My friend Peter and I were about to embark on a 185 kilometre, eight hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Jiri, a village at the end of what’s generously described as a road. From there, we would be trekking with our Nepali crew to Everest Base Camp at the foot of the great mountain; retracing the steps of the legendary 1953 expedition that had been the first to put climbers on the summit of the world’s highest peak, sixty years earlier. Because seats in Nepali mini-buses are not designed for long-legged six-footers, the local agent for the ever-efficient Canadian Himalayan Expeditions had booked two seats each for us so that we could spread out a bit with our packs. “Don’t give up the extra seats” he emphasized. “They’re paid for”. That was easier said than done.
Along the way we seemed to pick up more passengers than we dropped off. Before long, passengers were sitting on each other’s laps, standing, and squeezed onto every inch of floorspace. Some intrepid souls clung to baggage lashed onto the roof. An elderly couple sat at my feet; she seemingly taking it all in her stride, but he looking intensely uncomfortable. As the bus lurched, swayed and bounced along and the air got muggier, I couldn’t stand it any longer. White privilege be damned, I hosted my pack onto my knees and gestured them up to the aisle seat. The next few seconds unfolded quickly. He gestured at the window, I slid it open, he threw himself across my lap and got his head outside just in time to project a prodigious burst of vomit down the side of the bus. We all swapped seats and after a wet-wipe and drink of bottled water he was fine. His wordless shy smile of gratitude stays with me yet.
I thought of that experience recently while sitting at a comfortable harbourside pub, enjoying good seafood and wine, reflecting on the state of the world. By Canadian standards I live a modest lifestyle, but it would be unimaginably luxurious to my motion-sick friend: light at the flip of a switch, heat or cool at the turn of a dial, so much clean drinking water that I use it to flush the comfortable indoor toilet. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions are living in rough shelter, with limited food, no clean water, and unreliable electricity if it’s available at all.
Some forty years ago I attended a conference at which a prominent strategic thinker warned that, one day, we in the rich world would have to make a fundamental decision – either share the wealth or else man the barricades to defend what we’ve got. Since that lecture we have added two and a half billion to the human population, which has tripled in my lifetime. We have based our entire global economic system on being “consumers” of the planet’s resources. As a result we are doing irreparable damage to the planetary life support system, and even causing the greatest mass extinction of species since the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Human folly like the war in Ukraine highlights our food interdependence. COVID will not be the last pandemic on this increasingly crowded and stressed planet. Ignorance, greed and tribal exceptionalism are tainting our political culture. The time for that existential decision-making is getting very close.
Personally, I have no desire to live in a wealthy gated community, fending off the less fortunate majority. Nine years after that bus trip in Nepal, there is more pleasure in the memory of a grateful smile from a fellow traveller than of having monopolized the privileged comfort of an extra bus seat for a few hours.