A Journey through the Nine Circles of Sustainability
We want to open this mini non-masterpiece with a quote by an Italian novelist, a Calabrese, from a small village of San Luca, who once said: “The blackest despair that can take hold of any society is the fear that living honestly is futile.“ Have we reached that point?
Musing about this, one can hardly believe that this non-picturesque Italian town is the very navel of the notorious N’drangheta. A coincidence?
Drawing on the Camusian notion of the eternal dualism of human existence, we wrote nine stories about our beginnings and the journey through sustainable tourism, about the sense which makes no sense at all, about the cheerful in deceitful, the degenerative in the regenerative, or, if you will – about irresponsibility in responsible tourism, and if anyone should recognise themselves in our words, so be it. We dare to compare sustainability with hell because, during our 10-year-long journey, we have sometimes felt as if we were walking through it. But we will let you judge for yourselves.
Everything that is written below applies only to us, the authors of this text, and does not necessarily reflect the experience of other service providers in the tourism sector. In case of contraindications or side effects, please consult Travelife staff. Every man’s journey to sustainability is highly individual.
We shall model our story about sustainability after the structure of Dante’s epic poem because, apart from the nine circles which correspond nicely with the stages in our journey, Dante’s guide Virgil was also a lover of the countryside, nature and erudition in his poetry. The Virgil on our journey through sustainability is our professional association – UHPA—a small group of people with abundant knowledge and enthusiasm. Our Virgil, with whom we have embarked on the journey towards our goal, is largely responsible for our victory. It is a sort of reward for their efforts as well.
The First Circle – Dreams
We have a dream! A dream both small and big, a reverie, a fantasy, a dream just beyond our reach, near but far, difficult yet easy, but as clear and indispensable as the Sun. Oh, if only our tours were completely sustainable… If they could stimulate the local life, agriculture, manufacture, authenticity, and science instead of storytelling and fabricated history for the purpose of over-tourism… If they could fill our clients with new experiences and knowledge, so that their memories of the journeys never fade, but set a new standard. We ask our guide whether we are all aware of the things we might encounter along the way? No, we are not. Are we naïve? Yes, we are. Do we care? No, we do not. We keep going, and whatever happens, happens.
A scene not seen in Split old town for a decade now
The Second Circle – Commitment
Our guide took us to the Room of Commitment, in the lobby of which, staring at the pile of defeating analyses and results from the area of natural sciences, our dreams, our fine ideas and grand words form into loan obligations and deadlines, feeling almost like an unpleasant lump in our throats. Believing that things can and must be done better, and with faith in a better tomorrow, we proceed into the Room of Commitment where we leave our names and honour. We do it for the children, for the planet, for the future. We pass on the world to future generations as we have left it, and judging from the current state of affairs, we will pass it on in a hundred times worse condition than it was when we inherited it from our forefathers. Ouch! We assume our commitment with our signature, our logo, our word, time and finances. We seek order and work. Having left the Room of Commitment we realise that there is a lot of self-sacrifice ahead of us.
The Third Circle – Unawareness
We start implementing our plan, armed with nothing but good intentions, naively thinking they will be sufficient. Our guide leads us through the forest of systems and documents, examples of good practice. After a relatively small amount of effort invested, we realise that we understand nothing. We bow our heads and knuckle down to work, filling in forms and producing documents, handling paper, plastic, e-mail samples, promoting sustainable hotels, creating new products… all the while bursting at the seams while doing a parallel job that earns our livelihood.
The Fourth Circle – Intercourse
The guide leads us into the Intercourse Room; the Room of Joint Duties, where dreamers and supporters, the seekers of sense, professional colleagues, those responsible and sustainable, conformists and anarchists alike, those who are forced and those who came voluntarily, traditionalists and panellists meet each other, sharing dreams, awareness and responsibility. We are searching for a way to achieve our dream, a recipe for Heaven. Some shine brightly as if they had just ascended into heaven, while others lurk on the sidelines, blinking sceptically. Ideas and systems multiply, laws and regulations with which you need to comply. We partake in panel discussions and conferences, and prompt solutions. We leave the room inspired and doubtful simultaneously, confused as a bee in an artificial flower factory.
The Fifth Circle – Awakening
Without even realising it, our guide accidentally leads us into a room containing a bucket of cold water. Wait a minute, what is this? We are sorting waste which later gets mixed together again; we have several e-mail templates to communicate sustainability, some basic human rights which are commonsense anyway; we have installed LED bulbs in our offices, taken pictures next to trees we had planted and all of a sudden we are sustainable? Wah! Realisation. Product. Yes, sustainability in tourism is a product, not a news article. Just like corn flour bread which, containing hardly any corn at all, does indeed have that pretty yellow colour, but tastes like wheat and sugar; like a random Facebook friend who increases popularity by means of a selfie taken on the most recent trip, but in your Facebook feed takes your calories away. While searching for solutions for our company, we encounter a multitude of companies and individuals who offer certificates, labels and signature logos all across the World Wide Web. All you need to do is join a movement, write a declaration, mission and vision statement, take a photograph next to a tree, pay a few bills, of course – and you are in Purgatory. Over and over, pictures of social networks full of smiling companies and individuals who are into sustainability spin our minds. Like a ball of sand paper, the lump in our throats gets harder and harder to swallow. Wet and cold, we exit the Room of Awakening, fearing we might stumble upon a conference or, God forbid, a panel discussion. We feel sick to our stomach.
The Sixth Circle – Division
We follow our guide into the Room of Division, where self-promoting braggarts yell at dreamers with a sustainability label. Sceptical anarchists grab supporters by the throat, while the seekers of sense watch incredulously, turning into conformists. Braggarts have planted a tree; big whoop! How much garbage have their clients left behind, how many traffic jams have they caused in the cities, how much smog have they released into the atmosphere, and how much food have they thrown away? It’s all talk, some say, nothing else! A flood of sustainability certificates for two nickels; a photo of a seedling in the wrinkled palms of an old man. Hands covered in dirt and pressed together in the shape of a heart. The supporters of the regenerative approach challenge those who advocate sustainability. Images of arms wide open and a gaze into the distance on Instagram. What did we get ourselves into? Who needs this? Ain’t nobody going to lecture us and prescribe how we are going to do our jobs. We have better things to do than this. Jeez, I don’t have time for this. Perhaps we should have thought twice before embarking on this journey.
The Seventh Circle – Spite
The sixth and seventh circles are separated by the river Rubicon. Wait a minute, hold on a second, aren’t we the same as all the others? What is it exactly that makes us saints, as opposed to sinners? Isn’t the inertness of the entire society a bit uncontrolled, chaotic, in fact? I recall it well, because it hasn’t been that long ago when we stored and used almost all types of packaging seasonally, went to repair our shoes. I remember when our block of flats with thirty apartments had only four slightly larger rubbish bins which stood in a tiny room in the building, while today we can hardly manage with five large dumpsters. I recall visiting relatives in the old city centre and the numerous barber shops and shoe repair shops, while today tourism prevents the locals from exercising even the most basic rights, such as the right to sleep. We are buying left and right as if there is literally no tomorrow, and not to mention how nicely we dispose of our waste. There is no way the world could ever improve as long as everyone behaves like this, so what is the point of us changing? What do we tell our kids? So how long will we go on like this, then? We are going to roll up our sleeves out of spite and see how we can sweep our own front porch first. We are crossing the Rubicon.
The Eighth Circle – The Journey
Determined to move from words to deeds, making sure that during our tours clients leave nothing but their footprints behind, we start packing for the journey. Fearful of road overload, our Virgil guides us slowly and systematically, one step at a time. We stumble upon the next room which consists of three layers. Armed with steadfastness and a desire to have a spotlessly clean front porch, we enter the first layers.
The First Layer: „Esotericism” (from the Greek ezotheo, “internal“) – is a wide range of ideas and philosophies that deal with the study of the laws of the visible and invisible worlds.“ Source: Wikipedia
In the company of the select few we enter the Forest of Criteria. Each of the criteria needs to be scaled and the treetops need to be checked for airiness so that the squirrels can jump freely and the fruits can grow unhindered. We climb the trees like monkeys jumping from one branch to the next, on the lookout for our own flaws. Some trees are too low; others are too tall; some offer a wonderful view of the horizon, while others have proved to be too difficult to climb and sent us plunging down headlong. Just a little bit further and we’re there… just a tiny bit more… Nngh!
The Second Layer: „Mathematics (from the Greek μάθημα (máthēma), “science”) – it is an exact, unambiguous science which investigates axiomatically defined abstract structures by using mathematical logic”. Source: Wikipedia
Dreading hypocrisy, but driven by the desire to compensate for our emissions, we are eager to find the best possible solution. However, we learn that mathematics and sustainability do not really get along. Confused like a pupil who failed to bring his prescription glasses, with a sharpened pencil in our hand we stare at the simplest mathematical problem for which we do not have a solution. Steering clear of anything that might make us feel gassy, we are trying to figure out what to do with the greenhouse gas emission money; rubbing our eyes in disbelief, we keep searching. When we ask the select few for a solution, they start to hem and stammer. Whichever corner of the world we peek in, our clients’ money can buy us nothing but a bunch of fancy words and various colourful commodities. Heavens, we are never going to get out of this layer! But salvation arrives at the last minute.
The Third Layer: „Exotericism (from the Greek ἔξω eksô, from, out of, outside) – refers to the knowledge that is outside of and independent from a person’s experience and can be ascertained by anyone (related to common sense)”. Source: Wikipedia
Common sense? Everyone is standing before us with their eyes and ears open. Hmm, things don’t look optimistic. How to convey all of this so that everyone understands? Not an easy task. So much data and criteria, and policies… Competing against colourful commodities, tedious information appear to be losing the match for now. No wonder. If one is to conduct a quick statistics search, it immediately becomes obvious that both greenwashing and the need for sustainable products are rising like a teen’s erection. The percentages are enormous.
The Ninth Circle – „the Goal” (from the Greek τέλος, aim, purpose) is the philosophical subject of study in teleology. Telos denotes the purpose of things, defined as the reason why something exists.” Source: Wikipedia
At the end of Exotericism, Virgil stopped, turned towards us knowingly and said, “Only those who exit the eighth circle can see the goal.“ And the goal is far away. We can barely make it out, but it is there. It looks like a star which barely twinkles in the night sky; now you see it, now you don’t, because, objectively speaking, so much effort is invested by all of us and our suppliers into waste sorting, while on the other hand, we see that there are huge problems in waste management, or in the better case scenario – in the recycled raw materials market. If, according to the principles of market economy, we reach the end user and achieve a profit margin, then we have to be able to go back to the beginning of the process with the same profit margin. That is the gist of the story. Should the world fail to turn sustainability into a genuine business instead of greenwashing, life on this planet will be rather esoteric. We do not wish to advertise how fantastic we are or lead anyone down the garden path. There is still much we don’t know, but we look forward to all those things, out of spite. And that is what sustainability is, from our perspective.