Many of us are held back by fear when considering bold ideas. Yet a few are able to break through this barrier and lead big lives. Antarctica – a continent of ferocious winds, vast expanses of ice and bone-chilling temperatures – brings to mind stories of unimaginable hardship and inspiring leadership. Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton. Their vision and passion allowed them to transcend their fear of suffering and failure, and contributed to expanding our horizons.
For me a trip southwards has always been financially and environmentally unjustifiable. Then early this year I got an unexpected invitation from legendary explorer and environmentalist Robert Swan to assist on one of his annual expeditions as sustainability lecturer.
Each year, he leads one or two expeditions to the Antarctic. These are not mere pleasure trips, but in between site-seeing excursions, participants work hard. They have all committed to becoming change agents and the trips are a deep-immersion experience involving lectures on leadership and sustainability, intense group work and personal reflection.
Participants are typically individuals who feel they can no longer continue their status quo and are embarking on an environmental career or function within their organisations. Our group of 65 was an eclectic mix from more than 15 nations and included students, two scholars, corporate managers wanting to drive change within their organisations and people from various NGO organisations.
The intention was to provide a broad knowledge base and use the dramatic Antarctic backdrop to take people through a deeply touching journey to galvanise profound commitment. One beautiful cloudy-orange dawn was a case in point as we sail through a sea of colossal tabular icebergs each as wide and deep as a city block of skyscrapers. These are the remnants of the vast Larsen B ice shelf, which unexpectedly broke up and was a ‘canary in a coal mine’ event signalling the upward crawl of the mercury.
The trip was littered with intense discussions about our global conundrum: the state of the environment, the slowness of our response, the inadequate climate policy process, the challenges of installing cleaner energy infrastructure and strategies for changing corporate and individual mindsets. The mix of cultures and sectoral backgrounds at times led to heated debates, but always underscored by a shared commitment to changing our unsustainable ways.
In some of my breakout sessions I led discussions on tackling our inner hurdles. More than a few shared their concern about having bold ideas for change but of being held back by fear – seemingly insurmountable hurdles to expressing their passions and leading bigger lives. We discussed the little voice in our minds that so often holds us back and strategies for “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” – as so many of the great Antarctic explorers have done.
A day later – luckily a sunny one – we got to challenge our fears when given the opportunity to go for a polar plunge in subzero waters. Astonishingly, more than 50 budding Lewis Pugh’s queued up. Most, when they got their turn, jumped in with much bravado. There was the initial shock of the cold, followed by a short “it’s not so bad” grace period. Then the cold bit. Facial expressions changed. Hasty, often clumsy, exits were made. Throughout that afternoon there was a mountain of fear-fuelled mirth at our boldness and the facial expressions that emerged from the water – expressions you would not have thought the human face to be capable of.
Everyone was elated after having overcome their fear of the cold water – and so it goes: jumping over that inner hurdle of anxiety and plunging into uncertainty can be an immensely rewarding experience. Often the toughest part is deciding to jump. And to achieve the societal change we require we must each learn to jump over that fear hurdle again and again.
Was the trip worth the carbon footprint? Impossible to say. The experience undoubtedly had a profound impact on participants and throughout the group was challenged on how they will make good on their carbon footprint and become life-long change agents. Swan also takes much one-on-one time with each person to discuss his or her ideas and commitment for change. His trips form but one of our multiple and imperfect methods for trying to galvanise profound change within individuals and our society. And we must all continue our varied initiatives for change at full tilt.
Visit http://expedition.2041.com to read the expedition blog and watch short video clips, including on of the tabular icebergs.
Robert Zipplies is a corporate sustainability consultant, board member of Project 90 by 2030 and editor of the climate change book, Bending the Curve (www.bendingthecurve.co.za).