ACTIONISTS

Two giants of exploration—and eco-activism—join Lexus for a chat. The topic? Saving the world.

06/06/2013—It was January of 1986. Robert Swan was 33 years old when he and two colleagues completed the longest unassisted trek ever made to the South Pole—a 900-mile journey that inspired Swan to spend the following decades devising creative, adventurous ways to protect the polar wilderness.

David de Rothschild was also in his early 30s when, in 2010, he completed a trans-Pacific journey in a catamaran made out of reclaimed plastic bottles. His boat, the Plastiki, roughly retraced explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 Kon-Tiki raft route. The goal: draw attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a zone of refuse on the water’s surface twice the size of Texas.

These days, Swan and de Rothschild continue to transform big action into big awareness. Swan’s 2041 organization highlights eco-issues via expeditions around the world, while de Rothschild’s Sculpt the Future Foundation backs people and groups that pursue meaningful, de Rothschild-style eco-awareness.

Both share a mission: enlighten and engage the world about creating an environmentally sustainable future. Lexus spoke with them about past adventures, future undertakings, and the challenges of protecting planet Earth.

Lexus: Both of you tackle extreme exploration to draw attention to your causes. Is that what it takes to change the world these days?

Robert Swan: Well, the last great exploration on Earth isn’t actually some lunatic like me walking to the north and south poles. No, the future heroes and heroines of exploration are not people like me. I think they are people in industry and business, developing renewable technology.

Lexus: We have to ask—why do you call yourself a lunatic?

RS: On my trek to the South Pole, the team carried no radio communication. No GPS. We used a sextant and the sun. If something went wrong, it was game over. We even knew that, in order to reach the poles, we were going to have to starve a little bit because we could pull only 360 pounds on our sleds, just enough to make it—just.

Lexus: David, for the Plastiki expedition, you crossed the ocean on a boat made from 12,500 plastic bottles and used glue made from cashew husks and sugarcane. Did you or others ever question your sanity when gauging how the venture would stand up to the rigors of the high seas?

David de Rothschild: We did ask that question as a starting point: can we even build a boat made entirely of plastic bottles to sail across the Pacific? But because the question itself was so absurd, it disarmed people. Whatever question we asked after that wasn’t dumb anymore. It was freedom. Using that discovery of an adventure as the foundation for the exploration of innovation is really exciting.

RS: David, plastic bottles are obviously something you know a thing or two about. What is your view on the new, renewable sugarcane bottles now being made by some of the big beverage companies?

DDR: I guess it’s a start of a conversation. At least the big bottling companies are acknowledging that there is a plastic issue. But I don’t think it’s solving the problem as much as salving the conscience. To the uninitiated, people may think sugarcane bottles make sense. But there are a lot of issues with the process of actually reclaiming those bottles, because there are not a lot of facilities that can accept them—so they can end up in the trash.

Lexus: Robert, in November of 2015, you’ll be returning to the South Pole to walk the 883-mile return journey. But this time, much like David’s Plastiki voyage, the expedition will be powered entirely by renewable, clean technology.

RS: Yes, but it will be very, very hard. No one has made a journey like that in the Arctic or the Antarctic. Using fossil fuels is the easiest way to make a polar journey. If we were to do it tomorrow, relying only on wind and solar, we would not make it.

Lexus: How will you close that innovation gap by 2015?

RS: We’ll be testing new technologies right on the edge of survival, such as solar panels on the sled that help melt a container of snow as we travel, for drinking and cooking water. Heating the melted water for cooking is our greatest challenge right now. Our expedition is really a symbol of where the world is at the moment as far as renewable technologies go. The technology is out there. We just need to develop it. If it can work on the polar plateau at minus 50, it can work anywhere.

DDR: What is the magic in Antarctica that keeps drawing you back? How can you take somewhere so remote to so many people, and make your mission feel relevant to people who will never have a chance to feel that magic?

RS: For me, it’s now about taking everyday people along on an extraordinary journey. Nowadays, I seek out and take great people from amazing nations who normally wouldn’t go to Antarctica—like taking a girl from Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait, or India. When they bring their experience home, it engages people because the messenger is from an everyday background.

DDR: How about global governance on these environmental issues, like Earth Summits. Do you think they work or does it just result in all-talk-but-no-action outcomes, which we’ve seen before?

RS: Having visited three Earth Summits, I would agree with you. Global governance does not seem to carry enough weight. However, industry and business, for all their mistakes, are stepping up to the plate more than I expected them to do. Maybe the success of the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, will help. That was a hugely successful agreement that has worked so far. I’m hopeful Antarctica could be an example of global governance working.

DDR: The meetings can be a little like an anticlimactic New Year’s Eve party. Everyone turns up, but it can be a letdown. But it’s always that spontaneous moment, something that isn’t planned, that is the best part of these convenings. It’s less about a global agenda and more about allowing a platform for the actionists—the people who don’t have an authorized position to talk at those forums—to sit in the back and get great things planned.

Lexus: That’s a great term—actionists. People who get things done, not unlike you and Robert. Thank you for your time, gentlemen.

—INTERVIEW BY HILARY STUNDA (SWAN PHOTOS COURTESY OF ROBERT SWAN; DE ROTHSCHILD BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES; SAILING PHOTOS: PLASTIKI)