Mountainfilm 2010: World Traveler Josh Bernstein

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Prayer flags , worn by the wind, strung between trees just outside of Patagonia, Arizona
Prayer flags , worn by the wind, strung between trees just outside of Patagonia, Arizona (© Jay Graham /
Over the coming months, Outside will be posting interviews with adventurers, environmentalists, filmmakers, and others conducted by Mountainfilm. Many of the icons appearing at this year's festival have been featured in the pages of Outside. For more information on this year's festival, which begins on May 28, please check out Mountainfilm's Web Site.

Having traveled more than 500,000 miles by train, plane, bus, bike and camel to over 50 countries, Josh Bernstein is certainly a modern day explorer in the purest sense of the word. He has taken a passion for travel, wilderness and photography and turned it into a full-time living, working as a television host on shows for both the History Channel and the Discovery Network and serving as the president and CEO of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School.

A fellow of The Explorers Club and The Royal Geographic Society, Bernstein has covered land from the Amazon to Ethiopia, and investigated cultures with an anthropologist’s and humanitarian’s eye. His work around the world has emphasized the need to protect endangered spaces and cultures, and Bernstein works closely with the Global Heritage Fund, educating local communities to appreciate their cultural heritage and do all that they can to preserve it.

What first inspired you to be an explorer and to pursue a career in exploration and discovery?

My heroes have always been explorers. Men like Sir Ernest Shackleton, Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Roy Chapman Andrews — men who understood what it was like to travel beyond the fringes of the known world and attempt to discover something new. Much of my career has been in wilderness education (at BOSS, my survival school), where I’ve guided others to explore unknown terrains, physical and psychological. My decision to do exploration-oriented shows for History and Discovery was just an extension of that, giving me a much bigger classroom and a much larger class of students. And, honestly, how could I say no?

Your extensive world travel and immersion in foreign cultures and environments bring you face-to-face with the perils facing us and our world. How do you stay motivated and optimistic?

I happen to love traveling. All of it — the packing, the flying, customs, the hotels, the people, the food — all of it’s interesting to me. I also get a lot of joy from working with experts in various fields, whether its classical archaeology, space exploration or wreck diving. I just love to learn. Seeing the devastation and the imbalances that we’ve created on this planet is certainly disheartening, but it’s also a fact of our current condition. As a survival instructor, my outlook is optimistic by training. “This isn’t ideal, but let’s focus on how we can make it better” is a necessary reaction to things. Today, we have no shortage of challenges facing us, but complaining doesn’t help much. Optimism, motivation and ultimately action will be critical for our success. As Paul Hawken pointed out, we now have an opportunity to rebuild all aspects of our society into a model that works. That’s exciting.

How do you think this year’s Mountainfilm theme of “extinction crisis” plays into a larger discussion about contemporary society and our future?

The extinction crisis is arguably the most important issue facing our planet, and I give Mountainfilm credit for giving the issue an appropriate forum for honest discussion. Our society unknowingly adopted a model of resource-intensive uses that wasn’t sustainable. Now, after several decades of escalating abuses, we’re seeing the impacts — on the land, the water, the air, the wildlife. We need to address this issue,  because ultimately it’s the only issue that matters.

What do you think the loss of biodiversity means for the world’s human population?

It’s not just an issue for humans. Life, after all, is an interconnected web of subtle relationships the scientists are still only just realizing. The loss of biodiversity weakens the integrity of the web, until at some point the entire system no longer functions. That’s what we obviously must avoid.

What, if anything, can the average citizen do to curb the current pace of species extinction or help mitigate the effects of it?

That’s what I want to know, too. I suppose attend the Mountainfilm Symposium and we’ll find out together. We have an impressive panel of experts coming who will be addressing this and other important questions.

How do you see media – be it film, photography, journalism, art, etc. – serving as a catalyst for positive change?

The size and nature of the change we need to effectively turn the tides of pollution, habitat destruction and extinction will need to come from a movement. Not a vague interest or a passing fad, but a full-on global movement. We must empower those who understand the direction we must go in. We must re-educate those resistant to necessary change. We must follow the lead of the institutions and governments that must act authoritatively and in concert. The only entity that has the ability to serve as a catalyst for this is the media. People are already able to send messages around the planet in seconds. The infrastructure for connecting and building consensus is there; we simply need to change the message from superficial interests like reality television upsets and celebrity surgeries to more important matters like the loss of biodiversity and the impact of escalating extinction rates.

What impact, if any, do you think showcase events such as the Mountainfilm festival can have on causes like environmentalism and social justice?

The largest wildfire can start with a single match. Who’s to say Mountainfilm won’t be the place where the wildfire of sweeping change is lit? And, of course, we all know what Margaret Mead said about committed citizens…

You are seen as an intrepid explorer and survival instructor – not a man with many fears. What fears do you have?

I’m pretty terrified of surfing killer waves.

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