You are an inspiration to thousands across the globe. Who are YOUR heroes?
They would fit into three categories. Nelson Mandela and people like him who, after all they have gone through, remain so loving and so amazing. Then, of course, the polar explorers Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, who were the real explorers. I’m not really an explorer. The second are the new heroes and heroines I am looking for, who are all part of preserving wildlife such as tigers and polar bears and penguins and making sure that we are using renewable energy. And the third are people like Jacques Cousteau whose spirit continues to strengthen me and Sir Peter Scott who founded the World Wildlife Fund whose global vision was the foundation for many present-day environmental campaigns.
You actually promised Jacques Cousteau and Sir Peter Scott that you would work to preserve Antarctica for future generations.
I did. And when I made that promise I had no idea at all how awfully we would soon be treating the Arctic! Just look at the commercial exploitation of this fragile region for commercial gain! I am even more determined than ever before to keep the Antarctic protected forever.
How long have you been planning this?
I think I have been on this preserve-the-Antarctic mission since my childhood when I saw a film and was driven to action. The existing agreement (http://bit.ly/Antarctictreaty) expires in 2041 and we must ensure that the next generation is prepared to ratify and strengthen the treaty.
By spurring a switch to renewable energy, perhaps we can make it not worth going to Antarctica by 2041. Perhaps exploring for the minerals, oil and gas now locked under the ice will not be a part of human ambition. Tens of thousands of people are following the 2041 campaign. The message is out there and again, yes, I believe we are on target.
And why is Robert Swan, a polar explorer, running to save the tiger?
Because I think that the tiger is a very important part of India. When this Englishman came to India, he had to think about what was relevant to India. The tiger is the very soul of this great nation. Besides, while climate change is a universal problem, different symbols such as the polar bear and the tiger, have come to represent our common natural heritage though in different geographies. You and I both know, of course, that the fate of both and that of all humans is locked in the climate embrace.
You are preparing for yet another walk to Antarctica? This time without the use of fossil fuels?
Yes I am. To make the point that if we can live in Antarctica without fossil fuels, we can live anywhere without fossil fuels! I am doing this for the younger generation. To demonstrate that if renewable energy can be used in the most hostile place on earth, why not at home?
You are literally walking the talk aren’t you? Running the talk actually given the fact that you just completed the full course in the Mumbai Marathon on January 16th !
I guess I am walking the talk. Frankly, I am tired of just hearing words from people about what we must do… what we should do… what we are going to do. “Just go out and do it,” is what I say. I ran 42 km. for the tiger because I wanted to draw attention to the tiger’s story. I wanted people to know that in an era of climate change a man whose mission is to save Antarctica and who is going to live off renewable energy on the ice is walking the same road as the one seeking to keep the tiger alive in a tropical forest.
Is all this having an impact? Are you hopeful that world leaders will fall in line with the imperatives of climate change?
It’s not just world leaders that need to fall in line. First you have to get ‘ordinary’ people in because they are the ones who vote in world leaders. So they need to vote in the right ones. Each of us can make a difference now. We should not be waiting for world leaders to make the changes we need to make ourselves.
In a world dominated by bad news, how do you retain your optimism?
I began on my journey because I was inspired. Therefore I use optimism and inspiration to motivate young persons, rather than negativism and cynicism. No one I know has ever been inspired by negativity. One does have low moments, when you worry that people are not joining the dots to see what’s going on with the tiger and the Arctic. Depressing news about melting ice and tigers being poached are there for the asking and we have to deal with such news. But we must inevitably rise above that to remind ourselves that we need to inspire people into action I personally keep going because for me these are not just words. I actually believe this.
Shell? Coca Cola? BP? That’s a veritable environmental rogues’ gallery and yet, you accept partial sponsorships from them? Do explain the contradiction.
It’s not a contradiction for a start. Every single person that’s reading this interview has probably used a Coke product and is certainly powering their lives in some way with fossil fuels. It’s important to work with people who have the power to change. We cannot always choose to work with or preach to the choir! We have to work both with the converted and with people who might not necessarily be doing the right thing. If we can inspire them to move their businesses forward they could positively affect millions of others. I focus on people, including individuals in some of the companies you mentioned, and turn them into champions for change within their own companies.
You are also the United Nation’s Goodwill Ambassador for Youth. Will the next generation be more responsible than ours?
Yes! Globally I think they will be. There is more awareness now and through social media people can access issues and see things much clearer than our generation. However, I have a concern about young people in India particularly people from more privileged backgrounds. It seems to me that they are being inspired in the wrong way. Everyone seems to be shown it’s the Western world that’s right and that consumerism is the way forward. It seems to me slightly crazy that the new generation of future leaders in India is being pulled in the direction of consumerism. So my work in India is to convince privileged, future young Indian leaders that you do not need ‘stuff’ to be someone. You are what you are based on what you think, feel for and do.
Rob, when was the last time you did something for the first time in your life?
Two days ago, running the Mumbai Marathon! My gosh! I had a lot of trouble doing that with a foot operation and chest infection and it was very hot and the air was foul. But I absolutely loved it because it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time because it really, really hurt. I had physical pain. But I was very pleased and inspired to do it for the organisation and my great friend Reshma Piramal and you Bittu! This is the first time I’ve run a marathon in such heat.
What would you say to Dr. Manmohan Singh if you met him today?
I would say to him, he has a fantastic network of young people across the country (I met many of them during the GreenKarbon talks Sanctuary organised in colleges in Delhi and Mumbai) and that he should give young India a real leadership role. Also that he should offer them climate leadership and inspiration to set them on their course towards renewable technologies. Of course, he should be working with young persons to save the tiger as this is a very good way to fight climate change. I also think he should be working to create millions of green jobs for young persons. Giving the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports this goal should be a good place to start.
Any message for Sanctuary’s one million Kids for Tigers?
I’m coming back to India and I’m looking forward to visiting more schools, colleges and young people. We need two million Kids for Tigers because as an Englishman I cannot imagine a world without tigers and I have to believe that a great nation like India will never allow the magnificent tiger to vanish, or, heaven forbid, be found only in zoos.
by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 1, February 2011.