Explorer of the Millennium, National Geographic Society | Multi-time Bestselling Author | Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia
Wade Davis is a Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. Between 2000 and 2013, he served as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. Named by the NGS as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.”
An ethnographer, writer, photographer and filmmaker, Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among 15 indigenous groups while making some 6000 botanical collections. His work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), an international best seller later released by Universal as a motion picture. In recent years his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia and the high Arctic of Nunavut and Greenland.
Davis is the author of 375 scientific and popular articles and 23 books, including One River (1996), The Wayfinders (2009), Into the Silence (2011) and Magdalena (2020). His photographs have been widely exhibited and have appeared in 37 books and 130 magazines, including National Geographic, Time, Geo, People, Men’s Journal, and Outside. He was curator of The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. In 2012 he served as guest curator of No Strangers: Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. He was the curator of Everest: Ascent to Glory, Bowers Museum, February 12-August 28, 2022. National Geographic has published two collections of his photographs, Light at the Edge of the World (2001) and Wade Davis: Photographs (2018).
His 40 film credits include Light at the Edge of the World, an 8-hour documentary series written and produced for National Geographic. His most recent film, El Sendero de la Anaconda, a 90-minute feature documentary shot in the Northwest Amazon, is available on Netflix.
A professional speaker for 35 years, Davis has lectured at over 200 universities and 250 corporations and professional associations. In 2009 he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures. He has spoken from the main stage at TED five times, and his three posted talks have been viewed by 8 million. His books have appeared in 22 languages and sold approximately one million copies.
Davis, one of 20 Honorary Members of the Explorers Club, is Honorary Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and recipient of 12 honorary degrees, as well as the 2009 Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the 2011 Explorers Medal, the 2012 David Fairchild Medal for botanical exploration, the 2015 Centennial Medal of Harvard University, the 2017 Roy Chapman Andrews Society’s Distinguished Explorer Award, the 2017 Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration, and the 2018 Mungo Park Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In 2016, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
In 2018, he became an Honorary Citizen of Colombia.
(The Unravelling of America and other essays, Greystone, Toronto, 2024)
The climate is changing; it always has and always will. And without doubt, humans are influencing the climate through the emissions of greenhouse gases, largely through the burning of fossil fuels. Anticipating how the climate will change over the next century in response to both natural and human influences is both critical, and far more difficult that many assume. Science, by definition, is never settled, and false assurances that it has been may be as disingenuous as declarations from actual deniers that the entire climate crisis is a hoax.
Any honest conversation much begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties. Proposals for mitigation should not imply that the profound changes demanded by a carbon free world will not come at a cost. Climate is an overriding concern, but any sweeping policy prescription must also take into account other societal priorities- economic development, poverty reduction, intergenerational and geographical equity. Misrepresenting the current state of climate science will not help us address humanity’s deepest needs and desires.
The climate movement has been infused with the moral authority of a crusade. To challenge its consensus is to be branded as a climate denier, ostracized not just from the scientific community, but from society itself. Between the actual deniers driven by ideology or cynically serving the interests of industry, and the prophets of doom who have an almost biblical obsession with the coming apocalypse, there are many scientists and scholars whose voices are not being heard. I set out to hear what they had to say.
And what I heard over several months was a sobering assessment of the promise and complexity of the challenge before us, a message both daunting and oddly invigorating in its clarity and realism. There is a way forward, pragmatic, and hopeful, that offers a positive vision certain to quell our most debilitating fears, restore open and critical dialogue to the global conversation, even while rallying governments and citizens to action, all with the goal of making real the transformation that we seek, and which the climate crisis demands.
(The Unravelling of America and other essays, Greystone, Toronto, 2024)
In the summer of 2020, as I paddled one evening around our small island at the mouth of Howe Sound, it struck me that covid was a story not just of public health, but, more importantly, of culture. On a bit of paper, I sketched a few notes. “No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. Pandemics have a way of shifting the course of history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors. In a dark season of pestilence, COVID reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. The pandemic didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken.”
Over the next days, I explored these themes in a long essay that I sent unsolicited to a friend, Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone. Jann shared it with the editorial team and after some clever reworking, the piece ran on the RS website on August 6. Visitations to my Wikipedia site soared from 150 to 4000 a day. Within six weeks, it had attracted five million readers and generated 362 million social media impressions, becoming Rolling Stone’s most successful long form essay of the year. Pocket named it one of the top three stories of 2020 in the category Making History. In the UK, the essay was first runner-up for the Bertrand Russell Prize. The citation, written by BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan read: “Covid-19 has created new trends and accelerated underlying ones. High on the list of these is the end of the American century; or rather, the end of American pre-eminence. Nobody has ever captured this quite like Wade Davis, in his seminal essay for Rolling Stone. Others have come close. But Davis is in a league of his own. This is my kind of writing. That is, the kind of writing I aspire to…With magnificent historical sweep, and an array of dazzling statistics, he shows how at a particular moment, blessed with particular dividends from demography and high calibre political leadership, America helped to end World War Two, remake the world in its own image, and earn the moral right to be top dog. All of that is gone. It’s an exhilarating, magisterial essay.”
Media interest in the story was sustained over many weeks, with interview requests coming in from 23 countries, and from outlets across the political spectrum. In the US, in a bizarre juxtaposition, I spoke with Hari Sreenivasan of PBS and CNN on one day, and on the next did an interview with Steve Bannon in his War Room, the morning before his notorious arrest.
This lecture introduces the themes covered by this essay, while at the same time offering a critique, noting what I perhaps got right, and what I most assuredly got wrong in an analysis written very much at the height of the pandemic’s fury and frenzy.
(The Unravelling of America and other essays, Greystone, Toronto, 2024)
A career is not something that you put on like a coat. It’s something that grows around you, step-by-step, choice-by-choice, and experience-by-experience. Everything adds up. No work is beneath you. Nothing is a waste of time unless you make it so. An elderly cab driver in New York may well have as much to teach you as a wandering saint in India, a madman in the Sahara, and most certainly a university professor.
If you place yourself in the way of opportunities, in situations where there is no choice but to move forward, no option but success, you create a momentum that in the end propels you to new levels of experience and engagement that would have seemed beyond reach only months before. Creativity is a consequence of action, not its motivation. Do what needs to be done and then ask whether it was possible or permissible. Pessimism is an indulgence, orthodoxy is the enemy of invention, despair an insult to the imagination.
Nature loves courage. Jim Whitaker, the first American to summit Everest, famously quipped that if you don’t live on the edge when young, you’re taking up too much space. Dream the impossible and the world will not drag you under, it will lift you up. This is the great surprise, the message of the saints. You hurl yourself into the abyss only to discover that it’s a feather bed.
Many of you are understandably concerned about finding jobs. Just be careful. The word job is derived from the 16th century French word, gober, meaning, “to devour”. My father had a job all of his life. He called it the grind. I used to think as a young boy that he went into the city every day and returned a little smaller. Fortunately I have never had a job, at least not in this sense. Actually I have never really had a job at all. And I don’t imagine many of you will find a single slot into which to plug your entire existence.
But what you will do is work, and no doubt as ferociously hard as I have all my life. The word work has a better ring to it. It comes from the old English, meaning action and deed. And you’ll find that the work you do is just a lens through which to view and experience the world, and only for a time. The goal is to make living itself, the act of being alive, one’s vocation, knowing full well that nothing ultimately can be planned or anticipated, no blueprint found to predict the outcome of something as complex as a human life.
If one can remain open to the potential of the new, the promise of the unimagined, then magic happens and a life takes form. To parents, I say please be patient. The best of things come out of those incapable of compromise. It takes time for an individual to create a new world of possibilities, to imagine and bring into being that which has never before existed, the wonder of a full and realized life. And to those just starting out, please give as much thought to the person you will become, as to the vocation you will pursue. Money in the end means very little. Acts of compassion and loving-kindness resonate through eternity.
When I was young, living in the mountains of Colombia, a Kamsa Indian told me something I have never forgotten. “In the first years of your life,” Pedro said, “You live beneath the shadow of the past, too young to know what to do. In your last years you find that you are too old to understand the world coming at you from behind. In between there is a small and narrow beam of light that illuminates your life.”
If you can look back over a long life and see that you have owned your choices, then there is little ground for resentment. Bitterness comes to those who look back with regret on the choices imposed upon them. The greatest creative challenge is the struggle to be the architect of your own life. So be patient. Do not compromise. And give your destiny time to find you.
(The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World, House of Anansi, Toronto, 2009)
Every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? Wade Davis leads us on a thrilling journey to celebrate the wisdom of the world’s indigenous cultures. In Polynesia, we set sail with navigators whose ancestors settled the Pacific ten centuries before Christ. In the Amazon, we meet the descendants of a true Lost Civilization, the Peoples of the Anaconda. In the Andes, we discover that the Earth really is alive, while in the far reaches of Australia, we experience Dreamtime, the all-embracing philosophy of the first humans to walk out of Africa. We then travel to Nepal, where we encounter a wisdom hero, a Bodhisattva, who emerges from forty-five years of Buddhist retreat and solitude. And finally, we settle in Borneo, where the last rainforest nomads struggle to survive.
Understanding the lessons of this journey will be our mission for the next century. Of the world’s 7000 languages, fully half may disappear within our lifetimes. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination that is the human legacy. Rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit, as expressed by culture, is among the central challenges of our time.
(Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, Knopf, New York, 2011)
If the quest for Mount Everest began as a grand imperial gesture, redemption for an empire of explorers that had lost the race to the Poles, it ended as a mission of regeneration for a country and a people bled white by war. Of the twenty-six British climbers who, on three expeditions (1921-24), walked 400 miles off the map to find and assault the highest mountain on Earth, twenty had seen the worst of the fighting. Six had been severely wounded, two others nearly killed by disease at the Front, one hospitalized twice with shell shock. Four, as army surgeons, dealt for the duration with the agonies of the dying. Two lost brothers, killed in action. All had endured the slaughter, the coughing of the guns, the bones and barbed wire, the white faces of the dead.
In a monumental work of history and adventure, Wade Davis asks not whether George Mallory was the first to reach the summit of Everest, but rather, why he continued climbing on that fateful day. His answer lies in a single phrase uttered by one of the survivors as they retreated from the mountain: ‘The price of life is death.’ Mallory walked on because for him, as for all of his generation, death was but ‘a frail barrier that men crossed, smiling and gallant, every day.’ As climbers they accepted a degree of risk unimaginable before the war. They were not cavalier, but death was no stranger. They had seen so much of it that it had no hold on them. What mattered was how one lived, the moments of being alive. For all of them Everest had become an exalted radiance, a sentinel in the sky, a symbol of hope in a world gone mad.
The Buddhists spend their time getting prepared for a moment we in the West spend most of our lives pretending doesn’t exist, which is death. We dwell in a whirlwind of activity, racing against time, defining success by measures of the material world—wealth and achievements, credentials of one sort or another. This to the Buddhists is the essence of folly. They remind us that all life grows old and that all possessions decay. Every moment is precious, and we all have a choice—to continue on the spinning carousel of delusion, or to step off into a new realm of spiritual possibilities. They offer an alternative that is not a dogma but a path, long and difficult but in so many ways irresistible. The essence of the Buddhist dharma, or teachings, is distilled in the Four Noble Truths. All life is suffering. By this the Buddha did not mean that all life was negation but only that terrible things happen; evil is not exceptional but part of the existing order of things, a consequence of human actions, or karma. Second, the cause of suffering is ignorance. By ignorance the Buddha did not mean stupidity. He meant the tendency of human beings to cling to the cruel illusion of their own permanence and centrality, their isolation and separation from the stream of universal existence. The third Noble Truth is the revelation that ignorance can be overcome. And the fourth and most essential is the delineation of a contemplative practice that promises an end to suffering and a true liberation and transformation of the human heart. The goal is not to escape the world but to escape being enslaved by it. The purpose of practice is not the elimination of self, but the annihilation of ignorance and the unmasking of the true Buddha nature, which like a buried jewel shines bright within every human being, waiting to be revealed. The Buddha’s transmission, in short, offered nothing less than a road map to enlightenment.
In a rugged knot of mountains in northern British Columbia lies a spectacular valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers- the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass- are born in remarkably close proximity. Now against the wishes of all First Nations, the British Columbia government has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development. Fortune Minerals proposes a coal operation that would level mountains. Imperial Metals is moving ahead with an open pit copper and gold mine on Todagin Mountain, home to the largest population of Stone sheep in the world; tailings from the Red Chris mine will bury Black Lake and leach into the headwaters of the Iskut River, the main tributary of the Stikine. For years Royal Dutch Shell sought to extract coal bed methane gas across a tenure of close to a million acres, which would have implied a network of roads and pipelines and thousands of wells places across the entire valley of the Sacred Headwaters.
For ten years, Tahltan men, women and children, along with local non-native trappers, guides, and writers, have stood up for the land, and in a remarkable grassroots victory in 2012, Shell Canada withdrew from the valley. The struggle continues and will continue until the entire Sacred Headwaters is protected. The resounding message of the people is that no amount of gold, copper or coal can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that could be the Sacred Headwaters of all North Americans and, indeed, all peoples of the world.
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