A view of Earth and a satellite.

‘What will happen to us?’: Barry Lopez on a planet in crisis

Acclaimed author finds hope in human imagination and the brilliant rebelliousness of young people. He will appear in conversation with Wade Davis on March 25 at an event in Vancouver co-sponsored by The Narwhal

Barry Lopez’s new non-fiction book opens in Hawaii, where he is on holiday with his wife Debra and nine-year-old grandson.

In the space of a single morning Lopez stands on a Pearl Harbour memorial terrace above the sunken USS Arizona, which holds the remains of hundreds of Americans entombed when Japanese dive bombers attacked in 1941, and then he snorkels on a coral reef with schools of colourful tropical fish.

Reading by his hotel pool after lunch that day, Lopez watches a Japanese woman dive gracefully into the water. “In the beauty of this moment, I suddenly feel the question: What will happen to us?” Lopez writes.

He stands up, book in hand, and searches the breaking surf of the Pacific for his grandson, who grins at him from the slope of a wave.

“What is going to happen to all of us now, in a time of militant factions, of daily violence?” Lopez asks. “I want to wish each stranger I see in the chairs and lounges around me, every one of them, an untroubled life. I want everyone here to survive what’s coming.”

So begins Horizon, a 500-page autobiographical reflection on Lopez’s many years of travel and research in more than seventy countries.

The book zooms in and magnifies six regions of the globe — the High Arctic, Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, the Kenyan desert, Australia’s Botany Bay and Cape Foulweather in the state of Oregon, where Lopez makes his home — probing the interactions between people and ecosystems, and exploring where we’ve come from and where humanity might be headed.

On March 25, The Narwhal will co-sponsor a Vancouver event featuring Barry Lopez in conversation with explorer, author and anthropologist Wade Davis. Lopez says he’s never met Davis before — “we’re aware of each other, of course” — although they share the same literary agent.

“The responsibility I feel is to make sure that everybody goes home with an increased sense of self-worth and a greater sense of possibility, in their own lives and in the lives of their family and their country and the world,” Lopez told The Narwhal.

Here’s our interview with him, edited for brevity.

What was the genesis for writing Horizon?

I’m 74 now. I’ve been doing this for 50-some years. I’ve seen a lot of the world. I’m very fortunate that way. The scale of what I was doing just grew over those 50 years. The first big non-fiction book I did was Of Wolves and Men and the subject matter was constrained because it all fit around one animal and perceptions of that animal. Then I wrote Arctic Dreams, which expanded to include a whole region of the earth.

With Horizon, I’m really looking at the whole world. I had big questions at the back of my mind that were generated partly by the culture I lived in but also by the world I lived in. Somewhere in the late ’80s I decided that I wanted to explore those questions. I didn’t quite know how but I chose those five places, and of course Cape Foulweather, because I thought what I was trying to find I would find there.

What are some of those questions that you wanted to explore?

They’re enormous questions … who are we, and where are we going? That’s what I was looking at. The second question more than the first one. Given political upheaval, environmental disaster, all the usual bugbears, where are we headed? It doesn’t look good, you know.

Barry Lopez

Acclaimed author Barry Lopez will appear at an event in Vancouver on March 25 in conversation with Wade Davis. Photo: David Liittschwager

You remind us that we’re just like other species, vulnerable to extinction. When you say it doesn’t look good, do you think this is where humankind is headed, to extinction?

Every species is headed toward extinction. We may be accelerating our own extinction by refusing to pay attention to things like global climate change and the finite nature of natural resources.

What would it look like to put more of a focus on conservation and less of a focus on profit, as you suggest?

Once you’re involved in government or large-scale business that’s not an area you’re going to be looking at very closely because, frankly, it will cut into your profits. Thinking about how Indigenous people look at it, the focus is on stability not profit. It’s more important to have a stable society moving through time than it is to have a group of people half-mad to make a profit.

Does that exist anywhere in the world? Yes, but on a very small scale and almost exclusively among Indigenous people. The reason it’s so hard to talk about is because the people with economic and political power are not interested in undermining a system that maintains their power and offers them yachts and international vacations, and all the rest of it.

You describe the loss of Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous languages and Indigenous cultures as the loss of an entire ‘way of knowing’ and you suggest that ‘way of knowing’ might help us out of the predicament we’ve got ourselves into. Why is that?

There are somewhere between 5,000 to 6,000 languages that are still spoken, by at least a few people. When we look closely at language we see that there are emotions and situations that we don’t have any words for in English, or in French, or in Swahili. And then we come upon languages that do have words for those feelings and emotions and events.

There are some really articulate, really bright people, who have a reality or describe a reality different from the way we do in the western world in English and the Romance languages, German of course too. We in some sense are trapped by the languages we speak in a situation where we can’t articulate what we feel is wrong or we can’t devise solutions to the problems we are facing. The smart thing to do would be to ask somebody who didn’t grow up the way you did with the same system of logic.

But we’re in this age of nationalism. We have people saying that we should come first, America first, which is just ignorant. Not if you want to solve the problems we’re facing.

You write about transforming a boundary into a horizon, turning something that’s a barrier into something more infinite. What is the biggest boundary we face right now and how could that become more of a horizon or an opportunity?

The great, seemingly insurmountable problem is to get people to take climate change seriously.

I remember in 1988, drilling for ice core in Antarctica. We were at the cutting edge 30 years ago of developing a database to prove what most atmospheric scientists were saying — the planet is warming. But that was 30 years ago and nothing’s been done.

The climate accord agreement in Paris has not got quite the punch it should have because the fellow in the White House in the [United] States, for reasons that make no sense but that make sense to his political base, he decided to back out. You’re in a hopeless situation if your country is run by an ignoramus.

Do you see any hope of changing those barriers into more of a horizon, perhaps not in the United States right now but in other countries?

The decisions that have been made in Washington [mean] that the United States is no longer the leader of anything. The goal of making America great again is turning out to be making America less.

It’s a curious thing to try to address this problem because you can propose that there is not much time left, and in that emergency situation you’ve got to act decisively, quickly and boldly. When you do that, as a country or as an individual, you’re going to get a beating down from others who are comfortable with the way it is.

It will take incredible courage for any government to act on behalf of its people to preserve a future for its children.

It will take incredible courage for any government to act on behalf of its people to preserve a future for its children.

Are you hopeful that could happen?

I have a tremendous belief in the human imagination and a faith in human beings. I can go back in my memory bank and recall dozens of moments when I was travelling with people who had no standing anywhere. They weren’t part of a government. They weren’t part of any business.

They were ordinary people. And yet in conversation I could see that they were brilliant and I would always ask myself the same question: why isn’t this woman, why isn’t this guy, at the conference table? And the reason they’re not at the conference table is because they don’t speak English or their hair is too long, or their skin is too dark, or they didn’t go to school, or something like that.

This is a heart-breaking, pathetic situation we’re in. We are in an emergency situation and we believe that the same people who put us in this situation will be the ones to figure out how to turn it around. That’s a losing bet.

The only positive thing I think I see is the dependable rebelliousness of younger people. It’s easy to think that their rebellion is uninformed or naive but there is a substantial number of young people in all countries who are working through experiment after experiment trying to figure out how to get the rest of us out of the hell hole, and that I trust.

If we’re going to get out of here it’s going to be the energy and the insight and the nimbleness of young people. Every university I go to I encounter young people who I believe could rebuild the world and make it a safe place for humanity. You’d have to say that I’m hopeful.

You write that homo sapiens have built a trap for themselves by clinging to certain orthodoxies in a time of environmental emergency. What are some of those orthodoxies?

More is better. That’s it in a nutshell.

I think that’s an outgrowth of privileging the individual, which has been our story in the cultural west since the scientific revolution and the Renaissance — privileging the individual to the degree that community is destroyed.

Given the dire situation that the planet — and indeed humanity, not to mention other species —  is in these days, do you see your book as bearing witness to a world that is either poised to change or to end as we know it?

Every writer that addresses this kind of question has to have a sense of social responsibility. When I am in Galapagos or when I’m in Antarctica I know that I’m there for those who didn’t get to go. And I’ve got to be responsible, as an observer or as a researcher, to inform.

I want to be able to write something that helps [people] process the difficulty from their own point of view in their own lives. I don’t think of what I do as adventure as much as part of an effort to be part of the human effort to really make this world a better world for all creatures…which is of course grandiose.

What’s your next project? Do you have more travels planned?

I don’t know what my next project is. I’ve had some health difficulties and it’s really slowed me down. I’m waiting for the book to come out and do all I can to support it. And then I’ll start thinking about where to go next, which might be nowhere but my own home.

I have shelves full of notebooks and drafts of stories and essays. I think I could do fine by just sitting here in Oregon. But I still have that drive that I describe in the book where I just want to go. I want to go and see things I haven’t seen. Maybe I’ll get to do that.

Sarah Cox is an author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s student…

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