New Year’s always puts me in a whimsical travel mood. Perhaps it’s a feeble hope that the next year will hold surprising insights or developments in the areas of travel, science, existence, or all of the above. Previously, I’ve written about the possibility of alternate universes and what exciting ideas they could hold for glossy travel mags, and whether we could travel in space without ruining what we discover, unlike what we’ve done with most of planet Earth.

This year, it’s hard to think of travel in outer space when movies such as The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling book of the same name) and 2012 (based on a wildly misunderstood aspect of the ancient Mayan calendar) blithely predict the end of life on our world, or at least life as we know it.

The popularity of these pessimistic possible futures puts me in mind of a friend of my parents’, who used to come over for Russian lessons from my mother and stayed to argue with me (then 16 years old) and my sister (then 11) about environmentalism. His take, which he always stated with almost cruel glee, was that the we were messing with Nature in such a way that humankind might not survive, but Nature herself would, so why bother trying to stop it? So the human race would die out, big deal.

That sort of attitude is awfully hard to argue with. After all, he’s right: if the human race keels over and dies, big deal. One could sputter arguments about there being no point to existence without the human mind to make reason of it (although that makes 300 million years or so of dinosaur life a little hard to explain), but that’s a pretty weak defense.

Unfortunately, it’s that same sort of outlook — watered down and softened — that chips away at funding and education for arts, including literature. In essence, we need literature to make some sense of our existence for one another; it can be argued, and has, that “basic” ideas such as human rights require an active imagination to keep alive. However, it’s very hard to prove that literature is necessary, and much easier to prove that, say, chemistry, which is both more tangible and more expensive, is.

If we’re to avoid the future envisioned in The Road, however, I do believe that literature, and travel literature in particular, is essential. (Avoiding the future envisioned in 2012 requires only a modicum of common sense — a commodity, like good travel writing, always unfortunately in short supply.)

The more connections we make between peoples and cultures, the more attempts we make to understand one another — our problems, our loves, our fears, our strengths — the better chance we have of creating a planet that truly sustains life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone. (And then what, you ask? Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. Not much chance of running out of trees and infants to save any time soon.)

It might be a stretch to say traveling or travel writing could save the planet (or, in glossy mag editorial parlance: “Save the Planet Today! Read a Travel Narrative!”), but what better or easier way to further strengthen our common human bonds?

So for 2010, I will for once cease longing to see the planet from space, and will instead hope that we will all see the planet at ground level, standing on our own two feet, from someone else’s point of view.