It’s a variation of the big “Why” question adventurers are always asked in media interviews. Why ride a bicycle to Timbuktu? Why be the two thousandth person to summit Mount Everest? Why row a bathtub to the North Pole?
Legitimate questions in their own right, you might say, but for some, embarking upon extraordinary feats of physical and mental endurance needs no explanation. “Because it’s there,” George Mallory famously told the New York Times when quizzed on his Everest obsession. Or, from Sir Wally Herbert: “It is as well for those who ask such questions that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask.”
Neither of these comebacks seemed plausible for my former expedition partner Steve Smith, who once offered a more light-hearted if unsparing take on his own motivation as an adventurer: “Because I have an enormous ego and suffer from a compulsive need to keep proving myself with pointless acts of endeavour.” And although painfully honest, his words are probably closer to a more widespread truth than the rest of us might like to admit.
Which leads me to the reason for asking the question in the first place. When you look at UK adventurers in particular, the overwhelming majority are white, privately educated males from upper middle class backgrounds. A surprising number went to Eton and studied at Oxford or Cambridge, or one of the country’s other leading universities. Thanks to subsidies for military personnel, I, myself, received an independent education (my father served as a career officer in the Royal Tank Regiment), begging the question: if I’d gone through the state education system instead, would I have become a so-called adventurer, writing books and speaking about my experiences?
Probably not, looking at the figures.
I suspect that, for the most part, adventurers from elsewhere in the world also come from privileged backgrounds. Perhaps they joined an adventure club at school, or spent their holidays abroad? Traditionally, in the UK at least, private school leavers take a gap year before going to college, giving them a taste for international travel that those directly entering the workplace wouldn’t experience. And with their academic edge, privately educated people are in a stronger position to make a living from their exploits, either in the form of selling articles to newspapers, writing books, or public speaking.
To my mind, this head start in life underscores the need for adventurers to seriously consider the reason behind their endeavours. We have a duty to do something useful with our abilities other than shameless self-promotion, not least because expeditions burden the taxpaying public and endanger the lives of those sent out to rescue us when things go wrong. We have a responsibility to give back to society, the very mechanism that provided us with the means to light out in the first place.
Since our earliest ancestors walked out of Africa some two million years ago, young men and women have set off on journeys into the unknown, quests that often served as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. But these coming-of-age initiates were also expected to return to their tribal group with something of shared value: a new medicine, new seeds to plant for food, the whereabouts of new hunting grounds, or perhaps some innovative technology (imagine the celeb factor of walking into camp and being the first to light a fire!). The act of adventure, therefore, was a reciprocal arrangement, in which even those working less exciting but essential jobs back home (the nine-to-fivers) received benefit. I wonder then: How did we lose that transaction in the modern adventure world, where expeditions have become more about fostering the cult of the individual than contributing to the greater good?
Part of the problem, admittedly, is that with the exception of deep oceans and space, every inch of the Earth and its atmosphere has been surveyed and claimed. The mysteries that stirred the imaginations of early explorers are largely solved; new technologies and medicines are gathered and disseminated by means other than physical journeys.
Nevertheless, I believe there is still a way for adventurers to legitimately earn their keep in the 21st century. Now, more than ever, given the formidable challenges we face in the wake of rising world population and global warming, we need travellers to share what they’ve learned about the planet and its people, including perspectives that offer an alternative path to the destructive one that industrial society has set us on to date. As humans, our identities, behaviours, and habits are conditioned by our geography and cultural norms. It will take looking at the world from many different points of view to understand what we need to change in our own lives to be part of the solution to a habitable planet, not part of the problem. If adventurers can help solve that mystery, one that secures our future wellbeing and even survival as a species, then we’ll never have to answer the big Why question again.
All Rights Reserved – © 2014 Jason Lewis