I blame it on my parents (let’s face it, most of us do). Both full-time Methodist preachers, either consciously or subconsciously they instilled in me an understanding that a meaningful life involves having some purpose greater than oneself, and that being an advocate for a cause is a worthwhile use of one’s talents.
Of course, as a teenager nothing could have been more embarrassing than having two preacher parents, and I duly rebelled…by becoming a management consultant. It was only after 11 years in that field that I reluctantly admitted to myself that this was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and that I maybe my parents had been right (somewhat) after all.
What brought it home to me was an exercise I did one day; I sat down and wrote two versions of my own obituary—the one I wanted and the one I was heading for, and they were very different. From then on, the writing was on the wall.
So, with a sigh of resignation (literally), I quit my job and tried to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.
It was around the time of this early mid-life crisis that I was struck by another epiphany; a book about the Hopi tribe of North America led me to understand what many indigenous peoples have known all along: that we need to take good care of the Earth if we are to expect a long and prosperous future; it’s not about saving the planet—it’s about saving the humans.
I was shocked that, despite my Oxford education, this fundamental and vital perspective had not merited so much as a mention. And looking around, it seemed to me that a lot of other people hadn’t got the memo either. So I resolved to do whatever I could to raise awareness of our environmental challenges.
But I needed a platform—a way of getting people’s attention. At this intensely formative time, I happened to make the acquaintance of a guy who had rowed across the Atlantic with (of all people) his mother. His MOTHER! Hey, I’d rowed at college, and if someone’s mother could row across an ocean, how hard could it be? So here I had it—my platform. I would take up my oars for the cause, and row across oceans to raise environmental awareness.
So, despite being already in my mid-thirties, and only five-foot-four, and with no previous seafaring or expedition experience whatsoever, my mind was made up. Over the course of the next 7 years, via various hair-raising adventures, I became the first woman to row solo across three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian. 15,000 miles, 520 days, around 5 million oarstrokes.
Why am I telling you all this? (Yes, at last, I’m getting to the point—and thank you for bearing with me.)
One of my great delights over the course of my ocean-rowing career—and the many speaking engagements that come with it—has been to challenge people’s ideas about what is possible.
- If I can spend 7 years of my life rowing 15,000 miles for a cause I believe in, what can you do?
- If you are truly committed to leaving a legacy of which you can be proud, how are you manifesting that from day to day?
- Whether or not you are a CEO, how does your corporate life embody your personal values and beliefs?
- We tend to think that change can happen only incrementally over time, but is that true? If doing the right thing is right, why not start doing it now?
I’d like to leave you with a call to action. It may not save the world, but it’s a start, and it has immediate and tangible results.
On my way across the Pacific Ocean, I rowed around the outskirts of the North Pacific Garbage Patch. Even there, plastic outweighs plankton by 6:1. Towards the centre of the Patch, the ratio is more like 40:1. In the sixty or so years since plastic went into mass production, we have managed to fundamentally alter the chemistry of the oceans.
And that plastic is not inert. It contains pollutants, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, and acts as a vector for undesirable microbes that are attracted to the fragments. One in ten fish in the Pacific has been found to contain plastic. This is not just a problem in the middle of the ocean – it is a problem on our dinner plates.
A staggering 70 pounds of plastic are produced annually for every man, woman and child on the planet, and whether it ends up in landfill or in the oceans, it still ends up somewhere, and stays there for a very long time – decades or even centuries. It’s hard to describe the shock of seeing plastic pollution even thousands of miles away from land.
I fear that the collective legacy of our generation will be the Plastic Age, a toxic debris problem that will affect human health for many generations to come.
So I’d like to invite you to think about how you can reduce the plastic footprint of your corporation, your department, or your team, in 2014.
The transformations wrought in the workplace won’t stop there. As employees adopt green practices at work, that will become their new norm and carry over into the home. Visitors to business premises will notice a different way of doing things, stretching their perception of what is possible. Suppliers and waste management services will be required to raise their game in response to new, greener specifications. Ripples of influence will spread, until we reach a cultural tipping point in which environmentally hygienic behaviour becomes the new normal.
Don’t think it’s possible? To quote the late, lamented Nelson Mandela, in words that I will personally stand by, “Everything is impossible until it is done.”