Our Modern Age of Exploration

Posted by on 08/05/10 in Creativity, History, Literature, Risk

In 1914, toward the end of the Age of Exploration, former US President, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and famed Brazilian scientist and explorer, Colonel Candido Rondon, led a team of naturalists and camaradas (workers) on an expedition to be the first to map and explore the Rio da Duvida, the Amazon’s River of Doubt.

Their team had no idea of what they might encounter on their adventure. Almost all were capable and almost all had investigated other parts of the Amazon; none had explored this particular river. They had no way to know its course, speed or the nature of the hazards that they might encounter. It may be hard to imagine in our world of GPS that in 1914 (just 96 years ago!) a thousand-mile long river did not exist on any map and was essentially unknown to all except the small number of native clans that lived along its shore, people who had had no contact with the outside world.

Consider some uncertainties they faced:

· What type of boat(s) does one take down an unexplored river? Shallow draft or deep? Heavy or light? Wood, canvas, or metal? What is the ideal length? How should they be powered? How many such boats should be brought?

· What food does one bring and how much on a journey that could last two months, six months or more? Can one rely on hunting or fishing along the way? Since any food must be carried and stored and potentially cooked, and knowing that starvation had claimed the lives of many explorers, how does one prepare accordingly?

· What kinds of people should be included in the team? What traits and skills are needed? What if your one doctor falls ill? Your one naturalist? When do you decide that team member is unfit for the journey? Who decides and what is done about it?

The Commission consisted of a band of smart, courageous adventurers who already had proven their mettle in difficult circumstances around the globe. They knew that they were embarking on a journey of great uncertainty and were hoping that their experience, skill, and will power would enable them to make it through safely and successfully.

But the most powerful character in the adventure and the greatest variable of all was the course and behavior of the river itself. It was completely unknown. Every bend meant a new possibility, each whirlpool or eddy could mean intense danger or nothing at all. Each rapid had the ability to shoot the explorers forward or dash their boats and hopes to pieces. The river—inspiration for such a grand undertaking—could easily have brought about the death of those so inspired.

In Candice Millard’s book, Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey: The River of Doubt, the author describes various characters gradually accepting or at least being challenged to consider that their past experiences, common sense, and abilities were not necessarily enough to see them through, that they might not complete this journey, that for all their planning and thoughtfulness, they may not succeed and may in fact die on what had started as a rather straight-forward adventure.

The river represented the great unknown. One could wonder whether we more modern Westerners are comfortable with the notion that there are places as yet unmapped. With our quick and easy access to information of both superficial and in-depth nature, and with a rather glib confidence in and reliance upon our technology and analytic skills, perhaps we have grown accustomed to imagining that we can place ourselves at any point in time and place and understand what to do next.

Maybe that is why the political airwaves in this decisive year are filled with soaring—and often patronizing—rhetoric about the economy and other matters. Politicians, analysts, economists, and other commentators have been impassioned in their claims that they know exactly what to do about just about everything, from health care and financial reform to containing Iran and North Korea (not to mention China and Russia), from energy policy to immigration policy to stimulating economic growth.

Col. Rondon knew and demonstrated as he led the Commission down the River of Doubt that a lack of humility about our knowledge is frightening, that blind certainty represents a person’s or a society’s greatest potential weakness. He was as confident and brave as anyone in his position could be in part because he was willing to admit that there were risks he did not understand and was thus not willing to take or ask others to take.

Productive doubt is good. It causes us to give pause, to think more deeply, more carefully, to see things with less ego clouding our judgment so that we can better perceive the variables on the periphery that might be terribly important and yet easily overlooked by decision-makers who think they already know all that there is to be known. Doubt that leads to paralysis is not helpful, but doubt that leads to more deliberate planning can be a welcome friend.

In some respects the Age of Exploration is over. And yet in other ways it is never over, for the world has never been here before, never before experienced this convergence of political, social, technological, economic and environmental conditions. Our path forward is just as uncertain and unknown as the River of Doubt was to Roosevelt, Rondon and their men; thus, our path forward requires that we ask questions they faced as well. How will we move down our river? What supplies do we need along the way? And what types of people are required to make the journey successful? Whether we like it or not, we are on a grand adventure together, one fraught with danger and with great potential to learn about our world and make better sense of it. With good care, it could be quite a journey.