Antarctica has been described as "a silence deep with a breath like sleep." Some say that the continent's profound beauty haunts you for the rest of your days. One man who understands this better than most is polar explorer turned environmentalist Robert Swan OBE. In 1986, he made the longest unassisted walk ever to the South Pole. Three years later he went onto the North Pole and by the age of 33, he became first person in history to walk to both North and South Pole.
He has been awarded the Polar Medal by her Majesty the Queen and today is special envoy for youth for the United Nations. He spends most of his time lecturing around the globe to drum up support for the Antarctic -- he wants it to avoid the same fate as its northern sister the Arctic, which is currently being fought over for its natural resources.
What started out as an adventure to "go boldly where no man has gone before .. and a personal test to make history" has evolved into a lifelong commitment for a continent whose future now hangs in the balance.
During this treacherous walk across the Antarctic, Swan's once ice blue eyes changed color to become light grey. He later discovered that this was owing to the hole in the ozone layer that lies above the continent.
Throughout the 70-day walk that claimed nearly all of their lives, he made a promise to the frozen world that surrounded him. A promise that if she protected them and let them live, then he would repay her somehow. Begging for his life at the time, the promise was a mere offering to the polar gods to grant him and his team a safe passage home. Only later did he realize that the weight of that promise would sit on his shoulders for the rest of his life.
Today that oath is embodied in the name of the company that he has founded -- 2041. In that year, 29 years from now, the international peace treaty that protects Antarctica from all mining and drilling rights will come up for review. Signed by 46 countries in 1959, the Madrid protocol rules that Antarctica is too large and too important to belong to just one country. It dedicates the region to peace, international cooperation and scientific research.
In Swan's own words: "We should have the good sense to leave one part of the world alone -- Antarctica." But in the energy hungry world that we live in today, there is a very real and terrifying risk that this beautiful continent at the bottom of our world could eventually become plundered for her resources. Although he has set 2041 as his time goal, the Arctic's approaching demise suggests that we may not have the luxury of three decades -- our world may have only one.
So, the question invariably becomes, what's next? The sooner that we can come up with a more sustainable answer to this question, the sooner our planet, our home, can look forward to a brighter future. After all, the world did once rely on whale oil for energy. But as its population veered towards extinction, the need for an alternative energy source arose, paving the way for the oil age. And once again, we find ourselves facing the downward curve of that slope.
"To me, the environment isn't a cause, it's everything. The year 2041 is a deadline and a challenge. If we don't renew the treaty, if we allow mining and drilling to rip the guts out if this starkly beautiful, austere, terrifying continent, it won't just mean the failure of my insignificant, most ineffectual efforts. It will mean our failure as a people, as a species, to protect the planet that gives us home," says Swan.
He uses President Kennedy's plans to put a man on the moon as an example.
There must have been so many disbelievers in the audience that day when he made that speech but then ten years later, Neil Armstrong landed on the Sea of Tranquility ... And that's how the torch of the generations is passed. One generation inspires another with a great task. The fire of youthful idealism generates the heat to get the job done.
And that is exactly what Mr. Swan does every year. In a passionate bid to save the Antarctic, he runs an annual expedition out to the white continent which is dedicated to inspiring the leaders of tomorrow about the perils of the future. He hopes that by unveiling Antarctica's magnificence, the younger generation will do whatever it takes to save her from plunder when they come into power in 2041. It's an inspiring story with an inspiring end game.
In Swan's own words: "The greatest danger to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it ... The last great exploration on earth is to survive on earth." So as I gaze out the window into my future, I hope to see Antarctica in my midst. I only hope that our children's children will see it in theirs too. When you gaze out of the window into your future, what do you see?
Robert Swan's 2012 International Antarctic Expedition sets sail March 1- March 11
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