Getting there

Getting there

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Most Inspiring Person You've Never Heard Of

In October 2010 my husband was invited to present the opening keynote address at an environmental remediation conference in Banff, Alberta. Now, generally my daughter and I don't accompany my husband to conferences as his time is spent working and attending presentations while we are left to our own devices (which often means far too much time using plastic in the local shops). This conference, however, was different as he was attending as a speaker, not a delegate, and it was being held at the beautiful Banff Springs Hotel, a place at which we stay as often as possible. So, we decided our daughter could miss a couple of days of school, see her dad speak, and enjoy Banff in the fall.

The conference organizers were incredibly gracious hosts and not only invited my daughter and I to attend my husband's keynote address but to also attend all the other speeches and social functions at the conference. My daughter being the only child among hundreds of delegates quickly became the unofficial "delegate princess" and charmed everyone in attendance. The final keynote speaker was someone I'd never heard of but sounded interesting. He was the first person to walk to both the north and south poles, and I assumed he was some sort of extreme adventurer type, probably amusing but likely a superficial sort. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Robert Swan, OBE, is indeed the first person to walk to both poles.When he first took the stage to speak the first thing I noticed is that he's a rather attractive man. Handsome in a rugged sense, with features weathered by a life lived outdoors, Robert's most arresting physical feature is his peculiar grey eyes, stripped of their original colour after a polar walk underneath the hole in the ozone layer. When Robert began to speak, though, what becomes clear is that his attraction lies not in his physical appearance but in his sheer passion.

When Robert was eleven years old he saw a movie about Scott's trek to the South Pole, and was inspired. He decided that some day he would follow in those famous footsteps. As he says this was quite a goal for a young British boy who had never even been camping. While growing up Robert never forgot his dream, and as a very young man he set about the ambitious task of raising $5 million to fund his goal. He purchased a boat named "Southern Quest", recruited volunteers and formed a team for the walk, and set off for Antarctica. They completed the arduous walk and arrived at the South Pole - only to discover that the Southern Quest had just been sunk off the coast of Antarctica. Despite this setback Robert persevered, and his experience at the pole changed him. He subsequently formed a team of individuals from several different nations and undertook a successful walk to the North Pole.

What Robert discovered during these walks was a pristine environment that was already feeling the effects of man. In 2041 the treaty protecting the Antarctic from development expires, and Robert knew that he needed to take what he had learned and find a way to preserve the Antarctic. So, Robert embarked on what he refers to as his 50-year mission to save the Antarctic. This mission has included cleaning up the remnants of a Soviet base in Antarctica (a task of gargantuan proportions), attending several Earth Summits to meet with world leaders, and, most importantly in my mind, several expeditions to Antarctica with young people from countries all over the world. As Robert says he likes to stock his boat with people from Israel and Palestine, from Russia and America, and from all sorts of places traditionally at conflict. The goal is to show them that while we may engage in conflict over our own interests what we should be doing is working together to protect our world. He chooses to inspire people with a positive attitude - one that says that we can effect change, and that we can achieve great things. His motto is that no one has ever been inspired by the negative, and I think that is one of the most self-evident but least understood truths I've ever heard.

Robert's mission encompasses far more than I can explain here. He and his teams have built an e-base in the Antarctic, fuelled entirely by alternative energy sources. He is actively exploring and promoting alternative energy as his belief is that only when we have embraced those sources will places like Antarctica be safe from development. He continues to speak to audiences all over the world as both an enviromental and motivational speaker, and he leads expeditions to Antarctica in order to allow people to see what he is fighting for. And fighting he is - Robert has endured many personal and financial struggles to accomplish all this, including recently losing his own home and living out of a suitcase (one senses this is likely not the first or last time this will happen to him). His passion for what he believes is overwhelming, inspiring, and incredibly courageous.

After Robert finished speaking my daughter and I purchased his book and lined up to have it autographed. When our turn came he was delightful with my eleven-year old daughter and spoke to her as an equal, not as an adult to a child. He was pretty delightful with her mother, too, taking the hand I offered to him in both of his and gazing deeply into my eyes with his mesmerizing grey ones (after about 10 seconds of that I was ready to sign over my bank account AND start packing my bag for the Antarctic). He told me that his true audience is children and young adults as they are the ones who will be making the decisions in 2041, and I told him that he had certainly hit the mark with my daughter - and he had. When we left my daughter was inspired and said that she, too, wanted to make a difference in the world. Robert had shown her that even a dream found at the age of eleven can be lived, and can become much more than one ever imagined.

There is no doubt that Robert Swan is an amazing person. He deserves far greater fame than he has achieved, and I hope to some day arrange to bring him to my city to speak because his message should be out there far wider than it is. This blog entry is just another attempt to bring him some of the exposure he deserves, and to bring attention to his mission - because if anyone can do it, Robert can.

"The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it."
Robert Swan, OBE

Robert Swan's 2041 Website

This video is promotional for Robert's motivational speeches, but gives you a sense of what kind of passion he inspires:

This video is a promotional piece for Robert's book:

And this final video has nothing to do with Robert, but has Antarctica in the title, I like it, and Men Without Hats and I go back a long way (but that's another story for another day!):


  1. You are right Theresa. Having met several inspirational people in my life, Robert stands in a league apart. I am very fortunate and honoured to be joining him on the expedition in March and will be bringing his message to schools on my return. Keep in tough with Joe B. at ESAA as he is the primary contact for Artworks. I will be sure to send you photos of the trip when I return.

    Gavin Scott
    Vice President, ESAA
    President, EAFA

  2. By the way, your husband and daughter were huge hits at Remtech

  3. Agree with Gavin and yourself ... he is an amazing individual that no-one has heard of. Hope we see you back at a RemTech in the future.

  4. Thank you Theresa for a wonderful post... Robert is truly an inspiring person, and as you stated, his "sheer passion" for Antarctica and the environment as a whole, really makes you want to help change your ways and change this world- for the better.

    P.S. Let me know when you are ready to pack for the Antarctic, we would love to have you.

    Heather Hilliard
    2041 Expedition Coordinator