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'The World Is Not Dying. It's Changing': Anthropologist Wade Davis Has Hope For The Future

By Paul Luke /
Sep 21, 2014
'The World Is Not Dying. It's Changing': Anthropologist Wade Davis Has Hope For The Future

Wade Davis has a lot of nerve being cheerful. Someone who can list as many threats to the world’s future as he does should be a tormented wreck.

Humanity’s soaring population, eco-degradation, the rapid loss of the world’s languages — these are not exactly things that make Davis’s heart soar.

But Davis brings a New Year message of hope for people who despair about the world’s chance of surviving. And when this affable and famous explorer, anthropologist, voodoo expert and soon-to-be University of B.C. professor expresses hope, you listen.

“The world is not dying. It’s not falling apart. It’s changing,” Davis says. “What young generation has ever come into its own in a world free of peril?

“I personally believe that pessimism is an indulgence, despair an insult to the imagination. There are wonderfully positive things out there.”

People have stopped throwing garbage from cars. Schoolchildren know what the biosphere is. These things are not small potatoes, Davis says. “These are great environmental victories.”


He says one of the two greatest revelations of his lifetime was Apollo 8’s emergence from the dark side of the moon on Christmas Eve 1968 to see the Earth climb over the moon’s surface. For the first time in history, human beings saw an earthrise — and were made to understand that they share a living world.

“People will be talking about that image for 2,000 years,” Davis says. “We saw the Earth as it really is — a solitary blue planet floating in the velvet void of space.”

Davis has spent his life peering at threats and wonders. A writer, photographer, filmmaker, speaker and explorer with National Geographic Society, he has lived with and studied dozens of remote cultures, many of them threatened by encroaching civilization.

A Harvard University PhD, he has written almost 20 highly regarded books, with more on the way, and 224 scientific and popular articles on everything from Haitian voodoo to the biodiversity crisis.

How did he cram all of this stuff into six decades?

“I’ve never had an actual job,” Davis says. “But I’ve worked harder than anyone I know.”

His 1986 best-selling book The Serpent And The Rainbow became a movie — he didn’t like it — directed by horrormeister Wes Craven (A Nightmare On Elm Street).

Davis’s research has inspired documentary films and even episodes of the made-in-Vancouver TV series, The X-Files.

Davis, 60, was born in Vancouver and largely raised in Montreal. He has long owned homes on Bowen Island and in northern B.C.

His work with National ­Geographic led him to make Washington, D.C., his home base while he and his wife Gail raised their two daughters, now 22 and 25.


Davis and his family spent each summer at their lodge on Ealue Lake in the wilderness of northwestern B.C.’s Stikine Valley. As the birthplace of the Stikine, Skeena and Nass rivers, the region is called the Sacred Headwaters by the Tahltan First Nation.

In recent years, Davis has come to know first hand the violation felt by cultures he has studied when industrial development arrives on their doorstep.

In mid-2014, Vancouver-based Imperial Metals expects to launch the Red Chris open-pit copper-gold mine that it’s building on Todagin Mountain, close to the Davis family lodge.

“There are spaces we will need to transform simply because we need the resource. And there are certain spaces that should never be touched because of other values that they hold,” Davis says.

“To put a copper and gold mine on Todagin Mountain is like drilling for oil in the Sistine Chapel.”

Eco-warriors across B.C. may have cheered when UBC announced last month it has hired Davis as an anthropology professor and research associate with the Museum of Anthropology starting in July.

His mandate will include teaching, advocacy and research into policy impacts, UBC said.

But Davis’s view of culture and environment is far too complex for him to ever be a knee-jerk tree hugger. And those who think Davis will take simplistic positions on environmental issues will be surprised by his reluctance to stoke polarized debate.

“In all these resource conflicts there are no enemies, only solutions,” he says.

“My politics run right down the middle of the road. I tire of those who fuel the flames of fear.”

At different points in his life, Davis worked as a park ranger and river-rafting guide in B.C.’s north. He once took a job as a hunting guide in northern B.C., angry at what he saw as Greenpeace’s deceptive campaign against trophy hunting.

On another occasion, he bluffed his way into a job as an engineer at a logging camp on Haida Gwaii.

“I guess I pretty much lied about my experience,” Davis says. “A friend of mine who was on the engineering crew covered up for me for about 10 days until I learned everything I needed to know. And then I really started to learn.”

That job, Davis says, has given him an insider’s intimacy with logging that proved useful during the war of the woods in Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s — and a broad perspective.

Sustained yield logging is an ideology, not a science, he insists. It tries to justify why old-growth forests should be eliminated.

But Davis does not want the people who do the logging to be demonized: “Men and women who fight off hunger with a chainsaw are in no way bad people,” he says.


Opponents and proponents of B.C.’s ballyhooed LNG industry may be interested to learn that Davis has also served as a petroleum industry consultant.

He advised Dallas-based energy giant Hunt Consolidated on a US $6-billion LNG plant and pipeline the private company built in Peru.

When Davis and his fellow advisers told company president Ray Hunt the pipeline needed to be moved from a particular place, he immediately took their advice — even though the move cost him millions of dollars, Davis says.

“You’re not going to stop some of these projects. You’re not going to stop the tarsands. It’s naive to think you can,” Davis says. “What sovereign country in this era is going to sit on top of the second largest oilsands in the world?”

Nor does Davis believe Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline across B.C. is inherently dangerous — although he says there are legitimate concerns about the safety of oil tankers off B.C.’s coast.

For Davis, the core issue is ­whether governments will listen to the communities in northern B.C. opposed to the pipeline.

“They want their voices to be heard,” he says. “The local people have lost faith in government.”

What’s the second greatest revelation for Davis? It’s geneticists’ reconstruction over the last 20 years of human origins.

The scientific consensus is that about 60,000 years ago, a pioneering group of as few as 150 people walked out of Africa, Davis says. Forty thousand years and 2,500 generations later, humanity had settled every corner of the habitable world.

“We’re all cut from the same genetic cloth. Race is an utter fiction,” he says.

“The revelation is that every culture has something to say. Other cultures aren’t failed attempts at being modern, at being you.

“Each culture is a unique answer to a fundamental challenge: What does it mean to be human and alive?”



One of the biggest threats to the world is people who want to change the world, anthropologist Wade Davis says.

“It’s about a certain kind of humility,” he says, citing writer Peter Matthiessen. “If you don’t change the world, you can ?certainly endeavour not to harm it. You can do your best to approach life with love and compassion.”

Young people are sick of hearing about how the world is ending and how they’ll have to save it, Davis says. Still, he sees certain trends that risk turning the world into a different, and not necessarily better place.


Davis believes fresh water will be the biggest challenge facing the world over the next century. B.C. has a responsibility to keep wild rivers such as the Skeena, Stikine and Nass from being compromised by industrial development, he says.

“What greater sign can there be than a nation that has chosen to turn on itself and leave to the future a sordid world compromised by toxicity — a nation that poisons its rivers, as have, for the most part, the Chinese?” he says.

Language loss

Half of the world’s 7,000 languages are teetering on the brink of extinction.

“Within a generation or two, we will be witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy,” Davis writes in his book The Wayfinders.

The loss of even one language, Davis quotes a U.S. linguist as saying, is like “dropping a bomb on the Louvre.”

The value of natural habitat

Decisions to extract resources often dismiss or fail to account for the social costs of industrial transformation, Davis says.

“There is not a single metric in the calculus used to rationalize the industrialization of the wild that attempts to put any monetary value on the land as it is. Or on the cost to the rest of us who are not working at the mine, who are not invested in it.

“Were the major social costs be incorporated, we’d have a much more balanced view as to whether a mine should or not go in any one particular locale.”

Different cultural values

Each culture believes its version of reality is correct, Davis says.

Western culture sees a mountain as a pile of rocks waiting to be mined, an old-growth forest as cellulose to be cut. But a First Nations child may be raised to see a mountain as a deity, or a forest as the domain of spirits.

“It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong,” Davis says. “We have placed values on only what we want to see — and dismissed all of the other possible values as externalities.”



Young people must be encouraged to follow their passion because so many have given up hope, Wade Davis says.

He points to a U.S. report that half of recent university grads have jobs that don’t need four-year degrees. In the U.S., about 1.7 million people aged 20-30 have stopped looking for work, and 20 per cent suffer from depression.

In a commencement address written for his daughter Tara’s graduation from Colorado College, Davis urges young people to see every job as a learning experience, and each person they meet as a potential teacher.

No work is beneath you, he says. Nothing is a waste of time unless a person makes it so.

Careers are not like coats to be put on. They grow organically around a person, choice by choice, experience by experience.

“The greatest creative challenge is the struggle to be the architect of your own life,” he says. “So be patient. Do not compromise. And give your destiny time to find you.”

A cab driver in a North American city can teach a person as much as a wandering saint in India, Davis says.

He gives the cautionary example of his own father, a banker in Vancouver, Victoria and Montreal, who saw his working life as a grind.

“I used to think as a young boy that he went into the city every day and returned a little smaller,” he says.

But his father reached deep into his savings to support Davis while he took the time he needed to find his own destiny.

Even so, Davis recalls how he might have repeated his father’s unfortunate experience.

In his early 20s, Davis says he was so mixed up that he applied to both botany and law school at the University of B.C.

On one occasion, he stopped at the Vancouver law firm where his sister was articling. A receptionist demanded to know if he was the man who travelled in the Amazon and ate weird plants. Davis said he was.

She then marched him into a dusty law library, showed him a picture of an 18th-century English solicitor with a wig and crooked nose, and asked him if that’s what he wanted to become.

“I went back to the front desk, called UBC law school and retracted my application,” he says. “Thanks to that guardian angel, I went to graduate school in botany.”

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