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One of the alternatives to materialistic, status-driven consumption is said to be activities that provide experience-based satisfaction, like travel, services, and activities that bring people together. That may be true, but I do not think the kind of travel described in an article headlined, “Slum Tourism,” fits the bill. The article paints a picture of rich folks traveling to see how the “other half” lives, a practice that that has roots in antiquity. Even sovereigns went out into the streets in disguise to see how the hoi polloi lived.
The article mentioned popular destinations like Mumbai and Rio, both with massive slum populations. The smash hit movie, Slumdog Millionaire, has brought crowds to see the scenes so dramatically pictured in the film. The article is eloquent and made me feel small. The author, Kennedy Odede, has come from such a place to being a student at Wesleyan College, but she has not forgotten her growing up as she writes:

I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.

There is much more to chew on and I urge you to click the link and read the whole article. What lingers on for me are the unreflective solutions that are showing up to solve the overconsumption problem in the US and other affluent countries. Sure, travel seems to be more happiness producing than things like Rolexes or Rolls Royces, but it’s still buying things and services to satisfy some inner need. At least that’s what the marketers and many psychologists tell us.
Maybe that’s the wrong model entirely. Think of the difference it would make if we were driven by care, not need, including taking care of ourselves, but also others and the world we live in. I believe that on deep reflection that is the way we act whenever we get in touch with our human core. Slum tourism is so one-sided as to be almost obscene. It turns human beings born into circumstances so different from those who travel to gaze on them into mere curiosities. Odede finishes her piece with these two paragraphs.

Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.

Slums will not go away because a few dozen Americans or Europeans spent a morning walking around them. There are solutions to our problems — but they won’t come about through tours.

Consumption in the US is a deep-seated, pervasive, and pathological practice. All living creatures must consume to live, and human beings need, beyond mere subsistence, to have and consume what have become over time the necessaries of life. We will never successfully transform consumption to a level and manner that is consistent with sustainability until we stop thinking primarily of ways to avoid its materiality. We have to stop and think why we consume anything beyond those necessaries. As long as we believe that such activities are driven by some “need,” we will not be able to transform our economy. All the forces at play will find a way to convince us that we always need more. Slum tourism will simply become a metaphor for narcissistic, insensitive, uncaring, unsustainable consumption.

One Reply to “Does Slum Tourism Count as Experience-based Consumption?”

  1. John, I share your disgust for slum tourism. On the positive side, perhaps it accentuates the massive chasm between the “haves” and “have nots” in the world. It is this type of modern practice that sheds a bright light on the sheer pathology of hyper-consumerism, whether it is material or experiential. Under the spotlight, it is possible that shared disgust will help to turn the tide, however minutely.
    Another point that comes to mind is the preponderant impact of airline travel on climate change. Presumedly, most slum tourists must travel great distances via air to experience how the other half lives. This results in greater environmental impacts than if they had just spent the money on a new BMW. Either way, it is crazy.

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