitoba, volunteering in a scientific research centre and spending a lot of time with a lot of tourists (if I’ve had one cup-of-tea-and-a-natter, let me tell you, I’ve had a thousand). Generally, the thinking of these conversations went something like this:
I have spent my whole life being interested in nature, in plants and animals and habitats, and if I didn’t come and see polar bears for myself soon, I was worried that they would have gone extinct and I never would have seen them in the wild.
Of course, coming across the idea of a wish list of environmentally threatened holiday destinations in the Polar Bear Capital of the World makes a lot of sense. Polar bears are quickly becoming a universal shorthand for climate change – they are the unofficial face of a warming world and countless campaigns to raise awareness, support and funding. The people who come to see the bears generally make the trip because they understand that global warming is a real issue that we might not be able to stop if we don’t act soon. They also understand that there will be casualties along the way. The sad reality is that it is the most fragile habitats, of which polar environments are some of the most well-known, which will be the first to see real, irreversible change. But other habitats are not immune from the impacts of a warming world. Data suggests that coral reefs are bleaching – dying – at alarming rates; while islands, like the Galapagos – full of unique species – are threatened by the increase in sea levels; away from the water, jungles are being decimated by deforestation in the form of logging and the production of monocultures to fill our insatiable demand for palm oil and soy. Wherever you look beautiful, inimitable environments, from the vast icy linens draped across our Poles, to our island and coral embroidered oceans, are at risk. Is it any wonder that people want to go and see them?
Initially, I saw these environmental bucket lists as highly personal, as dependent upon the desires and tastes of the individual. But the more I thought about them, the more it struck me that, although originating in personal thoughts, these lists ultimately become about community. Once a group of like-minded people come together and start to talk, interesting things begin to happen. I saw it in Churchill when an elderly couple began their holiday as climate change deniers, and at the end of the week emotionally explained that the knowledge shared with them by the staff at the centre and the other holiday makers they had met during their stay had forced them to question themselves. In the end they had, utterly, changed their minds. If this is the power of conversation and education in a week, imagine the impact that could be had if everyone who went on an environmental bucket list holiday spent the rest of their lives explaining what they knew about climate change. Spent the rest of their lives campaigning, teaching, pushing, doing something about it.
This is, I hope, the natural end point to the environmental bucket list – upon seeing polar bears, many of the tourist friends I made felt completely moved. I felt completely moved. This emotion from really seeing, not through a screen, but with our own eyes, impacts us in ways that make us and the messages we spread stronger and clearer. If we can harness this feeling, and channel it into real change, if we can lobby and share ideas and demand more from our politicians as a result, then that is how we really have a chance of ensuring the future of these wild places. Because environmental bucket lists might be personal to begin with, but the way we tackle these issues can’t be.