Walking the talk: An interview with Robert Swan


Robert Swan

Robert Swan, the first person to have walked to both Poles, is the man behind 2041, an organisation which seeks to preserve the most desolate place on earth: Antarctica. His global expeditions and contribution to both education and the environment have been recognised worldwide earning him an appointment as UN Goodwill Ambassador for Youth, a Special Envoy to the director general of UNESCO and an Order of the British Empire.

Read BGreen’s exclusive interview with the adventurer about his views on the region, his missions and walking under the hole in the ozone layer.

BuildGreen: You’ve said that India and China have greater opportunity to change things than the old world. Do you think the same about the Middle East?
Robert: Yes, the story of my trip to Dubai is very indicative of that. Initially, I came here to fill up with petrol for my yacht on my way to India and China. I had been here before but I had not been here on my voyage for cleaner energy to place with the worst carbon foot print on the planet. This time, I looked around here and thought; this is interesting.  There’s a lot of vision here and there’s a lot of good leadership here because people can say we are doing this and it’s done. When you’re dealing with an issue that really does need attention, good leadership really counts. You can’t have 500 parliamentary debates and 65 executive meetings to discuss certain things. We need to get things done. Additionally, there are no people more sustainable than those who come from the desert. People from the desert have to respect their environment. They have to look out for it, care for it. They can’t destroy it. Therefore there’s something inside the leadership of this country that does respect nature. Maybe there is power to change here. Money and influence does make change.  So I thought I would hang out for a while and see what I can find. What I’m finding is what BuildGreen is doing and Zornitza* from Enviroserve and all these people who truly care. Now, I have a plan to work more with the UAE and I will make a voyage around the Middle East in September to inspire young people and business leaders to create a more sustainable future. *Zornitza Hadjitodorova from Dubai, division manager at Enviroserve, went on Robert Swan’s recent expedition to the Antarctic.


BuildGreen: You are sponsored by BP, Shell and other oil related companies. Some have said that is ironic. What do you have to say?
Robert: The future of our world all has to do with where the energy comes from. How we make energy, how we save it and how we blend our energy mix is the issue of our survival on earth. Sadly, renewable energies aren’t going to power us, especially in places like India and China.  So I work with these companies because our survival won’t continue from people saying don’t use oil. People will use oil. How we use it is the real question.  The whole world is asking what the future energy mix is going to be.  Solar and wind are fantastic. All those must move forward. But right now these alternatives are only 1 or 2 % of the energy mix. Therefore, 98% is coming in from the big oil companies. Rather than looking at oil companies and saying “you’re wrong”, it’s best to get in there and work with them.  Unless, you want to live in a cave, you have to be realistic. We need fuels. Additionally, technology is moving forward on the types of fuel we are using. The future will be about cleaner burning fuels. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that we work with these companies and inspire their employees and their future leaders to contribute to a better energy mix.


BuildGreen: So is the problem the degree to which these fuels are used?
Robert:For sure. Look at India and China’s population. When my mother was born the population of the planet was 1.8 billion and she’s still alive. It’s now 6.8 billion and 1.2 are in India and 1.2 are in China. We have to get real. And I’m sorry to say this but nuclear energy is going to have to be part of bridging this energy gap even after what’s happened in Japan.


BuildGreen: Aren’t the risks associated with nuclear energy too high?
Robert:The risks are too high to build a coal powered station every week in China. Go live in Shanghai for a week and then vomit every time you ride your bicycle. And when you come back to civilisation you’re blowing black gum from your nose. That’s the danger.


BuildGreen: Do you believe we can reduce energy consumption worlwide?
Robert:Well if you talk to people who lived through the Second World War there was a need to do it and they did. It used to be that you had to inspire people to change, to sacrifice a bit and to think about it. But now the costs are so high that it is starting to happen all the time. People are starting to think we should not waste energy. So it’s a balance between inspiring young people and showing it can save money.


BuildGreen: You’ve said that “the biggest threat to the planet is the belief that someone else will save it”.
Well, it’s true. Isn’t it? BuildGreen would not be doing what you do if you thought someone else will do it. People go through their whole lives thinking somebody else will sort things out. But leadership, at whatever level, decides that the problem is theirs and that they can do something about it. The problem is people get buried in a porridge of: “what can we do?” We need to give people something to do and they will do it.


BuildGreen: In your first expedition, after having spent a year in a tiny hut 3000 miles away from civilisation, battling through ice and snow for 70 days, pulling a 350 pound sled on your back, you reached your goal – the South Pole, only to learn your expedition rescue vessel had just sank three minutes before your arrival. In one instant you lost all your savings and perhaps your mission. What did you feel at that moment and what were the thoughts that helped you rise above everything?
When things go really wrong you should control what you can control. Standing there I was thinking; what can I control and what do I really mean? What I am I really? And I thought; as long as everyone is safe nothing else matters. I lost all my money but I’m young and healthy and I just walked to the South Pole. I’m still in the game and if I built it once, I can do it again.


BuildGreen: Tell us about the 2041 campaign that removed and recycled 1500 tons of garbage and military debris from Bellingshausen Station on King George Island. How did you achieve such an incredible feat?
It’s very helpful to readers to know that I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started. I went to see the world leaders in Rio at the first World Summit and I asked the young people there how they wanted to be inspired. They said; let’s clear all this rubbish. I did not want to do it because I knew it would take all I had to succeed. But I did it. It took 10 years and I had to raise $10 million and it was appallingly difficult. It was a mighty battle. But if you want to save Antarctica, you can’t just send an email. You have to do something that inspires people.


BuildGreen: In return for the cleanup, the Russians allowed 2041 to set up the very first e-camp made of 100% renewable resources on their base. It was the world’s first permanent education base in Antarctica and you lived there for two weeks, in the harshest climate on the planet, solely off of renewable energy. Tell us about that.
Robert: I spent all those years battling to remove that garbage, and on the day the beach was cleared I thought; I can’t save Antarctica by doing it this way, I have to change the game. I have to get more business minded because the only reason someone will come to Antarctica to destroy it, is to make money. So how could I make Antarctica less attractive?  The fact that it is far away and no one owns it makes it less attractive. But people can still do it. The only thing I could do was to ensure we were using enough renewable energy here and saving as much energy here so that it would not make financial sense to go to Antarctica. So I became a renewable energy champion and tester.
Testing something in Antarctica is really hard because sometimes there’s no sun, no wind and it’s very cold. It was a fantastic challenge to get it to work and then get online and send messages to school kids saying; I am here and it works. This project was about inspiring people and showing that renewable energy can indeed work.


BuildGreen: Tell us about the time you walked under the ozone layer’s hole?
Robert: At the time, I did not know there was a thing called the ozone layer around the planet. We didn’t know. More people had walked on the moon than on the poles so it was a bit uncharted territory. We were walking and it started slowly. Our faces and eyes started burning. We thought it was a bit odd but we also thought this is what it is like in Antarctica. When we returned with our faces and eyes all burnt, scientists saw us on TV and called us to explain that we had walked under the hole in the ozone layer. That’s when I realised; we had to do something about it.


BuildGreen: Most people don’t know that 2041 is actually a promise you made to French marine pioneer Jacques Cousteau. Tell us more.
Robert: Jacques Cousteau was an incredible explorer. He invented the Aqua Lung and the most famous of all boats; the Zodiac craft. In that time, he developed a passion for the ocean and he started to inspire people through these amazing documentaries on underwater life. He taught us that we’re not planet earth, we’re planet ocean.  Jacques inspired people to look after the ocean. He talked about balance of nature on a global scale. That is why I am proud to honour his name, because I if I am anything today; I am the Indiana Jones of the environment. It was him who gave me the 50 year mission to preserve Antarctica and I have 30 years left to go.


Originally published by BGreen on 10th May 2011.

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