Wednesday, 2 June 2010

BB2B: The essay

A Climate Walk: Big Ben to Brussels

Tonight we leave for Holland. I’m on the train now, traveling from Colchester to Harwich where we’ll have dinner and then board the overnight ferry bound for the Hoek van Holland. I’m behind schedule and I’ve already received three calls wondering where I am. It took me longer to batten down the hatches for 12 days away than expected.

Five days ago I was on a train, traveling through the dark, much like I am now, except it was at the opposite end of the day and in the opposite direction. Like a true November day, the sky wouldn’t lighten for hours and the sun, as it turned out, wouldn’t come out at all. It was cloudy, drizzling. I’d waited in the dark for the bus to the rail station, wrapped in my winter layers, leaning forward slightly, balanced by the weight of a full backpack. I was on my way to meet up with four women who were walking 250 miles from Big Ben to Brussels. The walk, named for its starting and finishing points, BB2B, was the concept of Roz Savage. Roz, while being a good many things, is best known as an ocean rower and a United Nations Climate Hero. She organized the walk to raise awareness about the upcoming climate talks at the COP15 in Copenhagen and as a form of low-carbon transport. Upon arriving in Brussels, she would board the Climate Express with other climate talk bound people.

It was a Friday morning. I was planning to walk with them until Monday when I needed to return to campus for lectures or for as long as I could keep up. I’d never intentionally walked 15 miles in a day before. I didn’t know how I’d tucker out at 10. I was also keeping my options open in case it didn’t turn out to be something I wanted to partake in.

I had only met Roz once at another event in London. It was October 24th, the International Day of Climate Action. She was a featured speaker, a tiny figure standing on a chair with a bullhorn pressed to her lips. “I row across oceans,” she said,

to inspire people to take action on climate change. Something the ocean has taught me is that any challenge, no matter how huge, can be tackled if you break it down into little steps. When I rowed across the Atlantic it took me about a million oar strokes. One stroke doesn’t get me very far, but you take a million tiny actions and you string them all together and you get across 3000 miles of ocean. You can achieve almost anything, if you just take it one stroke at a time.

And it’s the same with climate change. On a day like today, when we feel part of a huge global community, it’s easy to believe we can change the world. But there will be other days when maybe we feel alone, and that anything we do as individuals won’t really make a difference – that it’s just a drop in the ocean.

But every action counts. We all have it in our power to make a difference. In fact, we’re already making a difference – it’s just up to us to decide if it’s a good one or a bad one. Every time we switch the lights off, or choose to walk instead of drive, or say no to a plastic bag, it matters.

If I can row 3,000 miles across an ocean for climate change, then you can remember to turn off the lights when you leave a room.

I’d learned about Roz a few months earlier from a couple I’d met at a Fourth of July party. My friend, Paul Scott, vice president of a group called Plug in America (and talking head from Who Killed the Electric Car?) invited me to his party. I knew he knew the folks who did the project the prior summer called Junk Raft—a group another friend of mine was a huge fan. She was talking to me one day about swirling vortexes, gyres of plastic goo in the oceans. They’re essentially where currents meet and trash travels to swirl uninterrupted for eternity. Junk Raft was an 80 foot raft made out of tethered used plastic bottles with a helicopter cab on top. Two men sailed it from Long Beach, California to Hawaii through what’s affectionately referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Kathy had just launched a new company which focused on selling responsible merchandize and donating a percentage of the profits to develop water projects in places where they’re needed. Water was her new passion and that included oceans. Paul and I got on the subject somehow over coffee one day and it turned out his wife was doing Junk Raft’s PR. So I show up to the 4th of July party to talk with Paul about connecting Kathy and the crew from Junk Raft and he says, they’re here! And that’s how I met Roz.

Markus and Anna are an amazing couple. Markus was on the boat, Anna did support work from the shore. Their goal is to visit all five of the swirling garbage patches. This summer, they want to do the North Atlantic gyre. I asked about the trans-Pacific journey and Markus obliged. His re-telling of it included a story about how, when they were running short on food, they heard their ocean rowing friend was short on water and just happened to be in the neighborhood on her way from San Francisco to Hawaii, so they arranged a rendezvous in the middle of the pacific via satellite phone. Anna called Roz’s mom, got her number, and after a few days of adjusting their trajectories, the two ships managed to meet. Roz, promised a hot meal, boarded the Junk Raft, and ate freshly caught and grilled Mahi-Mahi. Roz shared some of her food supply. They gave her some fresh water and one of their desalinators. After parting ways, Junk Raft stopped to collect samples of the oceanic goo and Roz rowed her heart out. Both boats made it to Hawaii safely within days of each other.

So on October 24th, I arrived at this rally to support this group called 350, one of the lead organizers of this day of action. About 300 people gathered in the grass square of Jubilee Gardens near the London Eye. Together we were going to form the number 5. This would be photographed from a cherry picker and assembled with other photographs of humans making up the numbers 3 and 0 to create 350 (for 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—thought to be a safe concentration that will allow us to avoid catastrophic climate change). (Oh, we’re currently somewhere around 390 parts per million. Hence the sense of urgency.)

I brought my Kazakh flat mate with me because she’d never been to London before and asked if she could tag along. Communication between us is limited. To make it interesting for her, I took her to visit Westminster Abbey and the parliament buildings before the rally. While we were there, some climate ralliers, all in blue, marched through lead by a man on a bike with wings connected to his pedals so it looked like they were flapping as he rode. The wings read “Protect your Mother”.

I introduced myself to Roz after we were done being a 5. I calculated the odds that there was another woman named Roz rowing across the Pacific and felt assured she must be the Roz that Markus and Anna told me about. Turns out she was. We exchanged a few emails afterward, trying to track down a PowerPoint presentation she told me about delivered by a guy at Climate Ride about the 4 main reasons climate change is so hard for people to understand and to communicate. The rest, as they say . . .

Friday morning, trying to stay awake on the train into Liverpool Street, the gherkin just coming into view, I was having second thoughts. What was I getting in to? Why had I agreed to do this? Not only was it just past 6 in the morning and raining outside, but what if the group was a disaster? Women, for all their fantastic qualities, can be awful company when grouped together.

For a year and a half I worked for a U.S. based climate change campaign. It was considered the national arm of 350, but not nearly as successful or well run. One of my responsibilities was to send out press releases. We used a service that let us create lists of reporters that might be sympathetic to our cause and report on our no news notices. My e-mail address was the one that showed up in the “reply-to” section and I often heard back from these mass mailings, mostly from the folks who were less than sympathetic. One of my favorite responses was all caps, unsigned, and interpreted in my brain’s ear like robot speech, all staccato.


Well, this lead me to question the quality of the service we were using—which seemed to consist of energy-guzzling SUV driving, science-challenged, conveniently faithful Republicans, invalid e-mail addresses, people no longer employed and people who employed spam filters to protect them from blasts like mine—but it also reminded me that there a lot of people out there who don’t consider the consequences of their actions, even something as innocent as turning on a light bulb.

I once, in a film called Garbage, I saw a man from Appalachia interviewed. His property was close to a coal mine and the coal company was trying a wide variety of tactics to make him move, including shooting as his dog. The man leads the director to the edge of his property where the plant-less gouge in the earth that leads to coal mine can be seen through a break in the trees. Then he shows the director a deep crack, 600 feet deep and 10,000 feet long that runs through his property. The earth has been cracked open by the blasts from the coal mine. “Next time you flip on your light switch,” he says, “think about that.”

Knowing what I know, having researched climate and energy for two years, putting in time at a campaign, and hearing Roz chide us, “If I can row 10,000 strokes every day, you can turn off the light when leaving the room,” I knew I wanted to do more than turn off the lights. This was an opportunity to walk the line of my convictions.

Walking as a form of protest is nothing new, but you probably haven’t heard of most of the people who’ve done it. Let’s see. There’s John Francis, nicknamed the Planetwalker, who stopped riding in motorized vehicles after witnessing the 1971 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay and walked everywhere for 22 years (17 of which he stopped talking). During his time on foot, he traveled across the United States, earned a PhD, and after being hit by a car convinced ambulance drivers to allow him to walk to the hospital. He broke his silence on Earth Day 1990 and went on to be a featured speaker at the TED conference. Deciding that fossil fuels could make him a more effective environmentalist, he boarded a bus in 1994 on the Venezuelan-Brazilian border.

There was the Peace Pilgrim who set out on January 1, 1953 vowing to remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace. I can’t imagine she’s still walking, not because we’ve reached such a state where she ought to kick back and put her feet up on a job well done, but because that was 55 years ago.

Tribes of Native Americans have walked across the United States to petition Congress for their land rights. There was the marches and walks for racial equality in the 50s. And let us not forget Gandhi, the man Rebecca Solnit refers to as the “founder of the political pilgrimage”, who walked 200 miles over salt.

The reason why most of these folks are unknown is that it’s hard to communicate widely out while you’re walking (especially when you’re not talking). If 5 women walked 250 miles from London to Brussels, would it make a difference? Would this walk go unnoticed? Would it be just another act of impassioned environmentalist that doesn’t make a difference?

I transferred from the train to the busy and delayed underground. I got off a stop too early, and walked ½ a mile to where the team was meeting. I laughed. I was going to be walking 15 miles, why was I making it more work for myself?

I was late then, too, but only by a couple of minutes. Roz called me wondering where I was. I was just around the corner at that point and when I rounded it, there was no missing the group. There were four women in bright orange jackets and bright orange hats moving about a make shift staging area in front of a chain coffee shop. There bags, blow up balls with earths printed on them, and backpacks scattered across the pavement.

Immediately upon flagging down Roz, I was gifted with gear: a bright orange jacket and hat, a pack cover with logo, and some lip salve, an earth ball. After a few minutes of changing clothes and adjusting the contents of my bag to accommodate the new goods, I was ready to meet the team.

Alison Gannett, extreme free skier, UN Climate Hero, campaigner for the salvation of snow, mountaineer, also Copenhagen-bound. Jane Hornsby & Laura Hazel, two warm, strong, smart ladies: friends who've known each other for 17 years, both wives, both mothers of 3. I also had the pleasure of meeting their husbands. There was also Nora (“Where’s Nora?”), a documentary maker, and her film crew of 3.

It was an awkward first few minutes. Roz was coordinating people and answering phone calls. Jane and Laura stood at the ready. Alison chatted enthusiastically with a reporter. The film crew looked bored. Nora had disappeared again. I chatted with a woman who ran an eco-product promotion and distribution company.

Once the first order of business was taken care of, getting in uniform, the second quickly commenced: Press. We walked out, single file, like traffic cone colored ducklings down the sidewalk, across the street. Only Alison carried her pack, which held her skis (almost as long as she is tall). She was collecting signatures on them so she could deliver them to delegates in Copenhagen. While the rest of us stopped at a red light, Nora, tweeting via her iPhone, kept walking and Laura had to save her from being hit by a black cab. The rest of us exchanged looks and suffered elevated heart rates. Nora, unfazed, kept typing.

As our first team effort, we braved the rain and wind, standing on the bridge to Westminster in front of Big Ben to have our pictures taken. We posed for cameras, walked this way and that, caught one another’s hats as they flew off our heads, and tested out the water-resistance of our new jackets. Alison and Roz did interviews. Jane started to worry that we were running behind schedule which would leave us trying to navigate the final miles of our day’s journey in the dark.

Finishing interviews, thanking visitors and families who’d come to see us off (and 15 minutes of looking for Nora who’d run off with her assistant—something about a car), we loaded the gear on our backs and set off, in the rain, first to visit the ghost forest in Trafalgar Square.

The ghost forest consists of the giant trunks of dead trees from a commercially logged forest in Africa. This exhibit, like our Climate Heroes, was also traveling to Copenhagen. These stumps, some with root systems still impressively in tact, are massive and their roots stretch out like vines. It was moving to see a tree in that unnatural state. Once a living, growing, breathing creature that took hundreds of years to grow that with the swipe of a chain saw (albeit a large one) and some transporting, became an exhibit, like Body Worlds, the exhibit featuring plasticized dead people. I know one thing for sure; I prefer bodies and trees alive.

After a quick circumambulation of the exhibit, Jane, our navigator, lead us straight down to the Thames. We turned left and walked along the northern bank to the East. I love walking along the river, seeing all the bridges and feeling like there's a bit of open space in a city that size. Walking is such an amazing way to see the city. As Iain Sinclair says, it’s the “best way to explore and exploit the city,” and I couldn’t agree more, though his recommended mode of “drifting purposefully” was not the one we employed that day.

Despite what one might assume based on her leg length, Jane is an incredibly fast walker. She marched us down the Thames, past the Tower of London, through the streets of Wapping, to the Limehouse Basin.

The group adjusted gear and got acquainted as we went. I snapped photos and looked around. Just as I was observing the trash barge floating, full of rubbish, and reading the sign on it that said it prevented 10,000 plastic water bottles a year from reaching the Thames (Markus would be proud), I heard a loud pop. I looked up in time to see Alison’s earth ball fly into the River, downstream of the barge. The wind had pulled it off of her bag. So much for keeping the plastic out of the oceans (Sorry, Markus). Roz, who was very much at work on the phone with a reporter from the Associated Press at the time, quickly spun it into a sound bite.

“We just lost Planet Earth,” she said. “Luckily, we have another nine. Unluckily the same can’t be said of the real Earth. That’s what we’re going to Copenhagen to say. We’ve got just the one Earth, and we have to look after it. In real life, we don’t have any spares.”

We watched the earth float down the river for a while and then continued on. Most of the day was on pavement. We took a turn north through Limehouse Basin to get to the heavily graffitied Lea Valley path, and walked along the river Lea almost until the night's destination. It was beautiful. The river was smooth and put up a good reflection of the trees and sky, the boats that lived on it. We passed locks that were put in when the river was used to transport goods. There was tree cover and the air smelled cleaner—much lighter than the soot-filled air of central London that coats your nostrils and skin.

We cut through a park at one point and went through marsh lands. We walked and walked until after sunset and then we walked the last few miles in the dark. The conversations along the way were wonderful. Every one was in good spirits and really friendly. It was casual; it was about climate change and sustainability. We talked about connections—it turns out that everyone there had pretty much only met Roz once and only Jane and Laura had been friends before the walk.

We saw Nora and the camera crew for small intervals along the way. It seems Roz was constantly on the phone with her trying to explain to her where we were so they could catch up with us and film more. (We lost Nora back at the Tower of London when she decided to stop coffee and lunch. We found out her decision because she’d been walking with Alison and they’d fallen behind by about ½ mile when she decided to stop. Winding through the roads and buildings to stay on the Thames walk, we paused to let Alison catch up. After a few minutes of wondering how far back we should walk to meet them, Alison appeared, jogging, skis swaying above her head, from around the bend. We didn’t hear from Nora for a couple of hours after that.)

We were all thrilled to get to the hotel--especially me. I limped the last 3 miles or so (ever since the reservoir), which were through a city and up and down hills. I had a lot of pain in the back of my knee and my leg seemed to want to bend to the side rather than to the front. I thought I was done for—destined to hop on a train and head back to campus, alone and defeated. I lay down for a few minutes, applied some Biofreeze gel to my knee and elevated it. Then I sucked it up and went down for dinner.

Dinner was hilarious. The menu was very limited. When asked if it was possible to do a baked potato instead of chips on a fish and chips order, the bar tender responded, looking perplexed, that there wasn't a button for that. When the fish came, it was crispy. We weren't feeling picky, though. We were happy to be off our feet and eating.

It’s 6 o’clock. It’s been dark for hours it seems. I’m traveling north-east through one of the most beautiful parts of England—the Dedham Vale. This is Constable Country, an area famously depicted by one of the most respected landscape artists in England. His work and this spot is an area of national pride. It’s an AONB: an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The river Stour runs through this valley and has its mouth near Harwich. To the north of the river is Suffolk. To the south, Essex. Much is done to preserve this area. To keep bits of it looking as it did two hundred years ago in Constable’s time. As a result, there aren’t a lot of lights around. I wish there were some light in the sky as I’m sure I’d appreciate the view.

When I start to see lights, I know I’m nearing Harwich, an important port of yesterday. Today, a harbor for ferries which carry passengers and goods between England and Holland. The International Port is glaring with light and bustling with people. This is where I’m coming back to, but I stay on the train to Harwich Town. The town was one of many lying on the North Sea coast to be inundated in the flood of 1953. They say this side of the island is tilting into the sea. The slightest change in sea level rise would be noticed here.

There’s nothing like getting off the train in the dark in a place you’ve never been before, never studied a map of and only heard bad things about. Luckily I wasn’t the only one getting off the train and asked an older gentleman in a suit if he could point me to the Pier restaurant. He did one better and walked me most of the way there. We passed down darkened streets. It was a quiet place and there were not a lot of people about. One of my classmates was telling me that Harwich is not a terrible place. It used to house a lot of industry and employ a lot of people on the docks, but that’s changed. Now, he said, it’s a very depressed area.

My escort left me at a corner and pointed me on. I continued down the street, past a couple of pubs and a restaurant, to the pier. The restaurant is one of the last buildings on the street, across from the pier.

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