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Brian Tokar: "The fundamental problem with tourism today is that it transforms communities and important natural areas toward serving the desires and perceived needs of more affluent people who come to visit from other parts of the world"

The ECOCLUB Interview with Brian Tokar
Director, Institute for Social Ecology

Brian TokarBrian Tokar has been an activist, author and a leading critical voice for ecological activism since the 1970s, and is currently the Director of the Institute for Social Ecology, based in Vermont, United States.

He is the author of The Green Alternative (1987, revised 1992) and Earth for Sale (1997), and edited "Redesigning Life?", an international collection on the politics and implications of biotechnology, (Zed Books, 2001), as well as Gene Traders: Biotechnology, World Trade and the Globalization of Hunger (Toward Freedom, 2004). Brian has lectured throughout the United States as well as internationally and his articles on environmental issues and emerging ecological movements appear in Z Magazine and other publications, as well as on websites such as Counterpunch, Toward Freedom, ZNet, Truthout, and WW4Report.

Institute for Social EcologyFor 35 years, the Institute for Social Ecology (Web: www.social-ecology.org) has created educational experiences that enhance people’s understanding of their relationship to the natural world and each other. The Institute has been a pioneer in the exploration of ecological approaches to food production, alternative technologies, and urban design, and has played an essential, catalytic role in movements to challenge nuclear power, global injustices and unsustainable biotechnologies, while building participatory, community-based alternatives. It advocates a reconstructive and transformative outlook on social and environmental issues, a moral economy that moves beyond scarcity and hierarchy, and a directly democratic, confederal politics. The Institute strives to be an agent of social transformation, demonstrating the skills, ideas and relationships that can nurture vibrant, self-governed, healthy communities.

For more info and links to Brian Tokar's writings see:

(The Interview follows:)

ECOCLUB.com: What is Social Ecology and in what key ways does it differ from the mainstream environmentalism of the big US & International NGOS?

Brian Tokar: Social ecology offers a coherent radical critique of current social, political, and environmental problems, as well as a reconstructive, ecological, communitarian, and ethical approach to society. We view environmental problems as fundamentally social and political, and seek systemic, long-term solutions, in contrast to the incremental policy adjustments generally advocated by the large NGOs. We advocate fundamental changes in political, economic and social systems, envisioning an outlook that reharmonizes human communities with the natural world, while celebrating diversity, creativity and freedom within human communities.

ECOCLUB.com: What criteria should Tourism meet, assumed that it can, so that it could be genuinely ecological and compatible with social ecology?  In other words, could there ever be a Social Ecological Tourism?

Brian Tokar: Several of our students over the years have sought to address the problems of tourism and eco-tourism from a social ecology perspective. The fundamental problem with tourism today is that it transforms communities and important natural areas toward serving the desires and perceived needs of more affluent people who come to visit from other parts of the world.
A more genuinely ecological tourism would necessarily begin with the genuine needs and lived realities of the host community. Visitors would participate in ongoing community activities and voluntary forms of service to their hosts. Facilities would necessarily be owned and managed by local people and genuinely reflect the community's lifeways, rather than some idealized or repackaged version of those
. The problem, of course, is that in a competitive, capitalist context, and in a world burdened by vast discrepancies in wealth and privilege, communities that offer visitors their lived reality as it is may have a difficult time competing with locales that offer visitors a more idealized fantasy of their existence.

ECOCLUB.com: What is your view of tools such as carbon offsetting of travel emissions, voluntourism and traveller's philanthropy, do they advance the social ecological agenda, or are they just 'humane' forms of green capitalism in travel?

Brian Tokar: We are especially skeptical of carbon offsetting for travel. Offsets may help absolve individuals' personal guilt for their excess carbon emissions, but the actual benefits to the climate are often difficult to measure. For countries that aim to meaningfully cap their emissions, offsetting emissions through investments in projects elsewhere in the world represents a "hole in the cap" with results that are difficult to monitor and verify. Authors such as Larry Lohmann from the UK have demonstrated that many carbon offset projects ultimately do more harm than good. I am new to the concept of 'voluntourism;' as I've outlined above, it all depends on how it is carried out, and how genuinely it meets the needs of the host community.

ECOCLUB.com: How optimistic are you about the Obama administration delivering on its promises for peace and the environment?

Brian Tokar: After 30 years of virtually uninterrupted right wing hegemony in the US, most progressive-minded people are hopeful about the 'change' that Obama represents. However his policies have a long way to go in living up to his promises for change. The escalation of US military activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the very slow withdrawal from Iraq reflect more continuity with past policies than meaningful change. In environmental policy, Obama's top appointees are consistent in acknowledging the need for effective science-based responses to problems such as the potentially catastrophic global climate disruptions that we are facing. On the other hand, they appear quite wedded to status-quo false "solutions" to global warming, including the potential expansion of nuclear power, trading of carbon dioxide emissions permits, and the myths of "clean coal" and "advanced" biofuels. We may be seeing as much change as is possible within the constraints of the current structures of political power in the US, but this is clearly not enough in the face of mounting ecological and economic disruptions.

ECOCLUB.com: Should the Green movement search for short-term solutions to the current economic crisis (of capitalism) or should they just let the system collapse and develop a really alternative one, not based on money & profit, that it can replace it?

Brian Tokar: Short term solutions are inherently limited, but necessary. Crises, both economic and ecological, disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people, while the most affluent are best able to shield themselves from the most serious consequences. It is the responsibility of any society that believes in justice to compensate for these short-term effects and allow everyone to participate in the recreation of a social order that fully meets the needs of the people and the planet. Short term solutions should not become ends in themselves, nor allow us to become complacent, but rather help set the stage for the much bigger changes that are necessary.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!

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