In our American culture, we're inseparably connected to modern technology, and largely detached from the natural world. We rely completely on electricity, indoor plumbing, cars, computers, and cell phones to get us through each day; and we live and work in large, insulated, climate-controlled buildings that cut us off from the outside. Modern technology allows us to do things that not long ago would have seemed impossible, but to us have become essential pieces of everyday life. But the more in-tune we become with technology, the more isolated we become from the natural world, so that today nature is as unfamiliar and exciting to us as blogging would have been to the Founding Fathers. Compared to our complicated, fast-paced, multi-tasking lives, the simplicity and beauty of nature is a great, sublime escape, and although we would never want to give up our phones or computers, the idea of living on the land and away from the noise and pollution of the city can be very enticing. This is what brings us movies like Avatar, Pocahontas, and Fern Gully, where development is demonized and nature viewed as sacred. It also fuels ecotourism, which I introduced in my previous post, and brings some unexpected conflict into the picture.
In my research of ecotourism and South Africa I've found a number of studies done in the past two decades which attempt to determine the perceptions community members in South Africa have of national parks and the conservation measures enacted through them. One study by Emile Boonzaier looks specifically at the Richtersveld National Park to analyze local attitudes toward conservation and development, especially in the context of ecotourism. In his interviews with local people he found that many had a rather cynical view of tourists and the Richtersveld Park. These tourists, according to some of the locals who Boonzaier interviewed, believed in the importance of maintaining the integrity of natural areas, including the tribes living within or around them, which is a central tenet of ecotourism. But the tourists also disapproved of development and disliked seeing the incorporation of Western technology and influence in the local communities, believing it to be a corruption of the natural, wild Africa. Yet these developments were largely seen as advancements by members of the community, and so they viewed the tourists and the ideas of conservation held by the park to be in conflict with their goals and the advancement of the community.
In this case, the good of the community was not the highest priority, but rather the desires of the tourists in their search for the natural sublime. They see these traditional African cultures as sacred, natural, wild and uncorrupted, and they want their unique culture and traditions to be preserved; but in doing so they are refusing these people the modern conveniences and information that they, the tourists, have complete access to. While the tourists think they're helping the community by encouraging cultural preservation, they are in fact holding it back from modernity. Our culture may put nature on a pedestal, and dream of life without pollution, parking lots and complication (think Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell), but few of us would be able or willing to actually give up much of what we have. We just like to believe that other people are better off without.
The initial purpose of this blog was to record my research processes and conclusions as I explored the literary idea of the sublime and its place in our increasingly digital world. I’m returning now with a shift in focus: though I will continue to explore things incredible, unfamiliar and sublime, I will look at these not in relation to modern technology, but to nature in its purest form (which, if you know me or have read certain of my previous posts, you know is my usual preference). For several months I have been researching the idea of ecotourism in preparation for a field study I’ll be conducting in East London, South Africa this coming fall. Throughout this study I will be interviewing adults in East London about their perceptions of ecotourism and its potential to benefit (or harm) their environment, economy and community. Ecotourism is defined as “purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people” (Eva Garen, “Appraising Ecotourism in Conserving Biodiversity”). Ecotourism seeks to give tourists a pure view of nature, unaltered by industry or modern human intervention, while bringing some benefit to local people.
What the tourists themselves are looking for is, essentially, the sublime. They want to experience complete removal from the familiar; separation from the technologies and comforts to which they're accustomed; exposure to the wild, unconquerable spirit of nature. They want to see things they would never encounter in their own environment, which are outside of their own control and comprehension and have not been corrupted and suppressed by the influences of modernity. And yet they also want the safety and control found in professional, recognized organizations and parks, which (along with many other variables) helps create the sharp divide which exists between the romantic ideals fueling ecotourism and the reality of the practice. This is what has really fueled my interest in ecotourism, and what I hope to explore through my study this fall. In my next post I will more thoroughly explain the major issues behind this divide, and the problems and questions that they introduce.