Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 11 November 2012
Seeing the bigger picture can radically change one’s outlook and attitudes. Astronauts and polar explorers witness the biggest picture possible in physical experience terms – and many return transformed.
Last weekend, I listened to one of them: Sir Robert Swan, the first person in history to walk to both the North and South poles. He first trekked to the South Pole as an adventurer — and came back as an activist.
Swan, now 56, has since dedicated his life to the preservation of Antarctica in its pristine condition. He also promotes waste recycling, renewable energy and corporate sustainability to combat the effects of climate change.
He didn’t set out with any lofty agenda. As he admits, “I did it because it went down well with girls at parties!”
Once there, however, he realized the threats that we pose to our own survival. Our collective signature is writ large on the ice and in the sky.
As he walked 1,400 km across the icy continent to the South Pole in 1985-86, his eye colour changed permanently, his face developed blisters and the flesh peeled off. Curiously, this had not happened to earlier polar explorers like Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen or Robert Falcon Scott – Swan’s personal hero whose footsteps he was tracing.
So what was new? The ozone hole. Its existence had been discovered by three scientists working with the British Antarctic Survey only a few months earlier. The thinned ozone layer – destroyed by dozens of industrial and consumer chemicals in use for decades — was letting in more of the Sun’s harmful ultra violet rays.
Three years later, he walked across the Arctic ice to reach the North Pole in May 1989. His team nearly drowned as the ice was melting two months earlier than it should – due to global warming.
Leave only footsteps
Atmospheric environmental problems were not the only ones Swan encountered. In both polar regions, he came across large piles of debris, fuel and other waste left behind by various expeditions. Thanks to a far-sighted mentor, he avoided adding to this dubious legacy.When Swan was struggling to raise money for his first expedition, Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910 – 1997), the noted scientist, explorer, filmmaker and conservationist, came to his help. The iconic Frenchman had helped raise money, but also imposed a condition: “He made me promise that we will clean up all our waste and equipment – and leave only footsteps.”
Easier said than done when tons of stuff was involved. It took Swan years of effort and a good deal of money, but he finally kept his promise.
In fact, he has made a habit of it. After addressing world leaders at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, he launched a project where global thinking inspired local level action. He assembled a team of 35 young people from 25 nations who chose for themselves a formidable mission: to remove and recycle 1,500 tons of waste left behind by Russian scientists at Antarctica’s Bellinghausen station.
The team worked for eight years to raise the money, plan and carry out the mission. After the waste was finally cleared, the native penguins reclaimed their beach for the first time in 47 years…
One thing led to another. Shortly afterwards, Swan found a small, abandoned scientific station on King George Island. That gave him an idea to set up the world’s first educational base (E-Base) in Antarctica.
His company, named 2041 (www.2041.com), and its non-profit arm, operate E-Base since 2008. It is a resource for teachers and an inspiration to young people around the world.
That is tied up with the Antarctic Treaty, signed by 12 countries in 1959 and in force since 1962. This international law, adopted during the height of the Cold War, designated Antarctica as a continent for peace and science. It isn’t owned by any particular country. In that sense, Antarctica is the only landmass that may be regarded as part of the global commons – or shared natural resources (other examples: the atmosphere and international seas).
The Treaty, now joined by 50 countries, is a highly successful international agreement. Over the years, it has nurtured much scientific cooperation, including the free of exchange of researchers and scientific data. For details, see official website at: www.ats.aq
The Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection has designated the entire landmass as “a natural reserve”. Thus, all activities are subject to environmental impact assessments, protection of fauna and flora, waste management and other regulations. Working on mineral resources, except for scientific research, is forbidden.
The Protocol comes up for review and renegotiation in 2041, 50 years after its adoption. Activists fear that certain countries hungry for mineral resources might try to have its provisions relaxed.
“We want to ensure that the Antarctic Treaty protection continues, so that the last great wilderness on earth is never exploited,” says Swan.
He reminds everyone that Antarctica is a shared area that humanity owns collectively. And it’s larger than many of us realize.
Because two dimensional maps are limited in how they can project landmasses of our globe, we don’t get a sense of Antarctica’s true extent. At 14 million square km, 98% of which is covered by ice, it’s actually twice the size of Australia.
It abounds with superlatives – such as the coldest, driest and windiest continent. And because it receives only an average 200 mm of rain per year, it is considered a (cold) desert!
Paradoxically, Antarctica contains 90% of the world’s total ice and around 70% of its freshwater supplies. As Swan puts it: “It isn’t a very good idea to have all that ice melting!”
A Giant Classroom!
Swan has made many trips to Antarctica since that trail blazing first journey over 25 years ago. He now takes youth and corporate groups there on short visits for experiential learning, team work and leadership training.
“Going to the Antarctica is a life changing experience,” he told his Colombo audience last week. “I want more young people to experience it, and be transformed about what is happening to our environment, and what we can do about it.”
The rest of the time he travels the world talking to diverse audiences from heads of state and corporate leaders to school teachers and grassroots activists.
Part of that mission is accomplished through the ‘Voyage for Cleaner Energy’ where Swan and team sail around on a 67-foot steel-frame pleasure craft named ‘2041’. The voyage seeks to raise awareness about environmental issues linked to climate change and inspire young people to find and implement practical solutions.
So far, ‘2041’ has covered more than 130,000 nautical miles, circumnavigating Africa and sailing to Antarctica, Rio de Janeiro, England, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, USA and the Middle East.
All this might seem frenzied to a casual observer, but Swan assures there is a vision and method to everything they do. He isn’t a typical doom-and-gloom-mongering or finger-pointing environmental activist.
Despite having witnessed clear signs of our planet under pressure than most people, he remains cautiously optimistic. He believes that engaging political and business leaders is crucial for changing humanity’s myopic and profligate ways.
When confronted with stark reality, even typically slow governments react swiftly in their enlightened self interest. He cites the Montreal Protocol to save the Ozone Layer, adopted in 1987, only two years after the ozone hole was found. The treaty has now turned things around, and the ozone layer is slowly healing.
As he sees it: “Our planet can look after itself – it has done so for billions of years. It’s ourselves and our participation in the environment that we need to look after.”
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