A Word from the Founder
Exploration’s Future – Commercialism or Community?
by CuChullaine O'Reilly
This was first published in April, 2011 on the exploration blog operated by Swedish Long Rider Mikael Strandberg.
While many valid points have been raised in response to Mikael’s blog entry, allow me to present additional material for your collective consideration.
To begin with, a glance at last Sunday’s Times of London would have provided disturbing evidence which confirms why a dialogue regarding the future of exploration is overdue – but perhaps not fully understood.
The main news section of the Times carried an advertisement wherein the famous tennis star, Boris Becker, agreed to be photographed with fans. The only catch was that in order to obtain the photo, each person had to pay £2,000 to be admitted to the champagne reception at Wimbledon.
Further along in the same paper, the business section lamented that an Icelandic supermarket boss had been inconvenienced during his attempt to summit Mount Everest.
“One of the lorries carrying the equipment crashed into a ravine, taking with it his personal heater, and other essentials, such as beer.”
With stories such as these circulating widely, is it any wonder that a dispute has arisen regarding the terms explorer and adventurer? In an era resembling a ethical vacuum, wherein former Prime Ministers become overnight millionaires thanks to shady dealings, who can express surprise that an addiction to personal glory and the worship of obscene wealth has resulted in exploration being besmirched as well?
Thus, I believe this is not a debate confined to the definition of words. That question is only part of a larger premise. What we should be asking ourselves is what is the future of exploration? What values will it embrace? Who will represent us to future generations?
As the publisher of the Classic Travel Books Collection, I’m very familiar with the quotes and events which define the difference between a valid exploration versus a badly conceived publicity stunt. Yet for the record, allow me to state that according to the Oxford Dictionary, an explorer is "a person who explores a new or unfamiliar area,” while an adventurer is "a person who enjoys or seeks adventure."
Though semantics matter, what needs to be appreciated is that while we squabble over words, the foundations of modern exploration are shifting as we collectively drift further away from those events and heroes which previously defined the term “explorer.”
No one would argue that there is a strong under current of discontent in today’s exploration community. What is seldom recognized is how the traditional voice and view of exploration was silenced two years ago at the Royal Geographical Society. The repercussions of that tragedy can be witnessed in a sense of growing global confusion, wherein an “everyman for himself” attitude has begun to take hold. These events, I believe, can be linked back to what was once the acknowledged home of exploration but is now little more than a hall of shadows.
In May of 2009 an extraordinary ballot was held at RGS headquarters in London. Should the RGS continue to lend its name to expeditions, as it had done since its inception, or should it embrace narrowly focused academic research?
The British journalist and Fellow of the RGS, A. A. Gill, was present during the highly emotional debate that preceded the vote.
“The new proposal wanted a return to exploration, to excitement, to heroes and stories and adventure, while the committee of geographers wanted to box the globe up behind a wall of precise, dry, peer-reviewed research. …..The academics argue that the society’s past is colonial, politically incorrect, racist and occasionally murderous. Its motives were jingoistic, commercial and eccentric. We can no longer go to other people’s countries, stab a flag into something that was never lost and rename it after a member of the royal family. By contrast, the adventurers argue that discovery is always spine-tingling and hair-raising, and tumescently inspirational, that everybody who goes out into the world discovers it for the first time and plants a metaphorical flag,” Gill wrote in the Times.
Despite the uproar, the academics won the vote. In a blistering attack, Gill denounced what he, and many others, perceived to be demise of this bastion of human courage and outstanding endeavour.
The headline to his story ran, “Dr. Livingroom I Presume. Once at the forefront of exploration, the Royal Geographical Society has voted to stop backing expeditions in favour of stay-at-home swotting.”
Thanks to a campaign led by the Fellows who belong to the Long Riders’ Guild, RGS President Michael Palin was persuaded to restore Her Majesty's portrait to its rightful place in the Royal Geographical Society hall.
Nevertheless, the damage to the organization’s international reputation was done, and as one responder to this blog has noted, the letters which I risked my life to earn, FRGS, have been diluted and defiled.
There are, of course, other events which influence the issue of exploration’s future. However what should not be underestimated is that whereas in the past we could collectively look up to heroes, we are increasingly bombarded by a bevy of attention seekers. This influx has, I believe, been tacitly encouraged by the abdication of leadership once held by those institutions previously regarded as our community leaders.
As one writer noted, there are too many self-satisfied business lunches on one side of the Atlantic, and a total denial of exploration’s existence, on the other side.
Is it any wonder then that in an era which cannot even define what we are, the public is urged to admire those who in previous eras would have been dismissed as cranks?
One such example was seen a few weeks ago on British television. This involved a marathon runner, turned bicyclist, who came close to killing himself to appease the camera.
A reviewer offered this observation on the program.
“This was self-mortification of epic self-regard. He was, in fact, behaving like a vainglorious twit. This adventure, or expedition, or whatever they thought it was, wasn’t a race, or a sport, or the pursuit of a record, or the re-creation of a historic event. It was only a series of unpleasant, tedious and stupid endurance things done so that he could say, “I have endured a lot of painful and stupid things.”
Sadly, as has been noted, we are becoming increasingly bombarded by a steady stream of such stories wherein fame-driven individuals continue to blow their trumpets to an increasingly sceptical public.”
In an earlier article I asked readers to consider how, in an age of electronic media, instant news and the cancerous onslaught of reality-based television, do individuals maintain their personal integrity in the face of a world which is willing, nay even eager, to wink at exploration exploitation?
Yet, thanks to this much needed forum, what is finally on view is an overdue discussion on the values which will define us as an international community. With our former institutions reduced to rubble, will we allow Hollywood to depict exploration by offering up cartoon characters whose claim to fame is based on bug-eating or face painting? While we may disagree among ourselves regarding fine points, is it not counter-productive to denigrate our host, whose courage is confirmed and whose hospitality we have all benefited from?
There are instead encouraging signs that a new spring is emerging, one which we can all take encouragement. The on-going exposure by Ex Web and the Long Riders’ Guild of fraudulent claims has had a chilling effect on those who believe they can mislead the media and misuse the public’s trust. The launching of the new exploration film festival promises to provide an exciting meeting ground for all. And the new Voices of Exploration project is enshrining the journeys and sharing the knowledge of our wise tribal elders.
This is therefore a time of hope, not despair.
If those to whom we formerly entrusted our collective hope have proved to be unworthy, then it is thanks to dialogues like this one that a new collective conscious is being formed. Every voice is needed. Every thoughtful article and response is critically important. Every expedition is treasured.
We are bound to have disagreements. Yet what ultimately matters is that there is at last a new wind blowing through the stale halls of exploration.
CuChullaine O’Reilly is the Founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, the world’s international association of equestrian explorers and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club. Author of "Khyber Knights, he is currently completing the “Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration,” the most comprehensive equestrian exploration guide ever written.
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