April 8, 2017:
“It’s a dangerous business… going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
It has been three weeks since I returned from Antarctica. In many ways, the expedition feels like a distant memory, a little too good to be true. In these moments, I have to close my eyes and recall the vivid imagery that is now embedded into my mind — the pristine sunset in the Lemaire Channel, the perfect arc of humpback whales plunging into the water, or the carefree antics of Gentoo penguins.
For the duration of the expedition, I occupied a different universe — one reminiscent of a simpler world in which humans are only a small part of the natural order. We were passive observers of creation and destruction as life hummed around us, preserving a delicate equilibrium in one of the harshest climates on Earth.
I didn’t quite know what to expect upon my return to civilization. Would I quickly revert back to my everyday norms? Or was there some sort of lasting impact that will pervade my behaviors and beliefs?
Reality is generally sobering, and my return has been no exception. I am writing this days removed from the new EPA’s roll back of the Clean Air Act and the administration’s continued pivot around complying with the Paris Climate Accord.
But the most uncomfortable feeling is associated with the atrocities committed in Syria earlier this week. The 70 individuals that were killed by neurotoxic gas point again to the broader effect our actions and interests have on each other. While the violence is appalling and incomprehensible, it is reminiscent of a greater theme — the catastrophic impact our disinterest can have on people in every corner of the world.
I’m not here to argue politics, or whether an intervention is or ever was justified. The point I’m trying to make is simple — our actions (or inactions) have consequences, not just for ourselves, but also for the child in Syria who lost 19 family members in the attack. Similarly, our recalcitrance to climate-related behavior and policy changes today could lead to significant consequences for future generations of children in all corners of the world. We are members of a larger global order and any way you slice it — macroeconomics, geopolitics, or our shared resources — each individual’s actions ripple outwards and shape the lives of countless others.
In returning home, I could probably not have had a more radical change in my surroundings, leaving the pristine wilderness for the concrete jungle. Upon final descent into New York City, I peered out of the window. Accustomed to see great mountains, I saw towering skyscrapers. The vast ocean, replaced by rivers teeming with barges. Instead of penguins, people scurried about their days. And the grays and blacks of concrete and asphalt blanketed the city, replacing the blue-tinted glacial ice I had become so accustomed to seeing.
But the most overwhelming part of being back is that I notice how consumption and waste abound, as the fingerprint of humanity continues to defile the space in which we live. Clouds of dust billow from the noisy jackhammers in the streets while a leaking fire hydrant sprays gallons of water into the streets. People roam the streets with their colorful Starbucks cups, as plastic wrappers crinkle around us. I have become acutely aware of my own waste generation — inordinate amounts of trash generated out of convenience or sheer laziness, that often can be avoided.
If asked to synthesize the swirl of thoughts that I am taking away from the expedition, it can be boiled down to four key ideas:
1. Become a deliberate consumer: Each of us has a larger role to play in the solution to global warming than we realize. In the conventional sense of being a consumer, we each produce a fair amount of discretionary waste on a daily basis. In aggregate, this adds up to a significant amount of waste at the end of the year. Change is as simple as being disciplined, but building a habit of it takes repetition. Personally, since the expedition, I have started going vegan two days per week, taking my own mug to coffee shops, and holding on to recyclable items until I find a recycling bin. Admittedly, these are small steps, but over time, they can become meaningful changes.
However, the consumer’s power extends beyond personal behaviors. Innovation is at the core of any long-term solution to climate change, whether through harnessing renewable energies, more efficient technologies, or the advent of carbon recapture. However, if you look at the market today, climate-friendly products are generally more costly. So how do costs come down?
Any solution to climate change will need to make sound business sense. From that perspective, the funding to innovate and bring costs down can come from three sources: 1) investors, 2) political actors, and/or 3) consumers
Investors are doing their part, with vast inflows of capital into sustainable technologies and mutual funds that incorporate CSR as an investment criterion.
Political actors generally lag the popular consensus. A politician always operates out of self-preservation, and will react to the broader sentiment emanating from his or her constituency. Some political actors have been surprisingly at the forefront of innovation, building appropriate incentives into the economic system to spur innovation and research. However, the vast majority of countries, especially the U.S., have had an underwhelming response to the task at hand, and often end up anchoring to the status quo and dying institutions.
So that leaves the consumer. By demanding new technologies that further an environmental standard, consumers can dangle the most meaningful carrot for businesses. The most obvious example that comes to mind is Tesla — what started out as a purely environmental play has turned into an icon of American consumerism and a venerated brand. In the past week, Tesla blew by the market capitalization of staple auto manufacturers Ford and GM. While the numbers are subject to interpretation, the takeaway is not — consumer demands are changing and corporations must adjust their strategies accordingly. And we have seen this, as nearly every prominent auto manufacturer has jumped into the race of developing their own electric vehicles. Consumers have single-handedly shifted the standards to which a $3.5 trillion industry is held. Collectively, our consumption choices send arguably the strongest message to both corporations and our political representatives. This can truly spur meaningful change.
2. Communicate thoughtfully: Take a guess — how many gallons of water does it take to produce a pair of jeans?
Does 1,800 gallons seem grossly incorrect? Well, it isn’t.
Statistics can be informative, disarming, inspiring, or eye-opening. But as our recent presidential election in the US taught us, the overall message matters. Facts are meaningless without context and even less efficacious when we do not consider the power of human psychology.
Hearing Robert Swan speak about his expeditions to the North and South poles, reminded me of how each of us has a powerful story to tell. When told in the right way, engaging the particular audience in a method that resonates, these stories can wield incredible influence.
The story of global warming has been one of poor communication. Scare tactics breed paralysis or worse, apathy. But to-date, this has been the preeminent strategy for activists. From An Inconvenient Truth to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood, popular media paints a future beyond comprehension, but lacks viable solutions, resulting in confusion and fear, rather than empowerment.
The message still under-communicated is that if anyone, the human race has the ability to address climate change, and it ultimately comes down to a matter of choice. Data alone is not a solution, but rather our resolve and sustained, deliberate actions will have a far greater effect on climate outcomes.
3. Engage, don’t ignore: In the age of social media and an abundance of information constantly at our fingertips, we have become compulsive filterers, selectively consuming headlines and articles that resonate with us. Post-election, we have been reminded of the “echo-chambers” we occupy, but all of this fundamentally comes down to personal choice. Do we engage with opposing viewpoints and discover the truth for ourselves, or do we self-select into channels that reinforce our existing beliefs? This quandary becomes especially magnified when we are confronted with issues that shake our status quo, and threaten our everyday comforts. The issue of global warming is a manifestation of this issue, subject to political bickering and using selective facts to obfuscate broader truths. It is an individual choice for people to use selective facts to reinforce our existing opinions, rather than using data to formulate our own perspectives.
Now, more than ever, we must acknowledge the elephant in the room, but also not take the inevitability for granted. This is not easy — it will take a sustained, concerted effort to bring people into the discussion, while acknowledging the fears around long-term shocks to the status quo that lead people to paint their own alternative truths.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige… for the welfare of others.”
4. There is reason for optimism: If there is one idea to take away from all of this discussion, it is that we have not been sentenced to the doom that our discourse suggests. Not yet. The positive developments are not reinforced enough. Change has been incremental, slow, and sometimes slips backwards before progressing. But public awareness is burgeoning, and our outlook is improving. Just a few weeks ago, the International Energy Administration reported that global carbon emissions stayed flat for the third year in a row, while the global economy continued to grow. This was largely attributable to drops in carbon emissions in both the US and China, driven by changes in the energy mix. This is promising, providing evidence that climate consciousness does not necessarily have to come at the expense of economic growth. Incredible innovation and initiatives being taken by ordinary people can effect great change.
These developments need to be acknowledged. If the notion that a path to a prosperous, but climate-aware, world permeates the global consciousness perhaps more individuals will entertain behaviors that also protect public interests.
In sum, there is more work to do. The task at hand is gargantuan, but not insurmountable. In a matter of two weeks, the truths and beliefs I held to be incontrovertible have been flipped up-side down. The question now comes down to whether I am able to integrate these epiphanies into my everyday life, and whether I expend the appropriate energies to continue seeking the truth and learning from those who have dedicated their lives to doing so.
Near-term, I am continuing to engage with 2041, in an effort to crystallize what practices the average person can integrate into his or her life. Below is a preliminary list that our team put together on-board the ship. If you have any activities that you do, or ideas on how to take this further, I would love to hear from you.
Again, a profound thank you to all who have supported me in this endeavor and to all those who have made it this far in reading my blog. If not inspiring, I hope it has provided some food for thought (or at least entertainment!). I look forward to seeing you and continuing these conversations in-person.
In closing, I will carry my experience with me for the rest of my life. But every so often, I will need a reminder to shake me out of my narrow-minded reality. A reminder that we are transient mortals who have existed for a heartbeat in the 4.5 billion years of the universe. We live in the mountains, mine minerals, produce oil, drink glacial water, all of which predates us by millions of years. We are mere flickers in the spectrum of time, who may admire the universe we have had the opportunity to exist in. But while our presence on this Earth is fleeting, our impact will outlive us. Our collective actions compound and over time will shape the trajectory of our planet.
The good fight awaits. Onwards.