Change in action

November 20, 2018
June 2018

Robert Swan walked to the ends of the earth to increase public awareness of the environmental changes and believes that as citizens of this world, we need to act as stewards of the environment for our own survival.

What you have seen during your decades of exploration, and where did you get this passion for the environment and sustainability?

I am the first person in history to be stupid enough to walk the North and South poles, but I would never describe myself as an explorer or an environmentalist, rather I am a “survivor.” I am far too stupid to be a scientist! I did not walk on the South Pole for any particular reason more than just to do it, and to become the first in history to make the two journeys. I was inspired by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, all Antarctic explorers. I was and am driven by the feeling that I have to do something for our survival on earth. During one of my walks, I walked under a hole in the ozone layer, I was not aware of it at the time but the UV light reflecting off the snow changed the color of my eyes. We had not read of this from those early explorers; it was something I experienced firsthand. Then I realized that the issue of survival is not someone else’s problem. I just had to do something about it. Both poles told me something and I tried to listen. I had to make a choice, am I an environmentalist or a Greenpeace person? I decided that I should really work with businesses, industry and commerce:  these have the power to change. As a survivor, you do not go for the easy option – you go for the option that makes you survive. Governments have very little influence. Environmentalists were all saying the same thing and being overly negative. Industries and business, on the other hand, have longer term views, a reason to act, and a huge connection with everyday people. I made a choice to work with the industry and businesses, and that is when I became quite passionate. I believed that I could make a difference and make a change.

I was and am driven by the feeling that I have to do something for our survival on earth... I realized that the issue of survival is not someone else’s problem. I just had to do something about it.

During your explorations, you showcased pioneering technologies robust enough to work in the world’s harshest environments. How can we translate what you have learned to business?

There are two areas, really:  one is leadership, the other is convenient solutions. Leadership is essential in business. If you do not lead, you die. If people in the industry are not leading, our world will die. Leadership means being beyond words – words are easy. There are many mission statements about saving the planet, but we need to move beyond the mission statements; we are beyond An Inconvenient Truth. Business leaders also have to put into practice convenient solutions. People are in general lazy and do not want to make a change if they do not have to, especially in the Western world. We have to create convenient solutions that are a part of making good business. This will inspire action. We need consistency; we need long-term solutions. We need people to feel that solutions are sustainable, and that they can be a part and make a difference. Leaders have to see this as a business opportunity. The bottom line is, what we do here in the U.S. and what we do in Europe is important, however, it is critical to deploy effective strategies in places like India and China and other developing nations. I spent four years bicycling around India, visiting and talking to companies, industries, businesses, and students. There are 1.4bn people in India. If India develops in the same way we are still developing, it will not matter what we do in the Western world. We have to look outside our shores and realize that we have a responsibility to work with developing nations and share our sustainable solutions.

What solutions in your mind would be beneficial for these nations?

Solutions can do many things. Biofuels especially not only help produce less CO2, but can really help a nation. My lungs were permanently damaged in India due to the air quality. Farmers burn their crops at the end of every season. It goes into the air and causes a huge amount of extra pollution. Turning waste crops into biofuels is a fantastic solution for a country like India. Formalized recycling and garbage collection systems, and solar power technology, are other solutions which would make a significant difference for emerging nations.

You once said that “our biggest threat to our survival is that we believe somebody else is going to do something about it.” What can corporations do now to tackle environmental challenges more effectively?

I really admire CEOs, they have a hell of a job. They have to see to their shareholders and employees, but also make important business decisions, and often being sustainable could be seen as an extra business cost. I believe that what CEOs can do better is to be an inspiration for their workforce and take action. What they tend to do is make some huge statements and commitments on sustainability, but these are lacking sustainable inspiration behind them. You have to keep the inspiration sustainable, which means CEOs have to keep re-inspiring people on the statements and commitments made, make them believe that the environment and being sustainable is part of the business, and show them its importance by rewarding those who are making an effort (via recognition or financial rewards). CEOs should stand up, be more forceful and vocal, and fight. Fight like hell. We can no longer just be comfortable and be the same we have always been. It is time for change and the time for action!

When we spoke to Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation, he argued that sometimes corporations and managers have the wrong incentives to become more sustainable. What is your perspective?

It has to be a combination. Every single human being knows that climate change is a reality. What we are not sure of yet, is exactly how much we are causing the climate to change. Every single person that is in business is in the business of making money. There is nothing wrong with giving people financial incentives to phase out carbon or to make the company more sustainable. However, there has to be a slight change in culture and values, so that people are not doing it just for the money. We need to start to feel as a human race. Doing the right thing needs leadership from the top. People need to be feeling that they are doing the right thing because it is the right thing. If it is just money, we are missing the point – we all need to inspire! What we do here in the U.S. and Europe is an “engine room” for the billions of people that want what we have. Look at all the wonderful things technology has given us. There is no way people in India should not have what we have – they have every right to. The problem is, if they get it in the same way we got it, we will swim! Every year I go to the Arctic, I see what is happening. It is melting, the sea levels do rise and temperatures do rise. I have seen it over the past 32 years. It is the reality.

What legacy do you want to leave behind?

I am not finished yet! I might be 61, but what one leaves behind is what one does. Barney and I are Indiana Jones and son, we are just getting warmed up. It was my son’s idea that we should walk to the South Pole. At the age of 61, your knees are screwed, your hips and your back are gone. He said, “Dad, we have to do this to inspire young people. We need to do something that gets their attention. We will show that father and son, generations, have to work together on this issue.” I then had to make the hardest decision of my life:  to leave my son at age 23 and pull out of the journey and let him bravely complete it himself. It was like handing over the baton to the future – to the next generation. But I said, “I am not finished yet.” I am having my hip replaced in three weeks’ time. At end of 2019, I am going back to compete that 300 miles to the South Pole that I didn’t do at the end of last year. It will mean it will have taken me 35 years to cross the whole of the Antarctica. The message is that it is all about action, about doing it, action that grabs people’s attention in a world dominated by information and not enough inspiration. I believe people need a certain sense of feeling uncomfortable to make a change, and what we do is hard. It is not time yet to start talking about legacy. We can discuss legacy in another 30 years when I am 90.

Tell us about the “Climate Force Challenge” – what are some of the solutions you propose, how do you define success, and how do you measure progress?

Every single person who reads this interview has business targets to hit. So few people have targets in the environmental world. We started the Climate Force Challenge by making the journey to the South Pole on renewable energy to show that it works. We are going to clean up (not offset) 326mm tons of CO2 from our atmosphere in the next seven years. It is my only political statement: it (the 326mm number) also happens to be the population of America. If we plant 326mm trees that last 40 years, our job would be done. But it is not that simple. With our challenge, we give everyone the ability to be a part of fixing the puro What is important, overall, is that it gets people going. If you are not feeling a little bit inspired after talking to me, I have failed. But I hope you have been inspired by me and my son. And if we can do this, what can bigger and more powerful people do? It all has to do with inspiring people. What CEOs have to clearly understand is that there is an entire generation of young people like my son Barney (who nearly lost his toes in the adventure) who no longer are choosing to join a company just for money. They want to work for a company where they can make a difference to their world. CEOs have to take this on board for recruitment and retention. This generation will use their wallets and the power of their spending to make choices.

Who is your sustainable hero and why?

Jonathan Porritt, UK. He is a true battler and has never given up. We have worked together for nearly 30 years and his passion NEVER burns low.

About Sustainable Heroes

Join us on a journey into the hearts and minds of some of today’s greatest heroes, who have dedicated themselves to positively impact tomorrow’s world. We invite you to explore with us what makes these heroes tick, what drives them to overcome arduous trials and immense challenges, known and unknown. In this issue, we pay homage to a corporate leader, an Arctic explorer, a highly admired policy builder, an innovative investor and an entrepreneurial foundation president - all of whom share the goal of creating a sustainable world that is more resilient as well as financially stable. We encourage you on your own quest for ways to innovate, embrace sustainability and do the right thing. Become a heroine or hero to others and help us together solve the problems threatening our very survival. To each of you heroes and heroines, there is a brighter, more sustainable future that we can build together for future generations. We welcome nominations for people you’d like to see featured in future editions. Please send your nominations and other comments to

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