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.”
Read: A trip to the Galápagos Islands
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.”