Pete McBride: Our Shared World
A native Coloradan and global storyteller, Pete McBride was a natural fit as a plenary speaker at the NAFSA 2022 Annual Conference and Expo in Denver, Colorado. McBride is a self-taught photographer, filmmaker, writer, and public speaker, and he’s spent the last two decades traveling to more than 85 countries telling stories of people and places, from Mount Everest to the Colorado River in his home state.
International Educator spoke with McBride before his plenary talk in Denver about the lessons he’s learned in his extensive travels, his most recent project about the world’s silent places, and the complexities of our shared world.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
In college you were an exchange student in Mexico. How did that come about, and what was your experience like?
I went to Dartmouth College, and they have a very well-known language program. You either test out of it or you have to do a year of foreign language. They encourage you to do an abroad program. I did Spanish and applied to [programs in] Mexico and Spain, and I ended up getting into the Mexico one. Not my first choice. I thought it was this little industrial city north of Mexico City, but it was totally magical. And that’s where I ended up. By weird hand of fate, I’m allegedly related to a woman [from there who was] a famous revolutionary. I’ve written articles about it since in National Geographic. I couldn’t prove it without a DNA test, but my family’s talked about it. She helped initiate the revolution against the Spanish.
The exchange program was 16 students and a professor from Dartmouth, who was fluent in Spanish, and we took all our classes in Spanish. We did trips and went into archeological sites and different parts of Mexico. I lived with a host family, and they actually just wanted the money. They didn’t really [care] about me, but we became friends. I would say it was one of the most formative experiences of my college life. And the language thing—I was okay, but it didn’t click. But later in life it gave me the foundation to do a lot of work in Latin America. I would say I’m conversationally pretty fluent [now], so the seeds were there for that.
How have your experiences in other countries and communities helped you see and understand your own home state of Colorado better, or make you see it differently?
It’s made me appreciate it in [different] ways. It’s made me appreciate the outdoor beauty, the infrastructure—of course, people grumble about roads, [but] having worked in parts of the world where there are no roads, it’s made me very appreciative. I’m grateful for what we have here. I think travel opens up your eyes to what you have and what you take for granted. It also shows you that there is no one way on this planet or in life. That is one of the greatest lessons. [Travel] also teaches humility and wonder—it makes us feel small in the best of ways. And I think it also just breaks down barriers. It makes you aware of your own preconceptions of place, people, things, and value.
[Travel] shows you that there is no one way on this planet or in life. That is one of the greatest lessons. It also teaches humility and wonder—it makes us feel small in the best of ways.
My parents were believers of travel. Not going to the beach, but doing things that weren’t easy. We would do a big trip every 5 to 10 years as a family, so we’ve only done a handful. And we did one to Tanzania when I was about 17. We camped and walked and went into the bush—we were with a friend of ours who’s a wildlife guru. We stayed in Dar es Salaam and walked the streets. Then we flew back home through Switzerland. So we went from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest in a 12-hour period. The contrast of friendliness and welcoming humanity [in Tanzania] juxtaposed against the efficiency of Switzerland was so alarming to me. It highlighted how money is such a disconnect from the world and us as human beings and how we live, to a degree.
For many people who work in international education, one of the reasons why they do what they do is their belief in cultural exchange, breaking down barriers, and understanding people better. What are some of the commonalities—and common challenges—that you have seen across communities that you’ve worked in around the globe?
The first commonality is that we’re all human. We’re all identical on so many fronts. We all want the best for our family, our community. We all want to have sense of purpose. We’re all afraid of certain things. We all have the ability to behave poorly under stress and fear, and we all have the ability to perform amazing things. I’ve spent time living with the Bedouin in Jordan, living in goat hide tents and raising camels. I was able to connect with them on the simple handshake deal of hard work and honesty. I’ve lived with [someone of] pretty much every religion in the world. I grew up next to a Catholic monastery. I’ve lived with Buddhist monks. I’ve worked with Hindus. I’ve worked all through the Middle East. But I would say the main commonality is that we’re far more alike than we’re different.
I did a story on Mount Everest. I documented not to get to the summit, but the sherpas that built the route. They built this very dangerous route on the south side, through the Khumbu icefall. It goes from 18,000 to 22,000 feet. They’re unsung heroes that nobody knows about. They make $5 a day and they work in their blue jeans. It’s a really interesting model because you have the A-types of the planet from all these different nations at a base camp, and you quickly see who plays nice and who doesn’t, and who lets their best self forward and who leads with their worst self with the ego.... You’ve got soldiers from India and Nepal, American billionaires, purist climbers, South American teams, Chinese teams, Russian teams. And they all have to get along.
In your work, you talk about the complexities of our shared world. What you mean by that, and how does it tie into efforts toward sustainability? How can we build a sustainable future with these complexities in mind?
First we have to embrace our commonalities. We’re all in this one spaceship. And the spaceship is on fire—sections of it, many sections. We have to find a way to push the politics aside, which is of course a whole other subject, and trust the science. I think the vast majority of the planet does.
I also think we need to realize that our impacts are global, no matter how we like to think. We as Americans are burning the equivalent of thousands of matches a day, if you want a simple analogy for what we’re doing to the atmosphere, when we get in our cars or hit the light switch. We have to realize that that doesn’t just stay in our neighborhood—it’s moving around the world. How we visit places, how we travel, how we visit our wild places, specifically. [For instance,] the Grand Canyon—how you do it, whether on foot or by a helicopter, is a huge impact on not just how you see it, but on others. We have to start thinking about how we can collectively walk with a lighter footprint.
I do a lot [of work] on fresh water, and rivers are a really good reflection of climate impact because we all need water. Of course, water’s life. We can live without oil. We can’t live without water. As rivers deplete, how do we react? Do we get more tribal and fight over it, or do we collaborate? We’ve done both. And the only solution that’s working is collaboration across sections that have historically always fought. There’s the old saying that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting, and that plays out very much here in the West. [In this area,] all the food we eat comes from the Colorado River. We’re very connected to it, whether we realize it or not. [We must] understand that our impacts are not localized.
We need to realize that our impacts are global, no matter how we like to think.
Lastly, we must understand what our impacts are. Can we start to realize what our footprint is? Many of us don’t know. And that’s part of the problem. If somebody is idling their car for hours, a lot of times they just don’t know, they just aren’t connecting the dots. Not because they hate the planet, they just aren’t fully aware. That’s where education, on this front, is critical. We need to find more climate ambassadors in the next generation on all fronts. Then there’s a level of apathy in the generation that created many of the problems. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, I have older parents that are just trying to ride out the runway as easily as they can. I understand. It’s hard to change at a certain point. Having some compassion and understanding of that, too, is important. We have enough angst and toxicity and us versus them already. The generation before us, my parents’ generation, they weren’t doing this because they hated the planet. They thought they were doing what was right. We’ve seen that with us over and over as humans.
I like that you mentioned compassion, that seems to be a big aspect of your work as a storyteller. What is your process of telling people’s stories? What do you see as your responsibility in telling the stories of both people and places?
I think my responsibility is first and foremost to be human first and then be a storyteller second. I can still do that and be fair. I believe it’s important to try to be fair and show compassion for opposing views. How we connect people is the trick to that; lead with compassion and be aware that none of us have all the answers. That’s always been my goal, and as a photographer and filmmaker, don’t stuff cameras in people’s faces. Get to know them first, build some trust. And then, how I tell stories.....
When I started out, I was a young Colorado kid that loved the mountains, adrenaline rushes, and the outdoors. Adventure was my call sign, and then I saw everything changing in front of me. So the stories weren’t so much about the summit of the mountain, it was what was happening downstream and how it’s changed in my lifetime, which I find amazing.
Lead with compassion and be aware that none of us have all the answers.
The Colorado River, which we’re all drinking while we’re here [in Denver], doesn’t reach the ocean anymore. That happened in my lifetime. My nieces and nephew will never know that I was the last person to paddle that river to the sea, which I don’t say to brag, I say that sadly. How can I tell a story that has a level of humanity, and awareness around the environment? A component that shows, not tells—not to preach, but say, "This is what I learned. This is what I saw, and it was surprising." We have plenty of finger pointing going on, and there’s a place for that, but that’s not what I do anymore. I would love to try to do stories that make people aware of our limited resources. I say "our shared world," because we are sharing all these things—air, water, other resources—and we forget that. I often try to somehow remind us of humility, too. I think it’s becoming an endangered species at certain level, and I’d like to remind people that humility is actually pretty refreshing.
Your work does a beautiful job of bringing the world to people. You mentioned earlier that people increasingly want to see the world for themselves, which obviously has an environmental impact. In international education, we are grappling with the environmental impact and carbon footprint of the work that we do. From your perspective, how we can provide experiences in a sustainable way, whether it’s spending time at the Grand Canyon or an American student studying abroad? Where can we go from here?
I think there’s a way to do it. [One part is] that we need to get away from the "I’m going go live in nine different countries this year on my year abroad," and instead say, "I’m going to pick one place to simplify." Then, when you’re there, go experience sections of it on foot or on a bicycle—a non-motorized, non-mechanical way. I’ve done a whole project on silence. Seek some silence around the world, and wherever you may go, you can try to offset your flight. That’s the biggest chunk of the carbon game. That’s the hardest one, but offset [the flight] and hopefully find a good organization’s planting trees to do [offset it]. Plant your own trees, if you can and have space.
And then as a whole, I’m a big believer that policy levers have the biggest [environmental impact]. We need those. So be an active voice around policy. We need climate leaders—not just in the street protesting, we need them in government. Use your power to vote. I’ve been a politician. I’ve done it because I felt a duty to, and it’s hard. But I learned that democracy is about those who show up. So there’s that side of it. But then the other citizenry side of it, at the local level, …everything you do to reduce your impact [matters]. Try not to get in a car for a day. Seems simple. Try to ride a bike for one day. Try not to eat meat one day a week, two days a week, three days a week, if you’re not vegetarian. And don’t make those who eat more than you feel guilty, just try to lessen your footprint however you can. There are ways to do it, and it starts with simplifying and slowing down.
Don’t forget that there are plenty of adventures and immense experiences in our own backyard.
One other thing I’ve grown into is: don’t think that some place on the other side of the world with a completely different language and dress code or whatever is where the grass is greener. There are amazing places in our own backyards. I didn’t go to the Grand Canyon until I was a young adult, and I’ve spent the better part of my life documenting our national parks in the United States. They are truly remarkable—they’re world parks. Don’t forget that there are plenty of adventures and immense experiences in our own backyard. The Native American culture in the United States is far more profound and mind-altering, to a degree, than I’ve experienced going to the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a completely different perception of the world and spirituality [based on] where they come from, how they live, and what they value.
You recently made a documentary about the power and fragility of natural sounds and quiet. In the last few years, the pandemic forced us to all slow down and be more silent than most of us had ever been. What do we have to learn from the silence?
The world has become increasingly noisy on all fronts—mechanical noise, but also the things in our pockets buzzing all the time. Our attention is getting totally fractured. They’ve found that silence is defined by a void of mechanical sound. Natural sounds: birds, wind, rustling leaves and water—I’m including those in the greater silence. That is very therapeutic to us on many levels. It helps with sleep problems, with heart stress, even cases of dementia. So scientifically it’s actually proven that it’s a real health thing. Meditation has been around for thousands of years and proven to be very effective for our health. It also helps us to connect back to the natural world, makes us more aware, makes us more curious, and slows us down, which is also good for us.
And if we’re going to attack this climate crisis, then we have to start hugging the planet again and slowing down and connecting with it. Water doesn’t come from the tap and food doesn’t come from the grocery store. Wildlife are not just backdrops. We’re all part of this jigsaw puzzle, and silence is the blanket that lays over all of it. It has for millions of years. Just in the last 150 years, we have turned it into a rock concert. The pandemic and the lockdown reminded us of this, that there is this other world that we collectively, psychologically, deep down, have a connection to. It may be very dusty and rusty, but we do need to just be quiet at times and listen.
There’s a whole world out there of magical sounds that we have arrogantly forgotten about or ignored. It’d be one powerful tool for us to deploy to remind us how to connect—it’s a starting point.
That’s us, and then there’s all the wildlife around the planet that’s struggling on so many fronts. They all communicate in ways, many of them through sound waves that we can’t hear. And we totally disrupted that. Humpback whales used to communicate from the California coast to the Japanese coast, 10,000 miles. They can do what seems a radio signal, different frequencies travel different distances at different depths. It’s so sophisticated and amazing, it just blows my mind. And we’ve just totally dropped that out because we don’t know. During lockdown, actually, all the scientists were saying, wow, we’re seeing some amazing behavior by whales. They’re leaving their young on the shore and they’re going out fishing alone. We’ve never seen them do that. That’s because they could communicate because there was no boat traffic. Elephants communicate eight miles away through a rumble felt through the souls and pads of their feet, and through their trunks. We can’t hear it, but you put roads everywhere and you’ve broken up that corridor.
There’s a whole world out there of magical sounds that we have arrogantly forgotten about or ignored. It’d be one powerful tool for us to deploy to remind us how to connect—it’s a starting point. At the Grand Canyon, one of the greatest things I’ve learned from that experience wasn’t the visual, it was the auditory. I was just blown away by that. When you go into that place in a machine, you’ve already ignored one of its greatest assets from the outset. You’re missing the point. I think we should start treating some of these last remaining wild places like our outdoor cathedrals. You wouldn’t bring your boombox into the Sistine Chapel. So why can’t we translate that experience to some of these outdoor places? •
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