OPINION: Why Heritage Matters     (9)

This is the tale of two archaeological sites. The first I’m guessing you haven’t heard of. Roughly 11,500 years ago, a community of nomadic hunter gatherers in what is now southeastern Turkey created the oldest human-built place of worship we know of. It’s called Göbekli Tepe, and it sits on a hilltop sanctuary not too far from Turkey’s border with Syria. What’s most fascinating about Göbekli Tepe is the glimpse it gives us into the Eurasian pre-Neolithic period and what role ceremony played in pre-agricultural groups. Before there were domesticated animals or cultivated fields, the nomads around Göbekli Tepe decorated monoliths with icons of lions, gazelles, vultures and snakes (among others) and, in all likelihood, worshipped beneath them.

The other site can be found a hemisphere away, 8,000 miles to the southwest, nestled in the mountains of southcentral Peru. It’s called Machu Picchu and, of course, you’ve heard of it. Similar to Göbekli Tepe, Machu Picchu was also a ceremonial center, the royal estate of Incan Emperor Pachacuti. Although the stones of Machu Picchu don’t have any iconography carved into them, there’s no doubt their placement and shape played an important role in ceremonies and, in this regard, the sacred monoliths of both sites reveal certain aspects of their respective cultures.  The stones of both sites also reveal a silent crisis that exists today. It’s called the crisis of vanishing heritage and it’s occurring all over the world.

On one end of the crisis’ spectrum sit the heritage sites you’ve never heard of, the Göbekli Tepes of the world. They’re found in developing countries like Turkey, China, India, and Guatemala. Their archaeological treasures often lie unprotected, subject to the effects of time, weather, and looting. The technology to conserve these sites exists, but obtaining proper funding, regional support, and on-site management can be challenging when public awareness and interest are lacking.

On the other end of the spectrum sit the heritage sites everyone has heard of… the Machu Picchus, Tikals, and Angkor Wats of the world. While time and weather (and some looting) affect these sites, too, the largest threats to their survival are overpopulation and unsustainable tourism – the sites are overrun with tourists who, in their eagerness to walk everywhere and touch everything, are literally destroying the places they sought to preserve. Management plans rarely include proper visitor control and even the best managers are under tremendous pressure to accept tourist dollars today despite the cost tomorrow.

So, how can we manage these sites in a sustainable fashion? How can we create a system of site selection, preservation, and conservation that helps the local economy protect a cultural treasure that ultimately belongs to the world? How can technology be leveraged to assist these efforts? These are just some of the questions being asked this Tuesday at Stanford University in California, where a group of experts in conservation, development, archaeology, philanthropy, technology, tourism and travel have gathered to attend the first Forum on Cultural Heritage in a Developing World.  Our goal: to review the data on heritage conservation efforts, discuss what’s working (and what’s not), and determine what solutions make sense for the future. As someone in the media who’s been to hundreds of archaeological sites around the world, I’ve happily agreed to serve as the Master of Ceremonies for the Forum. The keynote address — “Turning Oppression into Opportunities” — will be delivered by Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist and author Nicholas Kristof.

The Forum and the accompanying 68-page report titled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage are the product of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), a California-based international conservancy whose mission is “to protect, preserve, and sustain the most significant and endangered cultural heritage sites in the developing world.” (Full disclosure: I’m on GHF’s board.) GHF isn’t afraid to tackle heritage problems head on, to find solutions that help turn the tide, create public interest and ultimately protect these cultural treasures from their greatest threat – us.

The hard truth is that our planet is facing a number of population-driven crises right now, including environmental destruction, the loss of biodiversity and the collapse of ocean life. But whereas the rainforests and the oceans have their champions, little has been said on behalf of cultural heritage sites. Perhaps it’s because the stones and bones of archaeological sites hold less appeal than the fur of pandas and fins of sharks. Perhaps it’s because civilizations have always devalued and destroyed the accomplishments of those they’ve conquered – the churches of the Spanish, for example, where built on top of the temples of the Inca.

I sincerely hope that GHF and the Forum can help create a new vision for sustainable tourism and conservation, a model in which heritage sites generate revenue without sacrificing long-term preservation. Without a proper plan, sites will continue to disappear and, unlike a rainforest, once a heritage site is gone, it’s gone forever. What managed to survive for 10,000 years may disappear — silently, suddenly — within just a few decades.

The cultural tapestry that depicts the story of our collective heritage benefits from diversity; it celebrates the richness of language, the expressiveness of religion, the beauty of art. In a world too often focused on short-term issues and Western ideologies, we must make the effort to protect cultural heritage sites. Whether it’s Göbekli Tepe or Machu Picchu, the stories of our ancestors matter. Heritage matters. Our challenge is to recognize this before it’s too late.

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Categories: Opinion

Opinion: Authentic Survival, Please     (12)

There have been an overwhelming number of survival shows on TV in recent years. First, there was Survivorman with Les Stroud on Science Channel (and then Discovery). Les would drop himself off in some hypothetical survival scenario (plane crash, snowmobile wreck, etc) and do what he could to survive seven days alone while filming the entire process. What impressed me even more than Les’ ability to stay calm and committed to success was his ability to document the experience with several cameras. Close to 65% of his energy went into production, not survival, as he managed the wide-shots, the POVs, the close-ups and all the other angles an editor would later need (not to mention the camera tapes and the batteries). This was done without much food, if any, and sometimes in truly brutal conditions.

A short while later, Man vs. Wild appeared with Bear Grylls as the host. Unlike Les, Bear’s series had the support of a full film crew. This meant routes could be scouted, shots could be prepared, rappels could be rigged. The entire production component was amplified, resulting in a show that was more adrenaline-rush than survival training. Bear jumped out of helicopters, over cliffs, and into glacial waters. He ate animal parts of questionable cleanliness, more for effect than any nutritional value. Kids loved it and the show has since found a huge audience worldwide (I suppose crazy adventure translates well into many languages).

With the success of Survivorman and Man vs. Wild, Discovery launched two more survival-related shows this year: Dual Survival with primitive technologist Cody Lundin and military-survival expert Dave Canterbury and Man, Woman, Wild with former Special Forces survival expert Mykel Hawke and his journalist wife, Ruth England.  Both Dual Survival and Man, Woman, Wild were renewed for second seasons this week, indicating that Discovery is continuing to fund this genre, which they further support with programs like “Discovery Saved My Life”—a show that celebrates people who survive life-threatening situations by doing what they saw Les, Bear or others do on TV.

Now, I appreciate that television is a medium of entertainment first and education second (or not at all, in many cases). And I appreciate that Les, Bear, Cody, Dave, Mykel and Ruth are hired to attract, maintain and build an audience—that’s how successful TV works. But as a survival instructor and someone who has been in the outdoor industry for several decades, I take issue with the illusion of success and safety that these shows continue to project. And when it comes to statistics involving people who are saved, I suspect that for every 1 person who survives in the wilderness because he did something he saw on TV, there are another 2 or 3 who died because they were unsuccessful doing the exact same thing.

Last March, I came across this posting—Les Stroud Fan Dies Trying “Survivorman” Techniques In Wild. As the article points out, one can’t really say whether a person who freezes in the woods was trying to do what he saw Les do.  Without a hand-written note or a posted pre-trip plan that clearly states a person’s intention to replicate a challenge or journey, we simply can’t know what led to his death, which is my point. How many people have injured themselves by jumping off ledges into rivers without knowing the water’s depth? How many have tried to hunt animals and, in the process, been bitten or attacked? How many have gone into the winter wilderness to do what they saw their favorite TV host do, only to freeze to death and never tell a soul?  These kinds of statistics aren’t easy to collect but I know that backcountry injuries have risen dramatically in recent years thanks to increased technology (lighter gear, better food) and the false sense of security cell phones and GPS units provide. People who have less training and fewer outdoor skills are now going deeper into the woods, then getting lost. Add to that the foolish ignorance of someone trying to replicate what they think they saw on TV and you have yourself a recipe for disaster.

Take it from me, someone who has (so far) hosted over 50 hrs of TV for two major networks: spontaneous challenges are rarely spontaneous. The amount of time that goes into “health & safety” discussions for a segment are considerable—first, there are the insurance people (for the network and the production company), and then there are the producers, who must make sure everything will go according to plan. On location, you have the specialists who must triple-check everything before, finally, the host will “spontaneously” decide to jump off that cliff or wrestle that crocodile. On some shows, I think it’s fine—good TV often needs a jolt of energy. But in certain genres, the illusion of authenticity that is created is a discredit to the audience. When you can, read filmmaker Chris Palmer’s article in today’s Washington Post.  It’s disheartening to realize that many of the most touching “wild moments” we watch in nature documentaries are anything but wild. Many of the scenes that masquerade as “authentic” are, in fact, staged. When it’s done with animals, it’s a disservice to the audience and our understanding of nature. When it’s done with survival scenarios, though, it’s downright dangerous. I look forward to the day when authenticity and transparency are as important as ratings. It’s not an easy battle to fight, but there are some of us who believe it’s worth fighting.

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Categories: Movies, Books, TV Opinion

Opinion: The Case Against Fish Oil and EFAs     (19)

I admit it, I’m a health nut. Have been for most of my life, as I’ve eaten (mostly) organic food since I was 14. Of course, I’ve gone through phases when I’d eat “normally” and I certainly don’t make a fuss when traveling or eating in restaurants, but I do enjoy food that is grown sustainably with consideration given to the health of the Earth and the consumer. As a result, for the past few years, I’ve been following the advice of the media by mixing EFAs (Essential Fatty Acids) into my morning shake. I did it just this morning, in fact, mixing a tablespoon of a vegetable-derived Omega 3-6-9 product in with the protein/fruit/acai blend that usually starts my day. And then my brother sent me this article. Read it. Read it carefully. Seems the data supporting human consumption of fish oils don’t say what the marketers of fish oil would want us to believe. This part, in particular, caught my eye:

“In declaring EPA and DHA to be safe, the FDA neglected to evaluate their antithyroid, immunosuppressive, lipid peroxidative (Song et al., 2000), light sensitizing, and antimitochondrial effects, their depression of glucose oxidation (Delarue et al., 2003), and their contribution to metastatic cancer (Klieveri, et al., 2000), lipofuscinosis and liver damage, among other problems.”

Whoa. I don’t want anything messing with my mitochondria (or those other things), thankyouverymuch. Nor do I want all the other negative health effects described by Mr. Peat. So, as of this minute, my EFA bottles are going in the recycling bin.

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Categories: Health & Fitness Opinion

Opinion: Explorer vs. Adventurer     (18)

A few years ago, I was sitting with a colleague in the Royal Geographical Society in London discussing the various members of the Society and its illustrious history. Reflecting on men like Shackleton, Peary, Fawcett and Fiennes, she asked me if I considered myself an “adventurer” or an “explorer.” After some consideration, I responded with “explorer”—based on the fact that my journeys typically have a purpose and the narrative thread of the my shows often takes me on a quest to learn something, to see something, or to explore something. An “adventurer,” I figured, wouldn’t have such a purpose, he (or she) would just be out for a good time.

A few months later, while doing some technical dive training, I came across the following quote in my TDI dive manual. The comment was given by Colonel William Pogue, Astronaut and Command Pilot of NASA’s Skylab 4 Mission. It reflects his views on Americans in the 20th Century:

“I believe that since the turn of the century, the population has selectively bred out the ‘explorer gene’ and replaced it with the ‘adventurer gene.’

“The explorer is a person who has a goal and reads voraciously all the available information concerning the proposed activity. The explorer practices any skills required to perfection. The explorer understands that there are risks, evaluates these risks and takes the necessary steps to minimize risk. But inevitably, the explorer must accept the risks, that there is danger, and personal injury or death is a possibility.

“The adventurer is the neophyte. They are not really interested in learning all the nitty gritty details. They want to hire someone to take them white-water rafting and ensure their safety. At the end of the run, they want a picture and a t-shirt that says ‘I rafted the ‘Monster Killer’ run.’ The reality is, the 18 year old summer high school kid maneuvered the raft, the clients just got wet.”

I really liked this distinction.Yes, that last bit has a bit more edge than I’d care to put on it, but in general, I’d agree with this, and it supports my statement at the RGS. After all, I’m always reading in preparation for my next trip or working on diving/climbing/paragliding/etc skills to help make the next expedition more fun and engaging, both for me and for any TV viewers. I don’t mind the inherent risks that come with certain activities, but you can bet your butt I’m doing all I can to minimize them.

Anyway, last night, I overheard someone philosophizing, saying with a discernible measure of pride and excitement in his voice that “adventure is what happens when things go wrong.” He was recounting some tale in which he nearly died because he went off with no preparation or knowledge on some cross-country trip through hostile territory. Great… but not for me. Most explorers I know would say those types of adventures are due more to incompetence or ignorance than anything else, and they’re best avoided if you want to be around for long. Explorers don’t seek “getting lost” or “being stranded” or “nearly dying”—these are the signs of a poorly planned or poorly executed trip. Of course, I’m all for the various challenges and adventures that life and Mother Nature can throw at a person, and I often get a real thrill from them when I need to face them. Nothing like getting caught in a lightening storm, or running a Class V rapid, or heading into questionable parts of a developing country. I just don’t want to go in unprepared, relying on luck to get me out alive. There are too many other things I still want to do in my life.

So, when it comes to labels, I’m an explorer and not an adventurer, thank you very much. Curious to hear where you stand on the issue.

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Categories: Opinion

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