Travel: Human’s Ultimate Escape Mechanism

Kristin Leitzel

From the time of hunter-gatherer societies, humans have traveled for one reason: they have reached the limitations of their surrounding environment and are forced to seek resources elsewhere. With the development of trade, humans traveled to bring back resources that were never available in their home environment, which could be called a scarcity of luxury goods. These luxury goods became a cultural need as signs of social status, and thus became the scarcest resource and strongest motivator for continued travel. Humans have used travel as a method of escaping from the consequences of the burden they place on their environment by extracting resources unsustainably; when the trees ten miles away are gone, humans could simply move another ten miles and cut the trees there. As the distance traveled to bring in these resources increased, man’s ability to travel had to evolve to traverse new geographical barriers. Thus, travel became man’s ultimate mechanism to escape the consequences of his consumption-driven society.

Resource-motivated travel is not a characteristic of settled, agrarian societies. Humans, like any other mobile animal, have always traveled to find resources. The nomadic life-style of the hunter-gatherers revolved around seasonal changes and the fluctuation of available resources. Small tribes followed herds of animals to ensure a source of food and returned to certain areas annually to harvest certain plants. In A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting groups would leave certain areas and only return to them after enough time to allow the resources to regenerate. Travel was a necessary for the hunter-gatherers because pre-agricultural societies did not have any other way to guarantee access to food. Unlike other migratory animals, however, humans do not instinctively travel in response to seasonal changes; as soon as it is possible for humans to stay in one place, permanent residence is established. One of the few settled societies to develop before the invention of agriculture was established on the north-west Pacific coast, where access to the shore, and therefore animals like sea otters and salmon, provided an abundant source of food (Ponting).

Agriculture allowed human populations to settle in fertile areas and build increasingly advanced cities and cultures. Settled life had new resource demands like stone, wood, and metals. The permanence also allowed people to accumulate objects, which was not compatible with the previous life of transience. The surplus food produced by agriculture also allowed some members of society the leisure needed to create more objects, some practical and some unnecessary. As population increased, and with it, the demand for more homes and tools, while as the accumulation of wealth (however measured) led to an increased demand for luxury goods, the settled populations consumed all of the available resources and had to search farther abroad to find the materials they needed to support their new way of life. In his chapter about Greece, Colin Chant attributes the inclusion of the Aegean region in economic specialization and trade to the need for raw materials being felt by primary centers like Egypt, Sumer, and the Indus Valley. Through this exchange, cities began to develop in the Aegean region and civilization traveled throughout the Mediterranean.

Perhaps one of the greatest motivators for travel was, and still is, trade. Contact with distant civilizations exposed people to new materials, products, and customs. The first ship to bring Asian spices home to Europe introduced a new need that the people had done without prior to their exposure. These trade goods became the scarcest resources of all because they could not be produced domestically and could only be had through frequent travel. The variation in available resources across geographic areas, due to the inexhaustible diversity of the environment, inspired men to venture further from home in search of new trade partners and better routes. Such journeying led to the ‘discovery’ and colonization of several new lands, including the New World. As Cippola writes in Guns, Sails, and Empires, “European expansion was essentially a commercial venture, and the fact that the colonial policies of the European powers had a very pronounced mercantile tone was the natural consequence of the basic motives behind that expansion.” Trade as a motivation for expansion and luxury as the motivation for trade is less the solution to resource scarcity at home than previous forms of travel, but trade is the natural outcome of a society that has gained technology that increases mobility. This technology certainly would not have come into existence without the pressure of a resource scarcity in the region of the civilization.

Modern man faces a new challenge; having exhausted all unknown lands, man can no longer use travel as a way to escape the consequences of his over consumption of resources. In the face of diminishing raw materials, man has turned to science and technology to stretch what remains as far into the future as possible. As long as humans continue to hold what Timothy Weistkel, author of Survival on a Small Planet, calls a fundamental belief in continuous expansion and scientific solutions, which motivates our exploration of everything from outer space to our own DNA, we are simply postponing the inevitable depletion of our natural resources. If we fail to alter our current belief system and adopt one that reflects the finite nature of the globe, either human society will collapse on a planet-wide Easter Island or we will once again turn to travel as an escape, this time into outer space. Our current path suggests that governments should begin to focus heavily on their space programs.


Audio recording of Timothy Weiskel, "Survival on a Small Planet," speaking at the Cambridge Forum lecture series on May 15, 1991.

Chant, Colin, "Chapter 2: Greece" in "Pre-industrial Cities and Technology," Routledge Press, 1999, pp. 48-80.

Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilog from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700" Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 132-148.

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991.

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