Boulder, Colorado, might not seem like the obvious place to hold an ocean symposium, but that is precisely what the Colorado Ocean Coalition did, and it was a great success. It is a little known (and somewhat disputed) fact that, despite being completely landlocked and perched high above sea level, Colorado has the highest number of scuba divers per capita in the US. So maybe the fantastic turnout in Boulder for the Making Waves event was not so surprising after all.
For me, it was a great chance to catch up with old ocean-activist friends such as Her Royal Deepness Dr Sylvia Earle, cartoonist Jim Toomey, Marcus and Anna from 5Gyres, Dianna and Daniella from the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and David Helvarg from Blue Frontier Campaign. My panel was chaired by Gregg Treinish of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (I am on his board), and I was presenting alongside Alison Gannet, extreme skier, founder of Save Our Snow, and veteran of our team walk from Big Ben to Brussels in 2009.
I am always impressed by Alison. She truly walks the talk (or, in 2009, hobbled the talk, as we all succumbed to some form of decrepitude at some point in our 250-mile hike across the UK, Holland and Belgium). Since I had last seen her in Copenhagen at the COP15 climate change conference, she has bought a farm and now grows all of her own food. She can proudly claim not to have needed to buy groceries for the last 18 months. LAST 18 MONTHS! This is truly astonishing.
Although I have no doubt that it has been tremendously hard work, I can’t help being envious of her for knowing exactly where all her food has come from, and for being secure in the knowledge that it contains no pesticides, herbicides, GMOs or antibiotics. She described the sense of satisfaction she gets when she opens up her root cellar and surveys the supplies of food that will get them through the winter. Check out the Holy Terror Farm page on Facebook. And there is a great article about Alison here.
Alison’s talk focused on the practicalities of her 4-step programme for reducing your carbon footprint, aptly named CROP. It stands for Calculate, Reduce, Offset, and Produce your own energy. Not even having a home, let alone a working farm, my talk concentrated on finding the motivation to make a difference. I thought you might be interested to hear what I said – or, at least, what I intended to say – so I have reproduced the draft of my speech below. So even if you weren’t able to make it to Boulder this weekend, I hope you will at least feel the ripples from Making Waves. Enjoy!
“I used to believe that money could buy me happiness – or at least that money could buy me the big house and the fast car that would make me happy.
I used to believe that the people who had big adventures were a breed apart, and I could no more have a big adventure than I could fly to the moon.
And I used to believe that I was too small and insignificant to make a difference.
Then I had an epiphany. I was reading a book about the Hopi tribe of the southwestern States, and their belief that we have to look after the Earth if we want it to look after us, and this struck me with all the force of a fundamental truth. Wow, of course. How can humans be happy, and healthy, if we carry on polluting the air and the earth and the oceans? This is our only planet, and if we render it uninhabitable, we don’t have anywhere else to go.
I suddenly saw the world with new eyes. Every time I threw something away, I wondered where it would go, and how long it would last there. Every time I bought something, I wondered if I really needed to buy it new, or if I could have got hold of a used item more cheaply and less impactfully. And conversely, every time I rode my bicycle or walked somewhere instead of driving, I got a feeling of tremendous smugness that I had done a little bit to conserve our resources – not to mention burned a few extra calories.
And I felt the need to share. It really was a good feeling of congruence, and taking responsibility for my personal impact on the planet, and on our future. But I needed a way of getting people’s attention. It was around this time that I had what seemed like a very good idea. You know those moments? The kind of moment you look back on later, and wonder what the hell you were thinking? Well, this was one of those. Either the best, or the worst, idea that I ever had.
With the gung-ho enthusiasm of a person who truly does not understand what she is getting herself into, I announced that I was going to take up my oars and start rowing across oceans as an environmental campaigner. Bizarrely, it has kind of worked. It may seem strange that, rather than thinking that I am barking mad and anything I say should be taken with an oceanful of salt, people actually do come to hear me speak, and take notice. Well – here you are!
But even though you are here and listening, you might be wondering what gives an ocean rower the right to pontificate on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? It’s a good question, and one that I have thought about a lot. And I believe I do have some authority for my opinions.
There is nothing like twenty foot waves to remind you where human beings stand in the overall scheme of things. While we are on land, we might believe that we have Mother Nature nicely under control, but believe me, when I’m faced with huge waves or adverse winds, or even a silent but stealthy current, I know exactly who is boss.
There is nothing like star-filled nights, or 360-degree sunrises and sunsets, or feeling your boat being rocked by fast-moving schools of yellowfin tuna to remind you what an amazing world, and amazing oceans, we are blessed with.
Some of my onboard resources are renewable, such as electrical power from my solar panels. But others are finite. I have to take all my food with me, and make sure that I don’t use it all up before I reach the end of my voyage. My boat is my life support capsule. It has everything on board that I need to stay alive. I am one person on a tiny boat. But the principle is the same for the world at large. We are 7 billion people on one planet. Certain of our resources are finite. Fossil fuels for example. If we want our species to survive, we need to think carefully about how we use those resources, and not simply burn them up – literally.
And there is nothing like spending five months at sea in a 23-foot rowboat to give you the opportunity to think about what really matters in life, and how little we really need in order to be happy.
On the one hand we are just another animal – when I am at sea I am exceptionally aware of my need for food, water and shelter, just like any other creature. But at the same time, we have been blessed with free will, and the power to project into the future, and with that power comes responsibility. So what do we need to do?
Just do something. We might feel that anything we do as an individual is just a drop in the ocean, that we are too small to make a difference. But every action counts. It has taken me about 5 million oarstrokes to cover 15,000 miles of ocean. One oarstroke doesn’t get me very far, but you take several million of them, and you get across an ocean or three. It really does add up.
Our future is being defined by the decisions that we are making, each and every day. We need to think carefully about whether those decisions are taking us the way we want to go, or not. When I did that obituary exercise, I realized that the way I was living each day was not taking me in the right direction. If I carried on with business as usual I was not going to end up with the kind of future that I wanted. And I would suggest that collectively, if we carry on treating the oceans, and the Earth, as we do now, we are not going to end up with the kind of collective future that we want.
I would like to invite you, not just to make waves, but to spread ripples. There is a multiplier effect that spreads out from every action. Everything we think, say, or do has an impact on the world. To take a practical example – you are in the line at the supermarket checkout. As you reach the till and the shop assistant starts swiping your items, you pull out your reusable grocery bag with a flourish and start packing. You glance back at the checkout line and see an odd expression on the face of the person standing behind you. They are looking at your bag. As you pay up and move on, you see that they look a little embarrassed as they accept paper or plastic. And you know that next time they come to the supermarket, they are a little more likely to bring their own. You have made a difference. And one day, when enough of us get on board with the programme, we will make it as socially unacceptable to say yes to so-called “disposable” bags as it has become to use a racial epithet, or smoke in a public place. Cultural change is possible.
As well as believing in the power of the ripple effect, I am a real believer in tipping points. I have to be. I know that I am not going to be able to save the world. I might not even be able to persuade someone not to use “disposable” plastic bags.
There is a story that I came across recently in a book called “Synchronicity” by Joe Jaworski, founder of the American Leadership Forum. It refers more to Alison’s element than to mine, but the point it makes is universal:
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coal-mouse asked a wild dove.
“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.
”In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coal-mouse said.
“I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow – not heavily, not in a raging blizzard – no, just like in a dream, without a wound and without any violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch, nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.”
Having said that, the coal-mouse flew away.
The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come to the world.”