It’s not often you see a grown man riding a bicycle through the lobby of a five-star hotel in Dubai. But Robert Swan OBE, motivational speaker, champion environmentalist and the first man to have walked to both Poles, believes in making an eco statement when and wherever he can.
Determined to leave as small a carbon footprint as possible, the 56-year-old Briton uses pedal power or travels the world on his 20-metre yacht, which he christened 2041 in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Protocol on Environmental Protection that bans oil exploration, drilling or development on the last great wilderness on earth, Antarctica.
“I believe in talking the talk and walking the walk,” says Robert, whose yacht is powered entirely by wind and sun and has a sail made of recycled PET bottles.
As well as being the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles, he has conducted several missions cleaning up the rubbish there left by explorers and decades of scientific research. The problem is immense – it took a team of 35 youngsters, led by Robert, eight years of working throughout the summers to clear 1,500 tonnes of waste on King George Island. A former Russian scientific base, old equipment, abandoned huts, metal scraps and barrels of liquid waste were removed, which allowed native penguins to reclaim their beach for the first time in 47 years.
Friday caught up with Robert in Dubai when he came to address students and industry leaders on the importance of protecting and preserving the earth.
“The time to act is now,” he says. “My aim is to inspire the next generation of leaders – the youth – to adopt sustainable, renewable energy practices and initiate action now with regards to climate change so Antarctica is never exploited for its resources.
“My dream is that we leave Antarctica alone and eventually run the world on renewable energy. If we do that by 2041, when the Protocol expires, there will be no financial incentive to explore Antarctica. It is the last known wilderness on Earth and we have to protect it. I know industry is what powers our planet – it supplies water, electricity and the things we consume. So it’s important to include industry leaders in the plans to save the earth.”
He wants university students, corporate executives and government officials to see and analyse first-hand the harm being done to the Earth, particularly at the Poles. That’s why he leads students and business leaders on month-long separate trips to the Poles regularly so they can see the effects of global warming and environmental degradation and work on ways of reducing the impact on the ecology.
In 2011, he led Dana Al Hammadi to Antarctica, making her the first Emirati woman to set foot at the South Pole. This year he will be taking at least three UAE nationals on a trip there so they can learn about the dangers of global warming and the effects of pollution. He is working with students at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Madinat Zayed, Abu Dhabi.
Robert’s whistle-stop tour of Dubai wasn’t his only recent visit. Early last year he stopped off during the last leg of his Voyage for Cleaner Energy mission, which began on April 8, 2008, in San Francisco, California, and culminated at the World Summit for Sustainable Development that was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012. “I’m sailing – in 2041 – around the world to increase awareness of environmental issues related to climate change and hopefully to inspire young people to lead the way in implementing practical, viable solutions,’’ he said at the time.
Eco passion and a love of adventure Robert’s eco passion goes hand in hand with his love of adventure, which he credits to British explorer Robert Falcon Scott. “When I was around 11, I remember watching the movie Scott of the Antarctic, which chronicled the life of the great explorer who led the doomed Discovery expedition to the South Pole in 1901 and the Terra Nova expedition there in 1910.
“Captain Scott’s film completely pulled me in. His story inspired me to have a dream and work to fulfil it.’’
Determined to first get to know more about the conditions of the North and South Poles, after earning a degree in ancient history from Durham University, Robert began planning an eco-friendly trip to the Antarctic in 1979.
Five years later, on November 3, 1984, after gathering over 1,000 sponsors to raise the $5million required for the expedition, he bought a ship – Southern Quest – and with a team of 25 volunteers set sail on 15,725-kilometre trip to Antarctica from London.
Three months later, the team arrived at base camp during the Antarctic winter, and stayed until the following November acclimatising themselves for the trip. Winter over, Robert, then aged 28, along with two members of his team – Roger Mear and Gareth Wood – set off on their ‘In the Footsteps of Scott’ expedition, walking the 1,448 kilometres to the geographic South Pole – the southernmost point on earth – each dragging 150kg sleds filled with supplies.
Robert decided to walk to the Pole without the aid of any radio communication system or back-up support. “It was a gruelling trip and it was only the determination to stay alive which kept me going,’’ he says.
On January 11, 1986, after 70 days of travel, Robert’s team stood at the geographic South Pole. They had completed the longest unsupported Antarctic expedition in history.
But the mission was not without hiccups. After they reached the South Pole they learned – from another exploration team that arrived after them – that their ship Southern Quest was crushed by pack ice and had sunk, leaving Robert $2million in debt.
That was not all. “I also lost 33kg of my body weight during the mission. But more than that, something happened to me – my life changed forever. During the walk, intense ultra-violet rays led to blisters inside my eyes and the colour of my eyes changed from dark to light blue forever. The skin on my face got burned off and later I realised it was because I had walked under the hole in the ozone layer which is over the South Pole. In those days, things such as the ozone layer and the effect of ultraviolet rays on the human body were just beginning to be known. But for me it was a first-hand experience of global warming.”
Despite this, Robert returned to Antarctica the next year. “We did a lot of work, creating educational films and clearing trash from the Arctic ice,” he says. “There again we encountered first-hand the fallout of global warming when we found that huge sheets of ice were melting, making it almost impossible for us to navigate. Around seven of us nearly drowned during that mission. That was when I thought of the damage we were doing to earth and what we could do to stop that.’’
That led to him setting up 2041 – an organisation aimed at and committed to protecting and preserving Antarctica. “2041 is actively promoting recycling, the use of renewable energies and sustainability to combat the effects of climate change.’’
Three years after first reaching the South Pole, Robert was ready with a team of eight to walk to the North Pole in a bid to draw attention to the environmental crisis confronting both the polar and world ecologies. On May 14, 1989, he and his team reached the geographic North Pole and he became the first person in history to walk to both Poles.
On a global environmental mission To engage and inspire the world’s youth, the expedition had also picked 22 young people from 15 countries who they stationed at base camp in Eureka on Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic. Here, they produced a series of educational films and facilitated the process of waste removal from the Arctic wilderness.
In 1992, Robert attended the World Summit on Sustainability at Rio de Janeiro as the keynote speaker addressing world leaders and environmentalists, where he agreed to undertake a ten-year global environmental mission to educate the industry and the people on sustainability. He recalls, “It was Jacques-Yves Cousteau, explorer, filmmaker, author and an environmental leader, who asked me to undertake the mission to save Antarctica.”
It was in support of this mission that he and a team helped remove 1,500 tonnes of trash from the Russian base in Antarctica in 1993.
At the next World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, he committed to a ten-year extension of his mission, this time including plans to promote renewable energy, recycling and sustainability to combat the effects of climate change.
“I kicked off the next ten years with the Inspire Antarctic expedition in 2003 taking an international team of corporate leaders, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, teachers and young people on a journey through the Antarctic Peninsula to focus on leadership training, environmental clean-up and education initiatives. There I discovered an old abandoned ship at the base station in Antarctica and decided to set up the first renewable energy educational E-base station. I and a small team lived for two weeks on renewable energy entirely so I could tell the world that if I can do this in Antarctica, why can’t we run the world on renewable energy?”
E-Base serves as a resource for teachers and is an inspiration to young people around the world. From here, Swan and his team broadcast to schools and universities demonstrating clean technology and energy saving techniques such as using a bicycle powered generator to produce power for lights and for heating.
Robert has a few ideas on bringing about change in society’s attitude to the environment. “I think women possess the power to change everything on this earth. Their health, their empowerment can make a great difference to sustainable ecology.”
Robert offsets his own travel around the world by planting trees in Mexico. He has set up another education E-base in a school near the Pench Tiger Reserve in Nagpur, India, that is run entirely on renewable energy and is in discussions with local authorities on setting up a similar E-base in the UAE.
“I want to engage and educate the youth here in the Middle East and want to work towards saving water, planting more trees, improving children’s sensitivity to earth... I think people can do all kinds of things for conservation.”