Continuing his tour of American academic institutions with “2041: Voyage for Cleaner Energy” – a round-the-world trip on an environmentally friendly sailboat – the now-famous polar explorer and environmental PR expert Robert Swan spoke before a group of students and community members on Wednesday evening at UCSB. Swan, who has spent his life embarking upon missions in the Antarctic and the Arctic to raise awareness about global warming and environmental problems, emphasized the importance of reaching out to college and university students – whom he looks to as future world leaders. “Young people here, you are the last great hope on Earth!” he said. His career has taken him on amazing expeditions around the world, and given him the opportunity to participate in several of the United Nations’ global climate change conferences, notably the first one-the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Swan began his polar exploration career in the early 1980s, while living in a UK warehouse to raise money for his first Antarctic expedition. It took seven years, but eventually he had raised the $5 million necessary for an Antarctic expedition, and been able to partner with Jaques Cousteau, which he said lent legitimacy to the project. Purchasing an old boat he then named Southern Quest, Swan and a team of four were dropped off by Southern Quest to be picked up a year later, after completing their mission to the South Pole. The team lived in a hut for nine and a half months, waiting for spring, preparing for their journey, and, as Swan put it, getting to know each other very well. “Perhaps the best way of holding a team together is to laugh,” he said. Having had to endure four plus months of complete darkness while living in close quarters together, it is easy to see why this was so important for the team.
Once the weather was warm enough to venture outside for long periods of time, Swan’s team literally followed in the footsteps of the legendary doomed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, using nothing but sun sextants and chronometers to navigate the 900 miles over land to reach the South Pole. As they had brought enough food and fuel for 80 days, they had to walk nine hours per day, seven days per week, for 70 days – averaging only 12 miles per day – to reach the pole station. “If we ran out of food and fuel, we’d be dead in five days,” said Swan. Despite the fact that they carried no communications equipment and traveled over some treacherous terrain, they reached their destination. “Seventy percent of the world’s fresh water supply is there, and we were standing on it. It’s probably not a good idea to melt it.”
Meanwhile, Southern Quest had just landed a team which then assembled an airplane with which to retrieve the team. Unfortunately, the relatively smoothly functioning expedition began to experience a few wrinkles at this point. “We’d spoken to no one for an entire year, and the first words we heard were, ‘Sorry lads, your ship sank five minutes ago,'” said Swan. Since he’d promised Cousteau that he would leave nothing behind but his footsteps, Swan spent the next year and considerable expense ensuring that the wreckage was cleared out, noting that since he’d made the promise, he intended to keep it at any cost. “At the end of the day, all we have is our credibility,” he said, bringing his topic home to students seated in the darkened UCSB auditorium. “At age 29, I was $1.2 million in debt – which took ten years to pay off – but I’d done what I said I was going to do.”
This was in 1986, when the world first became aware of a huge hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. Having been isolated from any source of news for a year, the only way Swan and his team knew about it was by the fact that their skin and eyes had been so badly damaged during the trek. Swan hadn’t remembered hearing of Antarctic explorers experiencing this is years past, but noticed that his eyes had changed color. Cousteau asked him to spend the next 50 years educating young people about the huge problems of global climate change and environmental degradation. Since that time, Swan has led an expedition to the North Pole in the Arctic – becoming the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles – in addition to other trips to the Antarctic and around the world. His Arctic expedition, coming only two years after the grueling trek to the South Pole, was even more harrowing, as the onset of global warming caused the Polar ice to begin melting prematurely. Faced with being stranded upon a floating chuck of ice hundreds of miles from the nearest land, and in one of the harshest climates in the world, Swan pushed his team to hike 40 hours per day for seven days straight in order to make it to the Pole for pickup. How is this possible, you might ask? Polar summers see 24 hours of daylight and 48-hour-long days, and this group of people was hard pressed not to die.
What began as a daunting fundraising effort and a small, five-man expedition eventually mushroomed into gargantuan cleanup projects in Antarctica to remove all of the scrap left by decades of explorers, and educational programs to inspire young people to become leaders in sustainability and environmental stewardship. One project to remove 1,500 tons of scrap metal left at an abandoned Russian station took eight years and cost $6 million. “We had a partnership with the Russian government, and that mean Rob Swan pays for everything,” said Swan. What came out of it though, was international attention, and eventual cooperation of governments to commit to cleanups and examination of renewable energy options. The first Earth Summit in Rio led to the rise of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.
Principle amongst Swan’s attributes is his ability to get people to listen, which many leaders have found to be a daunting task. Although his methods of achievement may seem primitive by today’s standards, they bring to the foreground a very basic humanity that many people in the modern age seem to have lost touch with. By exposing human strengths and frailties, Swan has been able to reach a wider audience than otherwise possible, and has, as he says, given himself “credibility.” “We’re so useless at sustainable inspiration,” he said. By taking his unique sailing vessel – which has sails made from recycled plastic bottles and runs on bio diesel when not under sail – to the U.S., Europe, Russia, India, and China, Swan hopes to bring attention to today’s crucial environmental problems while inspiring young people to become leaders in this crusade along the way.
The 2041 is set to embark upon a voyage through the Panama Canal – which currently has a huge backup due to water shortages-this week, continuing the tour at East Coast colleges and universities. Swan is actively recruiting students for Antarctic expeditions.