An Earth-y Conversation
Our writer caught up with Geoff Green in Montreal in 2008 as he launched his year-long mission to encourage Canadians to give up the bottle-water, that is. It wasn’t long after Earth Hour, and just a few weeks before Earth Day, that they had a chat about how bottled water is such a waste-and how to get people to give it up.
Adventurer-explorer-educator Geoff Green, 41, is on a yearlong cross-Canada campaign to encourage people to stop drinking bottled water and get them to take other simple measures to step more lightly on this planet.
Green’s passion for clean water is inextricably linked to his passion for the Polar regions. He has led 104 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, and his 16 years of first-hand observation of global warming have honed his ardour for educating teens beyond the small-town Ontario classrooms where he first began teaching.
Green’s Students on Ice expeditions have brought hundreds of young people-plus dozens of scientists and celebrities-to the Polar regions. He believes that giving people deeply personal experiences with nature imparts an appreciation that fosters environmental action. As part of their contract to accompany him on his Polar expeditions, teens promise to take pro-environmental action once they have returned home. Some, now engineers in university, are developing practical ways to reduce the Students on Ice carbon footprint-by developing technologies to help “green” the boat they use, for example.
RD: The Earth Day web site, www.earthday.ca, emphasizes personal responsibility. What do you think of that?
Green: [Personal responsibility] is key to turning things around. Everybody can make a difference. There are all kinds of ways to take action. It’s daunting when you look at the challenges. So a lot of people are choosing to just switch off and enjoy life as it is. But I think the water issue is fundamental in getting people to shift-and I’m seeing it happen.
I always have a reusable water bottle with me. It saves money, it’s better for the environment. On every level, it makes more sense. Bottled water is an incredibly wasteful habit: 88% of plastic water bottles don’t get recycled and wind up in landfills. The carbon footprint for every bottle of water is enormous-1.5 million barrels of oil in the U.S. alone is used to make water bottles; and it takes 3 litres of water to create 1 litre of bottled water. [Carrying a reusable bottle] doesn’t give me a clear conscience; but if you can’t do that much, how can you do the larger things?
RD: Sales of bottled water keep increasing-Canadians now consume an average of 60 litres per year. What’s it going to take for people to change?
Green: Just like with smoking, change seems to take momentum. Right now, there’s a ‘cool’ factor to bottled water. [Change will happen] if it becomes uncool to drink bottled water: We’re not there yet. [But] I think there’s a shift happening. Some people, though, still think bottled water is safer. [But] you’re starting to see conferences that ban bottled water. Offices are banning it. There’s awareness. By using a reusable bottle filled with tap water or filtered tap water, you are reducing your carbon-footprint. You are eliminating waste.
What’s it going to take? I like to think it’s awareness and education, but maybe it’s other pressures like legislation. I hope there’s understanding that these are personal choices that you can make to reduce your carbon footprint; you can live more sustainably, and I hope people start thinking in that mindset. You can do little things, such as walking, buying an energy-efficient vehicle, using energy-efficient lightbulbs and not using plastic bags at the grocery store. That [one] drives me insane. We’re so wasteful that we use a throwaway bag every time we go shopping.
RD: How can people learn to take personal responsibility?
Green: [Apart from www.earthday.ca], other sites with personal action tips include The World Wildlife Fund (www.wwf.ca), David Suzuki Foundation (http://www.davidsuzuki.org/), FilterForGood.ca www.filterforgood.ca, and the EYES Project (www.eyesproject.com). [Eyes stands for Education, Youth, Environment, Sustainability]
RD: You used to be a teacher in a small-town school. How did you make the transition from teacher on land to teacher on the sea?
Green: I ran out of money travelling in Europe when I was 19. I called my Mom from a train station asking for funds so I could get home, and waiting for [the money] to arrive, I found myself a job as “skipper” of a yacht. I stayed on for almost three years and my unconventional career path was launched. Thirteen years later, after having taught for 2.5 years in Canada and having led expeditions all over the world, my teaching and exploring careers collided while [I was] standing on a beach in the Antarctic surrounded by penguins. I thought, Imagine if we could bring youth to this place, how that experience could change their perspectives and define their futures? At that moment in 1999, Students on Ice was born. I didn’t stop teaching-I took it to a non-traditional classroom.
The Polar regions have inspired me, really given me a connection to the natural world that I carry with me and that affects everything I do. That connection to nature is the message I’m trying to promote. We’re lacking that connection in today’s society. There’s a diconnect on so many levels to the fact that our actions have conequences. There’s us and there’s the envionmrnet, and there’s some kind of separation between the two. I believe there is no separation. We are the environment. What we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. And this water issue is an example of how we’ve lost the plot. It’s one of the most sacred things on our planet-necessary for life-and yet we don’t even think about [oceans and watersheds].
RD: You’ve been travelling to the Polar regions for 16 years. What do you see?
Green: Definite changes, mostly in the ice. Last summer alone there was a 20% reduction in minimum sea-ice coverage in the Artctic. We couldn’t find ice last year-normally you’re trying to avoid it. Eventually we found some trapped in a bay. Last summer was the biggest reduction in sea-ice that has ever been recorded. This is an example of climate change due to global warming.
In the Arctic the glaciers are like small ice caps; in the Antartic ice covers everything-90% of the ice in the world is there. Ice is one of the barometers of the change that we’re seeing. Also permafrost melting…I’ve been stuck up to my knees in Permafrost in the past. The big deal about melting permafrost is that it contains methane gas-about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. You see these domino effects.
In the Arctic we’re seeing bears fasting for the summer because there’s no ice to hunt-the fasting period is longer. Walrus pups, because the ice is melting earlier, are getting separated from their parents. The Northwest Passage was completely ice-free last summer. Ice shelves are breaking off in the Antarctic – they break off naturally, but the pace of the breaking is increasing. A lot of these things are natural cycles, but the pace of change is beyond anything that’s [been recorded].
The Polar regions are cornerstones of our global eco-system. They are natural laboratories and very symbolic of our understanding of conservation. These regions are windows to every environmental issue/challenge/threat on the planet, from big ones like climate change to more direct ones like overfishing, whaling, ozone depletion. The fact that 70% of all the fresh water is in the Antarctic also makes it a platform for the global water crisis.
RD: What do you show young people on the expeditions?
Green: We’re trying to inspire them, and make them passionate about Mother Nature. When they look into the eyes of a polar bear or a whale, there’s a connection made. All of a sudden, it becomes real and personal, and those are things they’ll never forget. Then we start to educate them about some of the issues.
[But] you can get the nature experience anywhere. Any place there’s a tree, you can have that type of experience.
RD: How do you marry the notion of being a traveller with the harm that travel does to the environment?
Green: We audit our operations, and get the kids to calculate how much each of them is responsible for-and it’s a lot. Then we purchase offsets through gold-standard programs. You get to where you’re technically carbon-neutral, but we don’t think that’s enough to live with a clean conscience. So all of the students are tasked with this responsibility: the expedition is just the beginning. They have to share what they’ve learned-by giving presentations and starting eco-initiatives, for example-to inspire others to reduce their carbon footprint.
Our five-year plan is to build the world’s most environmentally-friendly sailing vessel for our future journeys. Using photovoltaic cells in the sails, biofuels in the engine. It’s a big dream, but I think it’s achievable. We’re also working on our own carbon-offset program, to build greenhouses in the Arctic so that vegetables don’t have to be flown in.