Taking Care of Campsite Earth


Photo: Earthrise, Dec. 24, 1968, NASA: ‘Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders, this iconic picture shows Earth peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon.’

[This is the pre-edit text of a foreword for the March 2019 edition of Sidetracked: https://www.sidetracked.com/ ]

This edition of Sidetracked is threaded through with the theme of taking risks and taking care: taking care of each other, of kit (and kit taking care of you), and taking care of the places you inhabit and pass through. I want to invite you to pan out a little from these compelling accounts of ambitious human beings moving across the Earth and ask you to set all these stories and images within a much bigger picture.

British astronomer Fred Hoyle suggested, in 1948, that: ‘Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.’ I think that new idea was environmentalism. There has been a strong sense that this ‘God view’ of the nature of life on – and with – planet Earth has driven us to think harder about the terms of inhabitation of our only home in the universe.

We can think of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission, and the Earthrise image it generated as the mother of all drone footage. Having gone all that way these expeditioners could barely take their eyes off home. Indeed astronauts have consistently said that the most impressive thing about going into space isn’t ‘space’ at all, but the new perspective they get on life on Earth. The picture has become a touchstone for modern environmentalism. These images were captured during one of humanity’s most extreme, most technologically sophisticated and most courageous expeditions.

But have these pictures really fulfilled Hoyle’s prophecy? We have a way to go for sure, and we will require all of our capacity for curiosity, determination, ingenuity and generosity. It might also require that we take more care with our metaphors. For one thing, instead of thinking in terms of ‘Spaceship Earth’, where we learn how to control and drive the thing, we might be better off thinking in terms of Campsite Earth: a place we pass through, leaving little trace, picking up treasured memories during our time-limited stay.

In my short tenure as Director at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG) I can draw on a rich mix of examples that show humanity’s best qualities as purposeful travellers. The grants programme supports over sixty expeditions each year. With fierce competition for every award, applicants have to show how the world will be different afterwards. These journeys also result in some compelling accounts in words and pictures: indeed one of the team nicely described themselves as ‘working in a story machine’.

The remarkable cast that take to the RGS stage extend this point. Dwayne Fields’ Childrens’ Lecture inspired a packed house of young people with his account of being the first black Briton to walk 400 miles to the magnetic north Pole, and he went on to share his goal of connecting many thousands of inner city youth with the countryside. Dwayne wants to inspire all young people to take care of themselves and the people and places around them through adventures large and small. The images he brings back from his most demanding journeys, and the stories he tells with them, are vital in his mission to get more young Londoners to get out into the natural world around them. Felicity Aston, who devised and led the recent Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition also had great tales to tell, but her underlying objective was to advance inter-cultural understanding, to progress the standing of women in particular societies, and to deliver new physiological insights into the woefully under-researched effects of extended exposure to cold on women’s bodies. To make the journey; to gather the data; to capture the story all required things being taken care of (and being taken care of by things).

In 1921, nearly a century before Felicity and her team travelled north, George Mallory led a group of trench-hardened World War One veterans on the first survey of Everest. They carried a couple of portable Kodaks and a big box camera. They also carried a developing kit the size of a small dining table. This was about more than generating an accurate survey: they surely knew that they would be creating luminously beautiful representations of the mountain, the region and its people. Our partners Salto Ulbeek Studio painstakingly digitised the original negatives and produced platinum prints of extraordinary clarity and depth. A Nepalese friend that works on climate change policy, Dr. Poshendra Satyal, who grew up in a mountain village, said these first photographs of these aspects of his country were real treasures for his community today. But he also noted that the pristine views surrounding Everest would now be littered with brightly coloured expedition trash, and that the glacial retreat in the region is very tangible in ‘before-after’ comparisons.

Whether wide angle or close up, from stratospheric heights or on the sea-bed, we have a capacity to capture and share powerful accounts of our risky status as inhabitants of the Campsite Planet. We need to make sure that we invest every litre of jet-fuel and every drop of printer ink as if we plan to extend our stay.

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