It’s time to rethink exploration for a restless, carbon-saturated age in which everyone wants a bit of adventure, says Alasdair Bonnett
We’re born explorers. Anyone with small children knows that their curiosity is insatiable. A lot of parenting is about reining in your wide-eyed tot’s drive to explore so that they can survive another day. It’s a universal human urge and tales of exploration can be found in every culture. But exploration is in trouble. It doesn’t just need to be defended but reimagined. It’s a big task and raises some big questions.
Exploration has been democratised and turned into a mass activity. We all want a piece of it. Ask the next person you meet what they’ve been doing recently and I bet they’ll tell you where they’ve been or are about to set off for. In our restless age, to be is to go. That certainly feels true for me. Travel is what I look forward to and, like everyone else, I want to feel special, so I head to ‘secret’ and ‘off-the-beaten-track’ destinations. I don’t want to follow the crowd – I want to explore, just like everyone else.
This rushing to the planet’s far corners is in part propelled by anxiety, a fear of missing out on something extraordinary. ‘Staying put’ is shunned and ‘really living’ measured out in air miles.
It can’t last. The planet can’t sustain billions of explorers, all seeking out their own unique experiences. The birth of extreme tourism – which takes those who can afford it to the darkest parts of the ocean or blasts them into space – is testament to the crisis of exploration. It seems that, given the chance, a fair few of us want not just to ‘get away’ but to flee, as far as possible, ever further and ever faster.
It’s starting to look a bit desperate. We need to look again at exploration. I’ve been told the answer lies in virtual adventure, but I don’t believe it. The point of exploration is the possibility of discovery, of the promise of an original and unpredicted encounter. Virtual experiences are programmed, curated and chosen for us; it’s
the opposite of exploration.
There isn’t an easy path forward but I’m intrigued by the fact that many of the freshest contributors to contemporary travel literature reevaluate our relationship with the local. Exploration is being ‘brought home’ into narratives of the unfamiliar and disorienting terrains that are outside our windows or under our feet.
The Urban Exploration movement, which typically explores abandoned and underground spaces, has seen ordinary cities being rediscovered and ‘defamiliarised’. In Explore Everything: Place-hacking the City, Bradley Garrett wants to claim the city ‘as a place for endless adventure’. This is exploration as a search for what he calls the ‘bizarre, beautiful and unregulated’.
Can we imagine the streets, fields and byways around us as places of exploration? I’ve had some good times getting mildly lost amid the nooks and crannies of my home city of Newcastle but it can be tough going. For decades, we’ve been building cities that people want to flee. The ring road and retail mall aren’t sites of discovery, but reminders of the necessity of escape.
The new ‘urban explorers’ may have the right idea but their hard-won discoveries tell us something else: that a modern manifesto for exploration also has to be a manifesto for creating places that enchant and inspire rather than repel.
In a plane-hopping era, the conversation about exploration opens big questions about how and what we build and what kind of societies we want. One of the biggest takes us back to children’s instinctive geographical curiosity. We start life with a powerful thirst to reach out, to wander and wonder. Yet a lot of young lives are spent indoors. Without the freedom to roam, children become risk averse. Letting them tear around designated spaces, such as playgrounds and child-friendly museums, is no substitute. To grow up sane, kids need to feel the rain on their skin, get comfortable with a little discomfort and, literally, find their own way.
People have been saying exploration is over for a long time. Back in the 18th century, the English writer John Hawkesworth was confident that ‘Nature is now exhausted; all her wonders have been accumulated, every recess has been explored’. It’s been said many times. It wasn’t true in 1752 and it isn’t true now. Exploration will never be over, but on a planet with eight billion people – each one of us with our own dreams of escape and adventure – it does need to be rethought and reimagined.
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