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Wade Davis

Anthropologist, Author & Explorer

Wade Davis is Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. Between 1999 and 2013 he served as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and is currently a member of the NGS Explorers Council and Honorary Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Named by the NGS as one of the Explorers for the Millennium, he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” In 2014 Switzerland’s leading think tank, the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute of Zurich, ranked him 16th in their annual survey of the top 100 most influential global Thought Leaders.

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Presentations

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World Every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? Wade Davis leads us on a thrilling journey to celebrate the wisdom of the world’s indigenous cultures. In Polynesia we set sail with navigators whose ancestors settled the Pacific ten centuries before Christ. In the Amazon we meet the descendants of a true Lost Civilization, the Peoples of the Anaconda. In the Andes we discover that the Earth really is alive, while in the far reaches of Australia we experience Dreamtime, the all-embracing philosophy of the first humans to walk out of Africa. We then travel to Nepal, where we encounter a wisdom hero, a Bodhisattva, who emerges from forty-five years of Buddhist retreat and solitude. And finally we settle in Borneo, where the last rainforest nomads struggle to survive. Understanding the lessons of this journey will be our mission for the next century. Of the world’s 7000 languages, fully half may disappear within our lifetimes. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination that is the human legacy. Rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit, as expressed by culture, is among the central challenges of our time Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest If the quest for Mount Everest began as a grand imperial gesture, as redemption for an empire of explorers that had lost the race to the Poles, it ended as a mission of regeneration for a country and a people bled white by war. Of the twenty-six British climbers who, on three expeditions (1921-24), walked 400 miles off the map to find and assault the highest mountain on Earth, twenty had seen the worst of the fighting. Six had been severely wounded, two others nearly killed by disease at the Front, one hospitalized twice with shell shock. Four as army surgeons dealt for the duration with the agonies of the dying. Two lost brothers, killed in action. All had endured the slaughter, the coughing of the guns, the bones and barbed wire, the white faces of the dead. In a monumental work of history and adventure, ten years in the writing, Wade Davis asks not whether George Mallory was the first to reach the summit of Everest, but rather why he kept on climbing on that fateful day. His answer lies in a single phrase uttered by one of the survivors as they retreated from the mountain: ‘The price of life is death.’ Mallory walked on because for him, as for all of his generation, death was but ‘a frail barrier that men crossed, smiling and gallant, every day.’ As climbers they accepted a degree of risk unimaginable before the war. They were not cavalier, but death was no stranger. They had seen so much of it that it had no hold on them. What mattered was how one lived, the moments of being alive. For all of them Everest had become an exalted radiance, a sentinel in the sky, a symbol of hope in a world gone mad. The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass In a rugged knot of mountains in northern British Columbia lies a spectacular valley known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters. There, three of Canada’s most important salmon rivers- the Stikine, Skeena and Nass- are born in remarkably close proximity. Now against the wishes of all First Nations, the British Columbia government has opened the Sacred Headwaters to industrial development. Fortune Minerals proposes a coal operation that would level mountains. Imperial Metals is moving ahead with an open pit copper and gold mine on Todagin Mountain, home to the largest population of Stone sheep in the world; tailings from the Red Chris mine will bury Black lake and leach into the headwaters of the Iskut River, the main tributary of the Stikine. For years Royal Dutch Shell sought to extract coal bed methane gas across a tenure of close to a million acres, which would have implied a network of roads and pipelines and thousands of wells places across the entire valley of the Sacred Headwaters. For ten years Tahltan men women and children, along with local non native trappers, guides, and writers have stood up for the land, and in a remarkable grassroots victory in 2012, Shell Canada withdrew from the valley. The struggle continues, and will continue until the entire Sacred Headwaters is protected. The resounding message of the people is that no amount of gold, copper or coal can compensate for the sacrifice of a place that could be the Sacred Headwaters of all North Americans and indeed all peoples of the world. River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado Plugged by no fewer than twenty-five dams, the Colorado River is the world’s most regulated river drainage. It provides most of the water supply of Las Vegas, Tucson, and San Diego, and much of the power and water of Los Angeles and Phoenix. If the river stopped flowing, we would likely have to abandon many of the largest cities in the West. The Colorado is indeed a river of life, which makes it all the more tragic that by the time it approaches the sea, it has been reduced to a toxic trickle, its delta dry and deserted. In a blend of history, science and personal observation based on his experience as a white water guide and leading character in the 3D IMAX production Grand Canyon Adventure, Wade Davis tells the story of the American Nile, its geology and ethnography, the early explorations of John Wesley Powell, the critical role of the Mormon Church, the stunning engineering achievement of Hoover Dam and all the complex decisions that ultimately transformed the river, leaving it but a shadow in the sand as it reaches the sea. The plight of the Colorado is a story of folly and loss, but also of immense hope, for we have it readily within our power to restore the river and its delta to life. Public perceptions aside, the water crisis in the Southwest is not due to people wanting golf courses in Phoenix, fountains in Vegas, swimming pools in San Diego. All such domestic uses amount to a minor percentage of the water diverted from the river, perhaps 630,000 acre-feet a year. The water crisis in truth is due to one single factor- cows eating alfalfa in a landscape where neither belongs. The 250 million acres of land allocated by the Bureau of Land Management for cattle grazing yield less than ten percent of the national beef production. This supports a way of life rich in nostalgia, but hopelessly inefficient in terms of productivity and water consumption. The delta of the river, verdant in the lifetime of my father, could be restored with the amount of water that now goes to support a third of one percent of the nation’s beef production.

Awards

2015
Order of Canada

2013
Royal Geographical Society | Ness Award

2012
David Fairchild Medal | Plant Exploration

2011
Explorers Club | Explorer's Medal

2009
Gold Medal | Royal Canadian Geographical Society

2002
Explorers Club | Lowell Thomas Medal
Lannan Foundation Prize for Nonfiction


  • Wade was incredible, and an excellent choice of speaker. Thanks for putting the event on. It was fantastic!

    - Student, University of Western Ontario
  • Wade Davis was an excellent choice. Bring more interdisciplinary speakers.

    - Student, University of Western Ontario

Summary Profile

An ethnographer, writer, photographer and filmmaker, Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among fifteen indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6000 botanical collections. His work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), an international best seller later released by Universal as a motion picture. In recent years his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Australia, Colombia, Vanuatu, Mongolia and the high Arctic of Nunuvut and Greenland.

Davis is the author of hundreds of scientific and popular articles and over 20 books including One River (1996), The Wayfinders (2009), The Sacred Headwaters (2011), Into the Silence (2011) and River Notes (2012). His photographs have been widely exhibited and have appeared in 30 books and 100 magazines, including National Geographic, Time, Geo, People, Men’s Journal, and Outside. He was the co-curator of The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes, first exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. In 2012 he served as guest curator of No Strangers: Ancient Wisdom in the Modern World, an exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

His many film credits include Light at the Edge of the World, an eight-hour documentary series written and produced for the National Geographic. A professional speaker for 30 years, Davis has lectured at over 200 universities and 250 corporations and professional associations. In 2009 he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures. He has spoken from the main stage at TED five times, and his three posted talks have been viewed by 3 million. His books have appeared in 19 languages and sold approximately one million copies.

Davis is the recipient of 11 honorary degrees, as well as the 2009 Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his contributions to anthropology and conservation, the 2011 Explorers Medal, the highest award of the Explorers Club, the 2012 David Fairchild Medal for botanical exploration, the 2013 Ness Medal for geography education from the Royal Geographical Society, and the 2015 Centennial Medal of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University. His recent book, Into the Silence, received the 2012 Samuel Johnson prize, the top award for literary nonfiction in the English language. In 2016 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.