Proceed with Caution

The history of human exploration is simultaneously one of wonder and learning, and of pain, suffering, and extinction.

From the Editor

When he landed on the Hadley-Apennine region of the moon in 1971, Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott said: “As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature: Man must explore.”

Undeniably, the desire to push beyond the limits of what is known has shaped our human race. Starting from the time our ancestors left Africa, and likely even before that, the spread of civilization has been led by people who were driven to explore what lay beyond the horizon. Since that prehistoric time, we have crisscrossed the globe, scaled its highest peaks, set up research stations at its poles, and shot off in machines that have taken us beyond the orbit of our blue planet.

There remains, however, one vast region on Earth that we are yet to fully understand – the deep ocean that is home to a rich array of life that we have just begun to discover. The ocean depths also contain mineral resources of unknown but presumably immense volumes. Last year a team of international researchers launched an initiative to create a detailed map of the ocean floor. Scientists, of course, are excited about expanding our understanding of this last terrestrial frontier, but as reporter Adrienne Bernhard writes in “Deep Impact,” others worry that a map could be “wielded like a pirate’s treasure map, a guidebook to extraction and exploitation.”

Such concerns are not without merit. Indeed, the history of human exploration is simultaneously one of wonder and learning, and of pain, suffering, and extinction. For every intrepid adventurer who set out to distant lands in a genuine quest to expand our understanding of this incredible living world, there have been as many who have done the same with the explicit intention to pillage and conquer.

We need to look no further than our own shores to see how this played out for the original inhabitants of America – human and nonhuman (think wolves, mountain lions, grizzlies, beavers, passenger pigeons, and jaguars) – who have been subject to violence and forced dispossession for more than two centuries; who continue to struggle against erasure. The Winnemem Wintu tribe and the salmon I write about in “The Long Run Home,” is one specific case in point. When European explorers first encountered them in the early 1800s, there were at least 14,000 Winnemem and 1 to 2 million salmon living in Northern California. Today, the numbers of the tribe and the fish are so depleted that, as Chief Caleen Sisk says, they “are both on the brink of not being here.”

No lands, no people, have been untouched by this darker side of our urge to conquer the unknown. And now, given that mining companies are already lining up to extract deep sea resources, it seems our last untrammeled wilderness won’t be either.

But if to explore is to be human – scientists are discovering that wanderlust is embedded our DNA – perhaps all we can do is take note of the long arc of human history and move forward with caution. It might also be worth keeping in mind what Earth Island founder David Brower once said: “What man is capable of doing to the earth is not always what he ought to do.”

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