How an epic story of endurance can help us tackle climate change

31 Mar 2021

Tim Jarvis AM had our TRANSFORM audience sitting on the edge of our seats as he told an adventure story with important lessons for sustainability leaders. If you missed TRANSFORM, here’s your chance to catch up…

When Tim, a British-Australian environmental explorer, set out to retrace the steps of Sir Ernest Shackleton in 2013, his idea was to shine a spotlight on the world's disappearing equatorial glaciers.

But the lessons Tim learnt are as much as rallying cry for sustainability practitioners as they are a warning bell. And thanks to the support of BGIS, Tim’s message was heard loud and clear at TRANSFORM.

Shackleton’s original mission, the grandly-titled Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917, was to cross Antarctica’s 14 million sqm mass of ice. That’s an ice mass double the size of Australia or 58 times the size of the United Kingdom.

According to legend, Shackleton ran an advertisement in the London Times: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” The apocryphal advertisement reportedly drew 3,000 applicants for just 27 places.

In August 1914 the expedition left England with plans to cross Antarctica from a base on the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound, via the South Pole. But disaster struck when Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and drifted northwards through the long Antarctic winter of 1915. After ten long months the ship was crushed and sunk, stranding Shackleton and his 27-strong crew on the ice.

After six months living in makeshift camps on the ice, the party took to lifeboats to reach the uninhabited and inhospitable Elephant Island. Shackleton and five others then set off on a 1,300-kilometre open-boat journey – five tortuous days on mountainous seas – to reach South Georgia and safety. In doing so, Shackleton achieved what Sir Edmund Hillary described as the greatest survival journey of all time.

A century later, Tim Jarvis was determined to retrace Shackleton’s steps to highlight the catastrophic effects of climate change. Antarctica is a “litmus paper that is telling us what we are doing to the planet,” Tim told our audience.

The Antarctic ice sheet holds around 90 per cent of Earth's fresh water in 30 million cubic kilometres of ice. This ice sheet has existed in its current form for about 34 million years, but its future form will be decided in our lifetimes.

Tim sailed a replica of Shackleton’s boat across the Southern Ocean from Elephant Island to South Georgia, scaling the mountainous interior with the same rudimentary equipment that Shackleton relied upon. But the Antarctica Tim encountered was a different place to the one inhabited by Shackleton. “Ninety-two per cent of the glaciers in South Georgia are now in retreat,” Tim said. This made it a far more treacherous journey.

But rather than a message of misery, Tim offered Shackleton’s story as an example of “pragmatic optimism”. In overcoming the seemingly insurmountable odds, Shackleton was a leading light for all those stepping up to the sustainability challenge.

Tim said Shackleton’s leadership style has lessons for those on the frontline of climate action. Shackleton was a “pragmatic optimist” who didn’t “sugar coat the circumstances”. But he was honest, direct and solutions-oriented. Throughout the ordeal, he devised strategies to buoy the spirits; they sent birthday cards, played sports, staged concerts. One crewman, Thomas Orde-Lees wrote in his journal: “We've had a grand concert tonight of 24 turns. And so ends one of the happiest days of my life.”

After Endurance was finally crushed in the ice flow, Shackleton turned to his men and said, decisively “Now we will go home”. In one short sentence he reframed their situation and set his crew on a path towards a new goal – safety. This pragmatic optimism can help us sell the message of climate action to the average person, Tim said. “Start by telling it how it is, but marry it up with solutions.”

Shackleton also broke down the enormity of the challenge “into pieces”. So give politicians or CEOs solutions or “ammunition to enact change within the time they are in the role”. Humans need to see evidence, but this can be challenging when we “can’t see parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere”. Making the issue real to people requires tangible examples. It might be bushfires or melting ice or fish deaths “but you need a proxy for the issue to speak to people”.

While Shackleton failed to accomplish his crossing, his expedition is recognised as an epic feat of endurance. “Shackleton’s goal was to save his men from Antarctica. One hundred years later we are trying to save Antarctica from man,” Tim said. However, “we don’t save the glaciers down in Antarctica. We save them in what we do here”. That makes the work of the GBCA’s ever-expanding network a powerful and practical force for change.

TRANSFORM delegates can re-watch this session and more online. Did you miss out on TRANSFORM? Our Green Building Day takes place soon, these live evens are an opportunity to connect, dive into Green Star case studies and learn from our industry's best.

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