In Horizon (Knopf, Mar.), Lopez recalls his travels to six continents and meditates on the environment.
Among your adventures, you explore ancient Inuit ruins on Skraeling Island in the Canadian Arctic and search for hominin fossils in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Do you feel a kinship with these long-ago peoples?
Yeah! On Skraeling Island, for example, these guys made things work in a really brutal environment. That is inspiring. A lot of contemporary culture is ephemeral. iPhones are not as interesting to me as how people survived on Skraeling.
You’ve spent decades traveling to polar regions. Have you seen the effects of climate change?
Oh, my god, yes. In Alaska, for example, the sea ice has dwindled so much that the wind has “fetch”: with all that open water the wind builds up big waves that crash on shore, and buildings that have stood for centuries are flooded or knocked down. I was on a ship coming into [northern Canada’s] Peel Sound, and saw no ice there, which is unprecedented; in all the historical literature, Peel Sound is a place you just can’t get to, it’s jammed with ice even in summer. It’s infuriating when newscasters say the jury is still out on climate change. We’re dealing with this criminal delay in facing up to global warming because people who are making a lot of money with the way things work now are reluctant to change.
You write about explorers like James Cook and Robert Scott. Which expeditions would you have liked to tag along on?
I’d get in my own way if I thought like that. I was up in a place called Bull Pass in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, thinking that I might be the first person ever to be there. Then I found a camera case! You should never think you’re the first guy to go anywhere; you should just pay attention to the world.
You ponder the submersion of indigenous cultures by Western colonialism. What have we lost because of that?
We don’t know, because we destroyed it so quickly that there was never a chance to ask. My sadness about this is that once you set aside the notion of primitive peoples and advanced peoples, you understand that civilizations develop in response to the places where people live. Aboriginal people had been living in these places for up to 60,000 years. So why didn’t we ask them, how did you do that, given the climate and the difficulty of hunting in this area? How do you get comfortable here, where, wow, I couldn’t stand this heat or this cold 24 hours a day? How did they manage adultery, or the need to banish destructive people? Would their solutions help us? I think so. But instead of asking, we just killed them.