“Never in our lives have we experienced such a global phenomenon. It’s almost uplifting to know that virtually everyone on earth is sharing the same concerns and uncertainties, with all focused on the well-being of their families and communities. Maybe we’ll finally awake to the reality that we are biological beings inhabiting a living planet.”
That idea comes from one of the world’s great writers, thinkers, botanists, anthropologists, explorers, photographers and Canadians.
The fact that he’s more revered outside our country than within speaks not just to Canadians’ storied skill at shooting our tallest poppies, but at the world’s inclination to downgrade someone who excels at more than one thing. Excel at seven things like he does and he really has to be not worth taking seriously.
Such is the fate of Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, author of 15 books including One River, and Into the Silence which won the Samuel Johnson Award for the best non-fiction book in the English language;
Member of the Order of Canada; TedTalks rock star; Honorary Citizen of Colombia (his newest book, Magdalena, delayed by COVID-19, is about the river that bisects that much-battered nation); recipient of countless honorary degrees; and since 2016 the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at UBC in Vancouver.
But what Wade Davis is best known for is not what he’s done, but how he thinks.
He was the first person to write that ancient cultures “are not failed versions of us.” If anything they are better adapted to their environments than we are to ours.
He then links our indifference to threatened cultures to our sleepy response to our threatened planet. As he asks: “Why does ancient wisdom matter in the modern world? I answer that with two words: ‘climate change.’”
My point is not just that our inaction around indigenous issues and climate issues are connected. It’s that Davis has been politely screaming about them for 30 years. We’re all in this together. We degrade others at our risk. We can learn from them. Shut up and listen. Open up and see. Please. And thank you.
Already, in the still-early days of a plague that has yet to reach its maximum kill rate, pundits like Yuval Noah Harari and Niall Ferguson are predicting how we must change in order to survive our excesses. As the air clears, we will risk drowning in all the ideas for how to make things better, safer, kinder, more human.
But in our rush to fix things, let’s not be seduced by the thrill of new answers, when they’ve been staring at us for centuries and their standard-bearer is one of our own.
So I urge you to learn more about Wade Davis, as well as another original Canadian thinker, Zita Cobb.
They were voices in the wilderness.
Not any more.