How Climate Change Has Influenced Travel Writing

A new book from Barry Lopez underscores how the genre has evolved as planetary conditions have worsened.

A hammerhead shark is reintroduced into the wild in Galápagos National Park. (Pablo Cozzaglio / AFP / Getty)

“It’s easy to make the mistake when traveling abroad of finding only the good or only the bad in a place, easy to miss how complicated the weave of bad with good is,” Barry Lopez writes in his new book, Horizon. Lopez is forgiving himself here as he recalls a trip to Galápagos National Park and the island settlement Puerto Villamil. Its residents were then at odds, sometimes violently, with authorities over the right to hunt and fish within the “dreamscape” park in the Pacific where, he writes, the needs of ecotourists, creationists, poachers, and schemers have long collided. But Lopez is also forgiving all travelers who commit the sin of looking away from what shouldn’t be ignored. At least for the moment he is, anyway.

Part autobiography, part cri de coeur, Horizon finds the longtime travel and science writer recounting trips he’s taken to six regions of the world: the Canadian High Arctic, the Eastern Equatorial Pacific, Eastern Equatorial Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and the coast of Oregon, his home state. Now in his 70s, Lopez writes with fervid wonder and fascination about all he’s seen and experienced. This includes coming “face to face” with a 600-pound Weddell seal while diving beneath sea ice in Antarctica, searching for hominin fossils with the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey in Kenya, and, in one particularly lovely scene, waking late one night on Oregon’s Cape Foulweather to find five Roosevelt elk grazing just beyond his tent.

Most of all, though, Lopez is gripped by an urgency to tell “a coherent and meaningful story” about the threat of humanity’s extinction as a result of climate change and societal declension, and the ways he believes it can be prevented. “I want everyone here to survive what is coming,” he writes. By bringing his past observations and experiences into the present, Lopez underscores how travel writing has changed as planetary conditions have worsened.

In 1986, when he published Arctic Dreams—a National Book Award winner about his explorations in the Far North—he noted that humanity’s role in extinctions across the animal kingdom “seems inescapable.” But he argued against the viewpoint that “we are … headed for extinction in a universe of impersonal chemical, physical, and biological laws.” Instead, he noted that we can prevent that outcome by finding “the courage to take steps that may bear no fruit in our lifetimes.” The tone of this sentiment rings several octaves lower than the more immediate mandate Lopez issues for the human species in his new book: “Cooperate with one another or die.”

This change in attitude and reality can also be found in Cheryl Strayed’s introduction to the 2018 edition of The Best American Travel Writing, in which the Wild author writes that the mission of travel writing to “reveal truths about what it means to be human through the lens of our relationship to place, culture, and era” is intensifying as “we come to grips with the grave ecological consequences of human-caused climate change and the devastating results of religious and ideological extremism, cultural imperialism, and xenophobia.” It’s also evident in The New York Times’ “52 Places Traveler” series, for which the columnist Sebastian Modak is currently visiting sites such as the imperiled ice caves along the Ontario side of Lake Superior. “To see them now, before they’re gone, felt like an immense privilege,” Modak writes, “even as I was forced to confront the contradictions that arise from the amount of carbon I expended getting to them.”

Horizon amplifies these warnings to an almost deafening level and makes any travel writing that doesn’t share Lopez’s sense of responsibility and purpose seem derelict by comparison. Concerns about self-serving governments, injustice, and exceptionalism appear throughout the book. Lopez’s reflections on Australia begin with his visit to the Port Arthur Historic Site, a former prison on the Tasman Sea to which the British Crown in the 1800s dispatched people it considered undesirable, including boys as young as 8 years old. Later, in Western Australia, he surveys the geographic damage done by commercial mining and the “injustices and lack of charity” the land’s Aboriginal residents have suffered at the hands of industry. He visits the site of a future nitrate plant where workers have bulldozed 25,000-year-old Aboriginal rock art and “dumped it like so much construction debris.”

While reflecting on the lessons he has learned from indigenous people in places such as the Pilbara district in Australia and Skraeling Island in the Canadian Arctic, Lopez recalls coming to the realization that “as much as I believed I was fully present in the physical worlds through which I was traveling over the years, I understood over time that I was not. More often I was only thinking about the place I was in.” For Lopez, the luxury of detachment—of simple tourism even—is not an option.

Lopez is by no means encouraging travelers to forgo vacations or to blind themselves to the limitless displays of beauty the natural world has to offer in favor of anxiety and desperation. It’s thrilling to read about Lopez watching through the window of a locomotive “more than a hundred kangaroos bounding north and west across the plain, then veering away to the west as they approached the train tracks and the hurtling train.” An account of a Galápagos scuba trip in search of “moving ‘walls’ of hammerhead sharks” yields the hoped-for excitement. And Lopez’s descriptions of hiking through the middle of a polar desert in the Arctic are invigorating.

It requires a certain degree of ego and fortune to be able to share stories about flying a kite at the South Pole, diving the Great Barrier Reef, and dodging venomous mambas in Kenya. Lopez recognizes this, but he also heeds the demand for humility inherent in such adventures. “You feel while you are witnessing such things that you must carry some of this home,” he writes. “That what you’ve found are not your things but our things.”