Masthead image of tourism
S1 #10

Ecotourism, Catharsis, and Post-Capitalist Dreaming | Robert Fletcher

On this episode, our guest is Robert Fletcher, an environmental anthropologist and author at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Robert Fletcher is based at the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. A former ecotourism guide, he is an environmental anthropologist with research interests in conservation, development, tourism, globalization, climate change, human-wildlife interaction, social and resistance movements, and non-state forms of governance. He uses a political ecology approach to explore how culturally-specific understandings of human-nonhuman relations and political economic structures intersect to inform patterns of natural resource use and conflict.

His publications include the books The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature beyond the Anthropocene, co-authored with Bram Büscher, and published by Verso Books in 2020, and Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism, published by Duke University Press in 2014.

Robert joins me to explore his personal experience and research into ecotourism and its contradictions, extinction tourism and disaster capitalism, the capitalocene, what ecotourism does to our understandings of nature and vice versa, the body in ecotourism worlds, ideology and post-capitalism.

I think it's inevitable as we move forward and if we get serious about addressing climate change and other issues that we will have to very much confront that and are likely moving into a future where long scale travel will become very much a rare occurrence as opposed to the norm.

Show Notes

Ecotourism as an Extension of Mass Tourism, Not its Subversion

The Anti-Tourist

Extinction Tourism and Disaster Capitalism

The Capitalocene, not the Anthropocene

Grief work and Escape

Transformation of Culture

Artificial Separation between Humans and Nature

Repressing our Inner Nature (Misanthropy)

Travel as a Liminal State and Addiction

The ecotourism body and the commodified body

Capitalist logic and post-capitalist dreaming

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Ideology and the poverty of imagination

Accumulation and distribution of wealth



Robert Fletcher - Ecotourism, Catharsis, and Post-Capitalist Dreaming

Chris: Welcome to the End of Tourism Podcast, Robert.

Robert: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

Chris: Would you do us the honor of telling us where you find yourself today, both in time and place?

Robert: Well, I'm living in Amsterdam in the Netherlands right now, and I work as an associate professor at a university here called Wageningen University in a department called the Sociology of Development and Change.

Chris: Wow. Thank you for that. So in your essay, "Ecotourism Discourse: Challenging the Stakeholders Theory," you talk about how it seems to me anyways, how you went undercover to study the effects of ecotourism in South America. Why has this become your field of study?

Robert: First, I should probably say I didn't go undercover because that's technically a no-no in my field in anthropology.
Right. I let people know that I was doing research, but of course the things that I found, you know, weren't necessarily what I expected to find or what people always wanted me to find. But I first got started studying ecotourism as a traveler myself. Right after university, I did a long trip throughout central America.
Like many people I knew, it was definitely a thing to do at the time. For a while I worked as an eco tour guide and myself, as a whitewater rafting guide in Costa Rica. And then I decided to branch off from there, put on my backpack. I went traveling around and over time I found myself reflecting on what I'd done the positives and the negatives, and really just kind of asking myself, you know, first off what my motivation was for doing what I did, but also what the impacts were of my travel.
And that led me to start, you know, thinking about travel, as a serious academic subject. And of course, then I discovered that a lot of people had already done this, as well. And there was a lot of really interesting research reflecting on these experiences. And I got deeper into that and started thinking of my own contribution to this discussion.

Chris: Thank you for that, Robert. And so, ecotourism generally claims to be a remedy for conventional tourism. How might we tourists, travelers and everyday people see it instead as an extension of conventional tourism.

Robert: I think a lot of it has to do with the scale and the way it's practiced. A lot of times, you know, conventional tourists and eco tourists, even though ecotourists claim to be doing things differently, have very similar motivations. One of the things you notice most about eco tourists is a way it's very important to them to distinguish themselves from mass tourists and claim that what they're doing is different. But we also find is, is that's true of most tourists.
In fact, one of the very first of analyses of tourism claim, that that is essentially what defines a tourist is a desire not to be a tourist and to want to be different than other tourists, right?
So we get tourists, you know, definitely have that kind of strong motivation, to be different. Essentially that motivation to be different, is kind of what makes them the same, which is quite interesting. On the other hand the impacts of ecotourism can be quite different, right?
And the motivation can be different and the way it's practiced and the impact it has on local communities can be quite different as long as it's done in a particular way. If it's done in kind of a large scale way, with an attempt to try to save as much money as possible to move quickly between different places, then, eco-tourism doesn't necessarily have a greater positive impact on places than, than mass tourism.
But if ecotourism is done in a small scale basis, is actually managed by local people. If most of the revenue is captured by local people, if tourists actually then are willing to pay more for, you know, services, that then provide benefit to communities and if they have a genuine influence, interest in, spending more time and getting to know people in local communities, then I think it can, in the right circumstances, be quite different.

Chris: I'd like to ask you about extinction tourism. In your essay, "Contradictions in Tourism," Robert, you speak of a new type of tourism that aligns with the deep awareness and consequences of climate change, which we call extinction tourism.
Would you be willing to tell our listeners what extinction tourism is and what might be some of its contradictions?

Robert: The extinction tourism is essentially the phenomenon of traveling to places precisely because they are unlikely to exist in the future. All right. So, classic examples are going to visit species that are endangered with the potential that they won't be around in the future, to visit things like glaciers that are in the process of disappearing.
So essentially that. And what's interesting about it is it kind of shifts the focus of a lot of what was considered nature-based tourism in the past, right? Things like ecotourism essentially are trying to sell an experience of encounter with nature. What extinction tourism does is sell an encounter with the disappearance of nature.
Wow. So it's a bit different. What is interesting is it is precisely a response to the economic and ecological crisis that we've been experiencing, right? As places to start to disappear, you know, tourism has always been a sense about commodifying places and spaces, and that's one of the things that you get tourism, also does, commodifying nature.
And when the nature disappears, then you potentially lose the basis for the commodification and the value it creates. But so what you can instead do through things like ecotourism is shift that source of value from the nature itself to the disappearance of nature. And so you can capitalize on the disappearance of a resource, on the degradation of a resource rather than it's a preservation. And of course that makes it quite contradictory, right?

Chris: Yeah immediately, the notion comes to mind the fetishization of disappearance and, you know, the more I think about it, the more it seems to be not so much a surprise but I guess in the end, an extension, a growth and outgrowth of what tourism already is through the museum experience and zoos, as you said, you know, endangered species.

Robert: Yeah. The way I like to think of tourism is a sense it's a capitalism at its most creative, kind of pushing the frontier of what you can create value from. And also then taking things that are essentially problems that previous forms of capitalist development have created and actually transforming them into new sources of value, right?
It's a dynamic that we call a disaster capitalism. So capitalism creates poverty, and then you can create, tourism experiences around going to slums, right? Capitalism creates inequality that causes people to migrate, you know, for instance, trying to migrate from Mexico to the United States. And then you can create a form of tourism around providing a fake experience of trying to travel illicitly from Mexico to the United States.
And there's a theme park that actually exists that provides that experience. Right? So taking problems that are created by capitalism and using it as the basis for new tourism experiences. That's one of the things that tourism does really well and extinction tourism is one form of this.

Chris: Wow. I have a quote here from one of your essays, but you quote Stephen Leahy who wrote "tourism companies are now using climate change as a marketing tool." Right. And that quote, I should note is from 2008, from 13 years ago. So, even if most of our listeners haven't heard of extinction tourism, that this has been around for a long time, it seems anyways.
So the idea of a global village or one world, or the idea of a singular humanity contributes to the notion that the Anthropocene is not just every culture's problem and responsibility, but that every culture uniformly has played a part in that damage, of this extinction level event. Do you agree with this? And if not, what are the consequences for this kind of thinking?

Robert: Yeah, I definitely don't agree with that. And I think that's one of the dangerous things that's been pointed out about the Anthropocene concept. It seems to create an image of a homogenous humanity, a homogenous set of people that have all contributed equally to the environmental impacts that we're experiencing.
And that that's definitely not the case. Right. For the last several hundred years, at least it's been a very, very small group of people. That's very disproportionately caused the environmental impacts that we experience and very much because they drive and are caught up within this very particular economic system - capitalism, that's only really existed as a global force for the last four or 500 years.
So some people have even argued that rather than calling our current era, the Anthropocene, we should really call it the Capitalocene, to emphasize that. And that really shifts the focus, right? It shifts the focus away from this idea that humans are just naturally kind of ravenous of resources and use resources unsustainably, to arguing that it's no particular people caught up in particular, political, economic, and cultural circumstances.
And that means a different focus on how we can intervene in this situation, right. That if we can change those political and cultural circumstances, then maybe we can influence things quite a bit. Otherwise, if you just argue that humans by definition, use resources unsustainably, and essentially your only recourse is to think about population growth and curbing that as a way to deal with the crisis. And that gets us into some very dangerous territory that I think is best avoided.

Chris: And so if people are traveling and touring during what many consider to be the Earth's six major extinction level event, how do you think we might turn that spectacle into a kind of real and enduring, grief work or mourning, right?
Or maybe the question is not only how, but where we might do that. So much of what appears to exist below the surface of extinction tourism is a desire to not just see disappearing things, but perhaps to contend with the fact that we've contributed to this at present and ancestrally.
So do you think there's a way either through travel and tourism more or otherwise that we might contend with this in a better way?

Robert: Yeah, I definitely think there is now. I think the first thing that any potential traveler needs to do is first start to reflect deeply and ask themselves what they're traveling for, what they're trying to get to, but also what they're trying to leave behind because I think it's quite clear that a lot of travel is motivated by this need to escape conditions of life that are considered dissatisfying or unsustainable. Right. But of course, if you try to escape from these things and then you come back to them again, right. Then it's not really a sustainable model.
Right. So, I think it's first and foremost important to think about whether it's possible to live in a different way and to shape the circumstances of your life, such that you don't feel this need to have to escape them from time to time by going off and doing these other excursions. So minimizing the need to actually have to travel, to take holidays, I think it is the first thing that travelers should reflect on, which isn't to say that, you know, after doing this reflection that we shouldn't travel at all right, there can be very valuable gains from traveling both personally, but also in terms of the connections that are developed, the mutual understanding that's developed between different places and also then the exchange of resources.
Right. But I think it's first important to reflect on your motivation for travel and whether you're doing it for the right reasons and then, to think about how you can structure your travel in such a way that it maximizes the benefits and minimizes the negatives and to do that it's really important to be informed, right?
Because we know a lot about how travel works. We know a lot about its impacts in different places, environmentally, socially, and economically. And we know a lot about then, what forms of travel tend to deliver the most benefits relative to the downside. So, educating yourself about all of this, and then trying to use this as a basis to structure your travel in the best way I think it was one of the most important things that we can do.
In terms of this question of using travel as a way to deal with grief. And that's another interesting issue. One of the things I find fascinating about things like extinction tourism is a sense that there's a need to directly witness things right, as the basis for making change. And I wonder about that, right?
Because we know about all of these impacts, we know the glaciers are disappearing. We know species are disappearing, right? And this is really necessary then to go and experience these places directly, to be able to access those emotions that are associated with it in the sense of not needing to change.
Why is this so important to have these same kind of visceral experiences? There's a lot of interesting analogies to this. In tourism in general all these kind of trips to go and see a place, for instance, that's been depicted in a movie to see a historical site where nothing exists, but you know, something existed in the past, right?
It's an interesting thing to actually have a direct experience of something, you know, that you've, you've actually experienced before, but somehow being right there makes it more real. But I wonder if it's not possible then to, you know, try to develop those same kind of reflections, those same types of experiences at a distance and not have the need to actually travel to a place right, where you enter into these kind of contradictions, right?
For instance, if you travel by plane to see a glacier, that's disappearing, to see an island that's disappearing then of course you're contributing to the disappearance of the various things that you're trying to visit. Right. And so even if you gain awareness through that, even if you use that as a basis to change your lifestyle, it can be argued that the travel itself was probably not an overall benefit.

Chris: Wow. Wow. So much to contend with so much to unpack there. Thank you, Robert. I'd like to ask a few questions on the transformations that occur within ecotourism communities and all people really that are involved. What do you think happens as a result of ecotourism to the people involved both local and foreign when nature is presumed to be more important than the human realm?

Robert: Hmm, that's really interesting. I don't think I've ever reflected on that directly. In terms of the social impacts of ecotourism. I mean, one of the things that always, always tends to happen in communities, is a sense of people starting to look back on their own ways of life from the perspective of outsiders, right, which changes the perspective and then starting to reflect on what aspects are considered valuable by outsiders and what aren't right.
And what side then potentially can be transformed into sources of value. Right? There's some really interesting research that documents the way in which this can change local people's relationship to their cultural traditions, to sacred spaces, right?
The transformation of sacred spaces when they realize that these are places that tourists want to access, so that they become more important as sources of revenue than as sacred spaces. All of these things can very much change local people's relations with their local environment.
One thing I can comment on then is my research has shown about the types of environments that especially eager tourists are looking for. And how this influences a local people's ability to actually engage in ecotourism. What I've found a lot, if, you know, essentially what eco tourists are looking to try to do is to escape the human realm, right?
And to find this realm of nature, right? To get away from culture, to move into the realm of nature and to try to escape people into this imagined realm of wilderness as much as possible. And so what this requires then is the creating of these spaces that are free of people and reserved for a non-human nature.
Now most of the time, right? Especially in rural communities in the Global South, these spaces don't exist in and of themselves because people are using spaces for livelihoods. And so what this encourages then is the artificial separation between people in this imagined realm of nature that didn't necessarily exist before.
And this has to be done in a very particular way. Right? So often for local people living in rural areas, right, they have a direct relationship with the resources around them, right, and direct interaction with them and they transform them in ways that are conducive to them being able to develop a livelihood, you know, through agriculture.
And for many people, then, you know, what they're interested in is not this kind of unruly realm of nature that ecotourism looking for, but more of kind of like a rural landscape that's been shaped in such a way that it allows for people to have to live within it, but that's not usually what eco tourists are looking for.
And so often you have a mismatch between the kind of landscapes that are valued by local people, living in rural spaces and the eco tourists who come to visit. And that can mean that if all they see as those spaces, eco tourists aren't interested in visiting these spaces. So what I've found in a lot of my research is that ecotourism operations that were created directly by local people without a lot of input from foreigners, were developed according to their own aesthetic, their own sense of what a tourist would want to see often focused on kind of rural livelihood activities.
And this didn't always jive well with the tourists who came and wanted to escape everything people were doing and getting into the realm of nature. And so this meant that people who tended to profit best from ecotourism were other former ecotourists themselves who'd come in with that same type of idea and were able to create operations in spaces that conform more with the ecotourist ideal.
And so what this did in places like Costa Rica was kind of disadvantage local people in developing ecotourism because most of that ecotourism market came to be dominated by foreigners who moved in, bought up land and developed operations that were more successful. Wow.

Chris: Wow. And, you know, briefly, I guess, where do you think this comes from this notion that Western and modern people have a desire to not only understand nature as being separate from the human realm, but especially wanting to experience it as separate?

Robert: I think I know exactly what you're getting at. Yeah. In my analysis, you know, spend a lot of time thinking about this. And I think this is one of the things that's very important for travelers to reflect on. Right? What is this need a lot of people have to try to escape other people into this other realm?
And I think where it comes from is this right: to become modern in the sense, to develop this kind of modern way of acting in the world, there's a sense of what we need to do is kind of suppress our inner nature, right, which we think of as being this kind of carefree animal that just wants to indulge in the moment, indulge in pleasure.
We need to suppress that, to develop these qualities of discipline and deferral of gratification that we need in order to be able to succeed and progress within a modern civilization. Okay. And so the consequence of that is a sense of repression and stifling of this inner nature, which we see as necessary in order to be able to survive in society and being around other people.
And then the only way to escape that is to then move into a realm where there's no people around. So when you get away from people, then you can get rid of the sense of constraint and you can feel free in a way that, we sense at least, that modern society doesn't allow us to. I don't think that's necessarily true.
I don't think that, you know, we're really structured in this same sort of way that our animality compels us to indulgence and pleasure. And it's only through socialization that we suppress and constrain that, but that's kind of the story we tell about ourselves. And as long as we keep telling that story about ourselves and while we feel a suppressed within society and feel this need to escape into wilderness.

Chris: Yeah, I think the history of private property in the west, and really very recently in the last 200 years, the enclosure of the commons throughout the world perhaps has something to say about that as well.

Robert: Definitely. Wasn't it, Rousseau, who said that the smartest thing that somebody ever did was to put a fence around a piece of property, tell other people it was a theirs and get them to believe in it. Or I, was it a Polanyi who made a similar statement that yeah. enclosing nature in this way was one of the strangest things that humans had ever done. Right. So, really then putting the sense that we have that private property is just this natural institution in the historical perspective and realize from a larger perspective, just how strange it is to organize space in this way.

Chris: I wanted to talk to you about the result or the consequence of this fencing in our interior lives and of our physical lives in the context of catharsis in traveling and addiction. So you write, "that the affective release offered in ecotourism is transitory, and hence rather than delivering an enduring satisfaction of existential angst, the experience usually provides merely a pseudocatharsis that paradoxically leaves the subject or tourist, even more dissatisfied through deprivation of the previous stimulation.
Could you elaborate a little bit for us about this notion of pseudo catharsis because, you know, reading your essays I see so much of my previous traveling addiction as pseudocatharsis, could you unpack this a little bit for our listeners?

Robert: I think again, it comes back to the basic motivation for traveling, right?
Much of the time we feel that there's something lacking in our everyday lives, that we then want to try to find through escaping that in the form of travel. But of course, in the end, unless we permanently leave and go somewhere else and create a new life, we end up coming back to those same types of things.
So the escape that we get was can only really be a temporary. And even if we do leave a previous life behind and establish a new life somewhere else, other than that changes our relationship with the place, because the way we talked about it, the experience that you get in traveling and another kind of forms of rituals, is a state that we call liminality, right?
Where you leave structures behind and you experienced this kind of sense of freedom, but that can only really be ever transitory because it only exists in between different structures. And so if you then leave the structure behind and go to a different place, then over time, you'll create a new structure around that and that state of liminality that you originally experienced, will disappear.
And so this is why oftentimes, you know, when you go to a place, you feel the sense of freedom, of peace and calm and think that it's the place itself that's causing that. And therefore, wouldn't it be nice to move to this place and establish yourself there? And then you can feel this way all the time, right?
Rather than recognizing that it's the way you're experiencing the place, as opposed to the place itself that's responsible for that feeling. And it going over really only ever really be transitory if the way you're experiencing that is through escaping structures. Right? And there's also the fact that yeah, the experiences that you have during these travels, it's about finding new spaces, having new experiences, although this things kind of fade over time.
Right? And so the initial kind of rush that you get, the initial sensation has to diminish right, as you become accustomed to a place and an experience. That means that the only way to recapture that experience is to go somewhere else, to find something new. And over time, you know, as you accumulate more of these experiences, then any new experience, no longer has that same kind of impact because you seen so much of it before.
And so what you can do then is trying to keep chasing new and more extreme experiences over time, but that eventually has some kind of limit. And so essentially it comes back to that basic idea, if the reason why you're traveling is to escape some essential dissatisfaction, then you're never really going to be able to do so, because that dissatisfaction comes from yourself.
The antidote to that is to try to examine that source of dissatisfaction and to think about how does you can structure your everyday life in such a way that it actually is more satisfying and you don't feel a need to escape it. And then your travels can be more of kind of like an icing on the cake.
Something that you do in addition to increase the satisfaction you feel through your life, as opposed to trying to find satisfaction somewhere else that you don't experience in your in your everyday world.

Chris: Wow.
Yeah, I think, you know, this is you just described, basically the entire decade of my twenties in a minute there. That was it, you know, I got my first whiff of it and then I kept going and wanting more.
And then over the years, the trips got longer and eventually I needed to learn on my travels and there was a sense of needing to deepen and not just broaden the experiences, but every time I came back there was always this sense of what most people call or what's often referred to as reverse culture shock.
Right. But I think it was more of a sense of not that that I had become temporarily estranged from the place I'd come from by returning and by leaving over and over again. It's also something that some people refer to as destination addiction, and it's incredible how some of these things get glorified in social media circles, because, you know, if you've ever been addicted to a real substance or have ever had a difficult addiction to deal with, you know, that, the patterns are the same across the board and to deal with them, to analyze what makes you dissatisfied in the world is really the only way to deal with these things as opposed to holding them up on a throne and glorifying them.

Robert: It's interesting. You know, we talk about addiction. There's a substance is in very negative sense, right. But being an adrenaline junkie is something that's heroized. My equivalent of what you're talking about was doing extreme sports. And I got really into whitewater kayaking and I found over time that the experiences that had provided me with stimulation before we no longer do so.
And I had to keep looking for a more difficult, and more risky forms of excitement. And what this does is just escalate. And I got to the point where I realized that only way I could actually enjoy these activities anymore was by doing things that could potentially kill me.
You know, and essentially then there's no end to this other than potentially death. And that's exactly what happens to a lot of extreme sports enthusiasts, right? Is they can't stop and eventually die. Some people are able to escape this, but, but it does happen. So there are, you know, potentially significant consequences to this.
And for me, I realized at a certain point that I didn't want to die doing these things. And as a result, I would have to actually start asking myself seriously why I was doing these things and try to come to a different relationship with my regular life that didn't force me to try to escape it in pursuit of extreme thrills.

Chris: Wow. Wow.

Robert: Well, we're just still an ongoing process of coming to terms with the mundane everyday.

Chris: Yeah, well, you know, at no point following or during our relative addictions, do we actually manage to escape the circumstances that lead us to them. If, if anything mitigate or heal, but not escape necessarily.
And so I wanted to ask you a question about the body in the context of ecotourism, right? You write that "in short, however subtly, the orchestration of eco tourist experiences amounts to a disciplining of the body whereby ecotourist bodies become sites of capitalist accumulation and tourists become participants in the ongoing co-optation of socionatures within a neoliberal mode of capitalist conservation." There's a whole lot there. You think you could elaborate a little bit for our listeners?

Robert: Yeah. So one of the interesting ways that capitalism works is actually by going to work on our bodies and transforming them in particular ways. For instance, when we hire a personal trainer, right, to sculpt ourselves in particular ways, or when we hire a nutritionist to give ourselves a certain eating regimen and one of the kind of paradoxical things that happens as a result of that, especially within kind of a contemporary neoliberal climate, a free market climate is that capitalism kind of compels us to do opposite things at the same time, right?
So there's a whole industry. That's devoted to creating advertising to get us to eat more right, to get us to eat as much as possible. And of course, a logical consequence of that for many people is getting overweight and having health impacts. And then it kicks in another capitalist industry that's designed to help us manage and lose that weight.
Right. So one form of capitalism kind of compels us to over consume. And then another form of capitalism compels us to address the impacts of that consumption. Right? People travel because they're stressed out and dissatisfied with their lives working in mainstream a capitalist society, right? And they want to get out of that. They want to find a different space where they can move their body in different ways where they can experience different kinds of emotions and ecotourism essentially sells that.
Right? So essentially at its essence, what ecotourism is selling is a particular bodily experience. Okay. And this is what we call flow and transcendence. It's when you become so absorbed in the present moment that you lose a sense of the passage of time, of yourself as distinct from the surrounding environment.
And you feel this sense of kind of a connection with the larger world and a sense of kind of peace and satisfaction and enjoyment. At its essence, that's what ecotourism like many forms of tourism tries to sell you. And so what it's doing is capitalizing on a particular bodily experience as the basis for value creation.

Chris: Thank you, Robert. So, we've been speaking quite a bit today about the consequences of ecotourism and capitalism specifically. I'd like to turn the page and see if we might speak about post-capitalism and the dreams that might help usher in a different kind of world and a different kind of way of living that isn't necessarily escapist.
And so, you write that "to realize it's post-capitalist potential, tourism must move radically from a private and privatizing activity to one founded in and contributing to the common or the commons." Given that diverse forms of eco-tourism projects that you've studied, do you think that's possible?

Robert: I do think it's possible. But that it's quite difficult because we all live within an overarching capitalist society and world. And those are kind of the default institutions that we grapple with, right. Default processes that we're immersed in. So trying to create, you know, post-capitalist spaces, spaces that operate according to different logic is quite difficult but not impossible.
But it also depends on how you think about capitalism. You can think about it as one coherent global system, then it becomes more difficult to envision alternatives, right? Because creating those alternatives would mean transforming the system as a whole, right? But if you think of capitalism more specifically as a particular type of production and exchange, then you get a bit more nuance.
So the way we think about capitalism is basically the production of value through employing wage labor, through employing other people to work for you, and then appropriating the difference between the value they create and what you pay them. And that becomes the basis for accumulating capital.
And then the aim of capitalism becomes to try to use that process as a basis to accumulate as much capital as possible. I suppose, capitalism from that perspective means operating according to different logic, right? Not paying people less than the value that's created and not then using that as a basis to appropriate resources privately.
And so if you look at things from that perspective, then it's possible to find lots of examples of post-capitalism in practice, and to imagine ways of pushing that further, right, where you have common ownership of reserves, where you have production within that, where the value is appropriated by everybody as opposed to particular individuals.
And hence, there isn't really a difference between the value that people create and the value that they receive because everybody shares equally in that value. And so if you have production and exchange then based on this antiprofit motive principle where resources are created and managed through collective decision-making and where the value that's produced is collectively owned and distributed, then, you know, by definition, you're already starting to talk about post-capitalist practices. And you can see quite a few examples of these in some types of community-based ecotourism operations that do exist in lots of places around the world.

Chris: And what do you think has been the most compelling or jarring aspects of those of those projects ? What's really stood out for you in that regard?

Robert: Well, I mean, I've seen some really inspiring examples of this where, you know, groups of or communities in rural spaces. Costa Rica is where I have most of my examples from that have come together, you know, largely of their own initiatives, sometimes with support from outsiders, to try to figure out how to integrate tourism into their collective management of these resources.
Right. And to do it in such a way where it's developed communally. And where, you know, the benefits that are provided by tourism then are reintegrated into a larger community development strategy. Right. And I think those aspects are really important. On the other hand, it's very challenging to do so, and that's what I've really been struck by as well is how much of a struggle it is to do this and to do it well, because it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of conscious work to make sure that you're being as inclusive as possible.
And then you're not perpetuating forms of exclusion along the lines of gender in particular, that you're not excluding members of the community. All right, but that also you're not then allowing people to, you know, simply benefit from other people in the communities work when they're not contributing to it as well.
So actually developing genuine mechanisms for participation and for democratic decision-making throughout a community and then benefit sharing that's equitable is a significant challenge for any community.

Chris: Yeah. My, my personal doubts around this stem from the notion that when travel happens we're always talking about the meeting of different worlds and in the human context of different cultures.
You know, I wonder. About eco-tourism projects and the ones that I've seen here in Oaxaca and Southern Mexico that have been very successful in ensuring that the basis for community structures and community integrity and livelihood stays intact. And the projects themselves aren't based around the need fulfillment or desires of foreign people.
What you would hope for would be some kind of achieved cross-cultural learning, right that would create or deepen a kind of local hospitality on both sides. But what we've seen recently, you know, with COVID is that the expectation and entitlement, both of foreigners and of local people when it comes to capitalist modes of production and wealth creation, that infection is what we see. Right. Both in the sense of biological viruses and secondly in the sense of the inundation of modernity and a modern mindset.
And so, I mean, those are my doubts, right. And I wonder, do you think it's possible to avoid those things without turning the stranger away or turning the foreigner away do people just have to gamble and hope that such dreaming can happen amongst people from different cultures in this day?

Robert: And I think the idea that you're talking about know is possible to achieve, but that is quite difficult. On the one hand, I always keep in mind this saying that I think is interesting. "the perfect is the enemy of the good," right. And you know, it is difficult to achieve any ideal. On the other hand you don't want to compromise your values too much, but in the end, from a more realistic perspective, I mean, we all live within this capitalist world and society and so the alternatives in terms of what we can do in order to sustain our livelihoods, many of them are not that good.
And so tourism can you know, if approached in the right way, be preferable to many other, things like working in a maquiladora or exploiting your resources, allowing a mining company to come in and in mind your territory.
Right? So if you have a range of alternatives, none of which are that good, then tourism could potentially be a least a worst option for some communities. But there are distinct dangers in using it. I think the best way to mitigate these is for communities to be very conscious about the process that they're engaged in, to be aware of all of the pitfalls that we know about, very much from previous research that's been done about tourism development and to proactively prepare for these kinds of things and to try to mitigate them. Right.
And that will mean that you're going to be focusing your operation on particular types of tourists, those who are willing to kind of move beyond just trying to consume a pleasurable experience and actually think about travel as a form of mutual exchange that isn't necessarily about their pleasure, but is more about this cultural exchange. And, you know, again, unconsciously, you know, using their movement and their privilege as a basis to help kind of distributed resources in a different way.
But inherently, this comes with various power imbalances, right? You have the fact that tourists are the ones leaving home and going to other places. They, they leave at the end of it, but local people have to stay there. Tourists are bringing, almost by definition, more money than local people have, which creates its own own imbalance.
Right. And so those are all dangerous, in terms of then even if not consciously, I kind of implicitly asking local people to change themselves and their behavior to accommodate a tourist. But being aware of those dynamics, I think I can help to mitigate those. And then I think it's a matter of attracting then and informing tourists, the right type of tourists about the type of activities that they're going to experience and what they're not going to get is just a bunch of people catering to their whims. And they can't expect that if they actually want to be responsible tourists in the way that many of them claim.
Which means in the sense that tourism becomes something different or travel becomes something different than the way many have imagined it and what we've gone in search of. But then hopefully it becomes closer the ethics that we claim we want to practice in our travels but often fall short of actually doing.

Chris: Right. Yeah. Yeah. The other day I was interviewing the communications campaigner from the Stay Grounded organization, which you probably know about. It's an organization in Europe. That is fighting against climate change through aviation, fighting against aviation and the aviation industry because of its effects on climate change.
And you know, it made me consider this possibility. Well, what if in a post-capitalist world we only had the opportunity to travel once or twice in our entire lives. Right. And then what then would travel look like and how would we proceed in our lives in the context of that travel, knowing that it will be the only time or the last time, and this is also in the context of the fact that the vast majority of people in the world don't have vacations, that many people don't understand, cannot comprehend what leisure time is because it's so much a stranger to their culture or to their traditions, right?
This notion of going somewhere else and escaping for a few days or a week. And so that was a little bit of my dreaming in regards to that. What would a world look like if you could only travel once in your lifetime or twice maybe. Right?

Robert: I think that's really interesting thing to consider.
The first thing I would say to that is I don't think it's so hard to imagine or for most people around the world, because that is in fact their lives, right? It's a very small portion of the population that actually has the ability has the luxury to travel more than that. And so that actually is the reality for most people is a lack of mobility, a lack of ability to travel around when they want to, and probably will only take one or two significant trips in their lifetime, if at all, right? So, though for the tiny majority of us that actually have created these lifestyles around kind of professional movement, I think it's inevitable as we move forward and if we get serious about addressing climate change and other issues that we will have to very much confront that and are likely moving into a future where long scale travel will become very much a rare occurrence as opposed to the norm that has become for that small group of people.
That'll be a big shift, right? And for those of us, who've become, you know, very much attached to this form of mobility and I include myself within that group, it will be a very dramatic shift. Maybe for children who grow up in this newer world, it won't be such a trip because they will live lives, that they don't feel as much of a need to escape from and much of a sense that this is kind of a norm and the way you should be and their identities won't be attached to mobility in that same way. But it will be quite a shift for many of us, it quite daunting to consider.

Chris: Yeah. And you mentioned the term that I think most people would agree with which is a lack of mobility. Right. But how might we see that in a world where escapism isn't at the base or foundation of our desire to travel, you know, might it be something more like a depth or a studiousness or apprenticing of home, right.
And that's such a thing might be the great honor that we have or that future generations would have that perhaps we didn't, or we couldn't consider under the current circumstances. And so, you know, Frederick Jameson, the philosopher famously wrote that it's easier for people to imagine the end of the world and then the end of capitalism.
Right. So where do you think this relative poverty of imagination comes from, right. You know, I mentioned something and you say, well, why? And he said, well, you know, it's, it's not too difficult to imagine then as soon as you said that, I'm like, I thought, yeah, you're right.
It's not, it's not that difficult to imagine. Right. But why do you think that it becomes so difficult for people to envision different worlds, new worlds?

Robert: Well, in part that's exactly how ideologies intended to operate, right. Any dominant paradigm intends to try to present itself as natural as inevitable, not contingent, right?
Because that's how it sustains itself. So, capitalism as not just an economic system, but as kind of a cultural paradigm, right, works through this form of naturalization, of seeming like it's just the inevitable background to their world, as opposed to a system that was not necessarily a coherently, but just a certain extent consciously and intentionally created, at a particular point in time, right?
And for a relatively small amount of time. We could think about the span of human history. We've had a capitalist system for maybe 500, 600 years. It seems like a long time in terms of our own lifetime, but in the whole scheme of things is quite a short period of time and it's very then possible to imagine that a thousand years in the future, people will look back at capitalism as a small blip in the evolution of human society, rather than this kind of hegemonic and ingrained structure that we consider it to be. So that's exactly how ideology works is by making it seem that it's impossible to imagine things otherwise.
And then of course always the way to start breaking that down is to start seeing it in this long-term perspective and this historical perspective as a culturally specific, kind of moment, as a contingent system that we've created and could potentially decide to do otherwise.
Right. So that's the first step. And then actually taking steps to create structures, to create processes that escape capitalist logic to whatever degree, is the next step and probably the harder one actually because well, it's easier to imagine anything you want.
Actually making those changes usually puts you in opposition to entrenched interests and power relations and if you push hard enough against those then of course they start to push back. If you actually create a credible threat, then you're going to experience some resistance and that can be quite daunting to consider and then to persevere when you encounter that resistance.

Chris: Yeah. From my little experience and from what I've read in your work that, you know, seems to be a massive function of ecotourism that there's this dreaming to push back against conventional modes of tourism, but in the end the fallout and the consequences is this blowback, right?

Robert: I mean if you're trying to still work within the dominant system, right then that system is going to end up shaping what you produce in ways that you didn't necessarily intend, right. That's kind of inevitable working within these structures. And so consciously working to move yourself to agree from them while also recognizing that whatever you do is going to be still shaped by these overarching contexts. And it's never going to be as pure as you intend, I think is the only realistic way forward.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I'm reminded of Audrey Lorde quote, "the master's tools cannot dismantle the master's house." And so my last question for you, Robert, if I may, what are your dreams? What are your personal dreams for a post-capitalist world? What would that look like?

Robert: I would like to see a world in which we share the wealth that we have much more equitably. I mean, that for me is the essence of things, right?
The fact that we really do have this incredible abundance and yet we have this perception of scarcity because of the fact that wealth is distributed so unequally. Right. So unequally and that right now, the possibility of challenging that inequality and sharing that wealth then inspires such strong reactions.
I was thinking about recently when it was really inspiring, a Congresswoman from New York Alexandria Ocasio Cortez showed up to this a wealthy ball in New York wearing a dress that said "tax the rich" on the back, right. Taxing the rich, I think, you know, from a 20th century welfare state perspective is not such a radical proposition, right?
Isn't that what taxation is designed to do, but yet the fact that she wore this dress really pissed off a tremendous amount of people. Right. And that for me, just show us how skewed things have become, right. This idea that somehow accumulation of obscene wealth is considered more palatable than questioning that. And that asking the things should be distributed more evenly and I think I would love to see a world in which that changed, where accumulating wealth in that way was considered immoral, right and obscene and where it was considered a norm that that kind of accumulation of wealth wouldn't be allowed. It would be considered as something that was asocial, as opposed to heroized.
And of course that would mean that how we look at the world and how we operate in the world had changed dramatically. So a world in which distribution of wealth was considered the norm and accumulation was considered a horrific thing that we had a hard time accepting and contemplating would be the world that I would want to live in.

Chris: Hm. I'd be knocking on that door first chance I get. Wow, that's beautiful. Thank you, Robert. So this brings us, I think, to the end of our time together. How might our listeners find your work?

Robert: Where you can find everything that I've published on my own personal website, And my background is in cultural anthropology and the last name is Fletcher. You can email directly and I'll pass on anything that you would want to find.
I can also direct you to a lot of other work that has inspired me. I have my own thoughts on this. And so that's the main suggestion I'd have for anybody is there's a lot out there, a lot of resources. And if you're really interested in thinking about the motivation for the impacts of your travel then you can find all the things that you need to really reflect on all of that and to use that as the basis to think about how travel better and with better consequences in the future.

Chris: Mm, amen. Well, I'll make sure that those links to your work, Robert are up on the end of tourism website as well. So I really, really appreciate your time and what you've been willing to share with us today.

Robert, it is really a great honor to be honest. Well, thank you so much, Robert. I'm just so thankful for your work and it's really opened my eyes to a lot of, a lot of what you know was missing, I think previously.
So thank you.

Robert: Thanks a lot for, yeah, developing this discussion. It sounds like it's a lot of work on your part. I hope I'll be able to get enough out of it to support that. That it sounds like a tremendous amount of effort.

Chris: Oh yeah. Little by little. I wish you a wonderful night and yeah, thanks again.

Robert: And have a good day. Good luck with it all. Thanks for reaching out.

Chris: Take care.

Expand Full Transcript

More Episodes

View all episodes