"If you see injustice, do not wait for leaders. Stand up – alone if you have to. Your courage will inspire others”
If you struggle to make a difference to the planet but feel that you should start, Earth Day is a great time to get involved with helping the environment. We all are guilty of blindly living our lives without much background thought process, but the planet is in such disarray that now is the time we need to take action.
With our feet pointing firmly in the right direction, we wanted help from the experts on how we can start changing our lives and making improvements that will have an overall positive impact on the environment.
Welcome, Lewis Pugh. The UN Patron of the Oceans, Lewis is a professional swimmer, a marine advocate and an extremely successful environmental campaigner. We sat down with him to find out the reality of the state or our marine life, and how we can help change it.
You completed your first long haul swim at just 17 years old - how did you have such motivation at a young age?
My highschool looked out onto Robben island and I kept looking out the window and I thought, I want to swim there. It became an obsession. I only had my first proper swimming lesson at 17 - so I could swim but wasn’t technically good, and a month later I did the Robben island swim...and I barely made it.
Robben island is cold water, it’s rough and there are sharks around there.
For the first hour everything was okay, second hour I was absolutely frozen and the third hour...the cold has a way of knawing itself into your bones and you think you’re never ever going to warm up. It quickly breaks you down mentally. Finally after 3 hours, exactly 3 hours, I put my feet down on the sand. Nothing, since then, was as wonderful as that feeling when I put my feet down at 17.
I must add, some people have swum the English Channel at 12 years old. Robben island is just 7km and the English Channel is 35km. So there is a whole other level of ambition!
Have you always been drawn to the water and marine ecosystems, or is it a passion that has grown over time?
I love the oceans. I initially grew up in Plymouth, England which is a maritime town and it’s thus been a part of my childhood from the get go. I moved to Cape Town at 17 - on the edge of the Atlantic ocean. I’ve always been surrounded by water. I always used to get told off by my teachers at school for just staring out the windows into the ocean.
If we do not take action now and the planet's oceans continue on this environmental descent, what will happen to our marine life?
Our marine life at the moment is being devastated, absolutely devastated, and I don’t use that word lightly. Let me just give you some statistics that really show you how it is.
About 90% of the world’s big fish have been taken out of the oceans. Sharks are absolutely crucial for any healthy ecosystem - let’s compare it a land based animal for a case in point. Imagine if you were to take all the lion out of the Serengeti. If you take out the main predator, all the antelope the zebra the wildebeest will all multiply, they’d all the grass, then soon they’d be no more grass and the natural ecosystem collapses. It’s the exact same with sharks.
100 million sharks are slaughtered every year. You work that out on a daily basis that’s like 270,000 per day. It’s entirely unsustainable.
Also, the number of penguins are dramatically plummeting, year on year, and it’s all down to the overfishing. We’re dramatically over fishing our oceans on top of the effect that global climate change is having as well as plastic pollution...if we don’t protect our oceans right now, there is little hope.
But, there IS hope, if we really pull up our socks and stop all the pollution going into the sea.
I was recently in Mumbai on a beach and I’ve never seen anything like it: there was plastic literally up to our knees. We cleaned that beach for two days, 50 huge trucks to get rid of all that plastic pollution and the following week? It was back up to the same level.
How does the health of our oceans affect us?
Our oceans are absolutely crucial for our health - you destroy the oceans and it hugely impacts humans. We are treating our oceans with huger disregard - but we need to love our oceans. They’re the source of life on this Earth.
Take plastic as the example. When it’s not disposed of properly, it eventually ends up in the sea, and then it’s going to get broken down. Then, it’s eaten by fish. Those fish are then eaten by humans. You’ve actually got real plastic that we humans are eating - plastic which is detrimental to our health.
The second point to make is that, by 2050, they expect there to be more plastic in the ocean, by volume, than fish! This says something about how much plastic is going into the ocean, but also by how little fish there are due to overfishing.
Do you think human beings, by genetic default, are a selfish species?
I think humans often think short term and it’s no surprise to me that all the great environmentalists are mostly female. Women generally think longer term than men. They care deeply about their children and grandchildren and thus have a longer term mindset towards such global issues than men.
In fact on all my social media, the main area of audience is women aged 25-55 who are active in tweeting me, messaging me and discussing such global issues.
Men can often get so focused on what they’re doing, their careers and what they're trying to achieve, they can lose sight of the importance of the larger issues.
In the main, the great environmental campaigners are females, and my inspirational people have been women. They’ve shown that one person really can make a difference.
Women have the nurturing instinct. Men have a nonchalant attitude. In fact, a really good negotiator and diplomat is a really good listener. And in the main, women are much better listeners.
Also, the reason women are so important, without stereotyping, is that in the whole, the women are the ones who make the purchases. I don’t go out and buy things, my wife does. I don’t buy my clothes, she does. So, when women make the right environmental choices and really force companies to clean up their supply chain...they become a very powerful block.
Do you find yourself coming up against obstacles, particularly with world leaders / government, and if so how do you overcome them?
There are lots of different obstacles you can face when you’re trying to protect the environment. The single biggest one is: noise. And what I mean by that, is that there are so many other important issues happening in the world, such as poverty, health care, refugees, climate change, terrorism...any of these things. The oceans is just one thing.
So the main focus of an environmental campaigner is to create a story that inspires and gets heard - to make a change.
Do you ever feel too overwhelmed with what needs to be changed to save the planet, to even know where to begin?
There are so many environmental issues; the poaching of elephants, shark finning, global littering, climate change - where on earth do you start? If you start becoming a voice for everything, then you become a voice for nothing.
I’m a swimmer and a marine campaigner so I need to be a voice for the oceans. The three main issues we’re facing with our oceans are overfishing, climate change and pollution.
One of the solutions is to create these marine protected areas - these big national parks that what I am focusing on now, creating a lot of these around the world, particularly in the pole regions.
Do you find the younger generation receptive to global issues?
The younger generation are very receptive to these environmental issues and very vocal about it too, particularly in Russia and China. In these two countries, environmental issues are on the top 3 issues. In Russia, Putin has identified this as one of the main issues of the forthcoming election. He has declared 2017 the year to start making huge changes, because they realise this is an issue for which they’lll stand or fall.
If you could offer the children of today just one piece of advice, what would it be?
Actually, I’d like to speak to their parents! I’d like to say to the parents, please please, the majority of children of today are actually very alienated from the environment. They’re not seeing nature in the same way as two or three generations back. You used to protect it and care for it as it was your food source, but now this is not the case. I urge parents, teachers and schools to take our children to national parks. If they know nothing about the environment, why would they want to consider protecting it?
If everyone could make just one change in their lifestyle that will have a positive impact on our planet, what would you like us all to do?
I think, if people are reading this and asking themselves what one thing they can do to protect and help the environment - please, loom for sustainably sourced fish. We have huge fish factories and industrial fishing that literally go in and hoover up our oceans and it’s just not sustainable. Choosing sustainably sourced fish can make a huge difference.
What if nothing changes...then what?
I hear this alot, and I assure you, it is changing. It’s never going to be that way. I was at the Paris climate change negotiations two years ago., and we are now on a very exciting road. 195 countries came together to agree to cut their carbon emissions. China, in fact, scrapped plans to build 80-90 coal power stations. He said, instead, he’s investing an extraordinary amount of money into renewable energy. It’s truly an exciting time in human history - with governments and businesses realizing they need to make a change.