Moving Beyond the Self-Aggrandizing Age of Adventure

First off, I don’t exempt myself from my own critiques. But now that that’s out of the way, I do find myself nostalgic for bygone ethea (pl. ethos, I had to look that one up) such as the Age of Discovery and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. There’s something rather hollow about the current formulaic template for expeditions. It doesn’t take long to intuit the formula, roughly construed as “blanking the blank to raise awareness for blank.”

Of course, this sort of behavior is common across the animal kingdom. Work in evolutionary biology has shown the tendency for individuals to “show off” in order to distinguish themselves. That’s probably a good thing in a certain light. I mean, a world of sameness is probably not a world any of us would be excited to live in. However, one of the requirements for this type of signaling to be optimally effective is that the activity must have a connection to whatever quality is being signaled. For instance, “handstand walking backwards across the frozen Great Bear Lake to raise awareness of malaria in Africa” forms neither a logical nor emotional attachment in those hearing it. Maybe if I punched up the funny it would at least resonate on that level.

‎”Science and exploration have never been at variance; rather, the desire for the pure elements of natural revelation lay at the source of that unquenchable power the “love of adventure.”

Of whatever nationality the explorer was always emboldened by that impulse, and, if there ever be a future of decadence, it will live again in his ungovernable heritage.” -Douglas Mawson, The Home of the Blizzard

Some adventurers are aware of how silly all of this can seem…

Awareness Campaigns Don’t {Always} Work

There is evidence that awareness campaigns don’t work. This has been shown in seafood awareness, cancer awareness, and AIDS awareness campaigns (among others). This simply demonstrates that exposure doesn’t itself lead to an improvement. While substantive connections are easy to make between awareness of sustainable seafood and ocean expeditions, it’s not as easy to make connections to diseases or negligibly related causes.

The Emptiness of the Current Ethos

There is one stark difference between legendary explorers and many contemporaries. Many expeditions of the past were undertaken for the purpose of increasing scientific understanding. At first glance, it’s easy to reduce this to the notion of geography. Granting that this is a worthy purpose that’s not particularly valuable in the age of satellite imagery, there were still myriad other scientific functions performed by expeditions and the explorers who undertook the adventures. Sir Douglas Mawson was a geologist. Robert Falcon Scott‘s expeditions contributed important biological, zoological, and geological findings. Roald Amundsen‘s expeditions were explicitly conducted for collection of scientific data. Vilhjalmur Stefansson was an ethnologist. You may also have heard of some dude named Charles Darwin, who had a slight impact on the course of science and the rest of human history.

In the case of expeditions receiving funding from organizations whose goals are not directly related to the expedition itself, the only real beneficiaries are those receiving the funding. It’s this reality that likely drives the hollow ring of adventurers attempting to drop messages of distant causes into stories of visceral personal experience.

“Exploration without science is tourism.” – American Astronomical Society

From the standpoint of individual people receiving messages meant to build awareness, there is something fundamentally different from a scientific expedition and an expedition raising awareness for a cause that needs scientific research done in a lab elsewhere. While that may be unfortunate, it is a fact that humans commit things to memory in relation to the emotions and context in which they’re received. The impact of messages communicated by expeditions as marketing tools will be in direct relation to the relationship between the message and the context of the expedition.

Solution? Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

The cost of expeditions is an unavoidable reality. The cost of scientific research is an unavoidable reality, particularly when research must be conducted in remote areas, and compounded by the common need to compare data from multiple remote areas that are distant from each other. The sophistication of modern science also tends to necessitate that analysis of gathered data must take place in centralized and immobile locations by large numbers of individuals. This makes the potential for every adventurer to be a scientist and for every scientist to spend large amounts of time in the field difficult. Enter Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.

“Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is dedicated to improving the availability of scientific knowledge through partnerships between adventure athletes and scientists.” The organization, founded in January of 2011, does its best to match up scientists with adventurers. It also provides mentors and scientific advisors for adventurers. And of course, they provide information about expeditions they’re involved with.

Non-Disclaimer: As of this writing, I have no affiliation with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.

DOs and DONTs

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is not going to be the solution for everyone. It’s likely that many expeditions and many scientific endeavors will fall outside the scope of “conservation”. However, their concept serves as a workable template for adventurers, scientists, and other sponsors considering joining forces to pull off expeditions.

Do

  • Relate expedition ecology to science related to similar ecology (Ocean voyages relate to ocean health, seafood, aquatic species, et cetera)
  • Relate expedition location to anthropology of proximate areas.
  • Relate expedition locales to climatology impacting local anthropological and biological stakeholders.
  • Apply the same principles of congruency between expedition and message to non-scientific partnerships.
Don’t
  • Assume that any cause will benefit from association with any expedition
  • Assume that “Awareness” will be memorable or have any impact on the behavior of individuals
In hindsight, much of this seems overly commonsensical. Unfortunately, the proliferation of awareness campaigns and the expeditions used as a vehicle to support them indicates that there’s a gap in common sense. The adventure of researching this piece has certainly changed my behavior in relationship to potential sponsors.
Please add your comments, questions, and additional suggestions below.

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