#016 Barney Swan: on facing shadows, mental resilience and keeping the fire burning
Why should we confront our shadows? How can we break out of the mental torture chambers we create in our heads? And where can we focus efforts to save our rainforests? Big questions that we are deep diving into with Barney Swan, the first man to traverse the South Pole only on renewable energy and the Founder of ClimateForce.
In 2019 I had the incredible opportunity to go to the Arctic Circle on an expedition and for deep climate change leadership training. The expedition was led by father-son duo Robert and Barney Swan. Robert was the first man to traverse both the North and South Poles unassisted. And Barney followed in his footsteps but went one step further to reach Antarctica solely on renewable energy.
Barney’s journey was in 2017. He skied over 1000 kilometres over 65 days to the South Pole. How did he survive? Purely on NASA-designed renewable energy. The carbon-positive journey he embarked on marked the launch of the ClimateForce challenge, to “clean up” 360 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere before the year 2025. Today, Barney is on a mission to bring outdoor stewardship and conscious business practices together to design a more sustainable future.
In this podcast episode, we talk about facing shadows and adversity, mental resilience, and what keeps the fire burning during tough times. You can listen to the whole conversation on the Live Wide Awake podcast here or read the highlights below.
On being a part of efforts to save the rainforests…
I’m a manager at a charity, involved in wet tropics management. This area that I’m working in is a world heritage listed area along the coast of Queensland. Right now we want to facilitate some very tangible, positive, big-scale land regeneration. So currently, we’re fundraising to purchase 450 acres of 98%-cleared land, and we’re going to plant upwards of half a million trees on this land over this next half-decade. That will generate 300,000 tons worth of CO2 that we would draw into the biomass, which is fundamentally the main focus: biodiversity protection, carbon drawdown.
We’re also working on a partnership with a local Aboriginal corporation, and we’ll be working with the rangers to do seed collecting, surveying, helping out with the baseline assessments. Just giving some local employment over three years. With the budget I’m fundraising for, we can employ 22 people. Hopefully, we can show the blueprint for rural development that really does put conservation at the core of it.
At the end of the day, it needs to be economically viable for communities. Like Sumatra and Borneo, Indonesia, Brazil, Paraguay, there are so many places around the world that are getting absolutely smashed right now with rainforests disappearing, with palm oil or cattle or whatever it may be.
One of the key ways to address this is to actually make the communities around them make a living and a profit out of protecting them. We have an opportunity to create models that align with them—it’s sustainable development that creates not only ecological resilience but also community resilience, which I think needs to go hand in hand. And I really hope that I can create that blueprint to also help Queensland. 80% of deforestation throughout Australia happens in Queensland every year!
On processing news and creating tangible outputs…
The news is so addictive. I read The Economist and BBC pretty much every day. Just skimming through, picking a couple of articles to read. I enjoy doing that—I enjoy being up to date with things. But at the same time, it definitely comes at a toll. Being connected constantly to this global thing that’s going on. When they were going through the Spanish influenza and post-war, you had the newspaper, but you weren’t in the other person’s pain and suffering. And it’s just all so real right now.
I think being smart with how we input is such a challenge these days. And how we navigate computer time and phone time. Feeling like the world’s against us, 5G’s coming, lizard people are out to get us, Bill Gate’s already microchipped granddad with the vaccine, Trump, Big Oil, biodiversity loss, pollution—all of this shit is hitting us like a ton of bricks. And that doesn’t give much room for us to figure out how to find a niche, or start to address, and find an output, instead of constantly feeling this input addiction.
I think we just need to acknowledge the problems, but not constantly feed ourselves more of that input. We need to give ourselves that moment to surrender and be like, “all right, I’ve dealt with this one.” Or, “I’m dealing with that biodiversity loss.” And this is my output, to like go vegetarian for a month, or try and source locally so there’s less pollution, or whatever it is.
We have to create more of those outputs. Because feeling paralysed and indifferent, I think, are the two big things that a lot of people are feeling right now, especially because of COVID. We have to give people things that they can do. Whether it’s in their home, or how they’re navigating policy, or how they travel, or how they eat, or how they show up in their education system, or the business that they manage or their community groups. Figuring out tangible outputs is such an important venture, and to humanise global problems into things that we can actually do, instead of just talking about the problem, which can be really depressing. So what’s the output?
On confronting your shadows…
I felt like I enjoyed being in the limelight a bit. Didn’t realise how much that kind of snuck up on me and affected my ego. I loved being on stage, engaging with a bunch of people, when they’re all looking—I really liked that. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing in itself, but I think that gave me validation on a superficial level instead of having to feel validated within myself and actually feeling comfortable in my own bones. I was kind of relying on that external validation from others to feel my own self-worth. And I think really seeing and addressing that and being like, “shit, my ego is way bigger than I thought.” Sitting here by myself in the jungle, not going anywhere to meet anyone or do anything, and just having to sit and deal with my humaness, my baggage, my past folly, and the shit that I need to surrender. I had to feel okay with that.
It’s hugging your dragon instead of wanting to slice his head off. It’s a journey, it really is. First, you want to slay it. Then you realise the only way to fully surrender is to acknowledge it and hold yourself accountable by any means. Don’t allow addictions and survival tendencies to get in the way of living a virtuous life. But don’t be too hard on yourself either.
On not being so serious all the time…
This year, my new year’s resolution is to be a little bit less serious. The world’s serious enough. The whales with the plastic in their guts, the polluted rivers, the iron ore mine. It never stops. You can do stuff about it, but it shouldn’t get in the way of you just living a grateful and happy life. It doesn’t mean you don’t work your 15-hour-days when need. Doesn’t mean you don’t get up early and get through tiredness and work your hands in the soil and push hard. But it doesn’t need to be serious all the time. I was getting way too serious about everything, and it was making me sad and depressed.
So I want to be lighter about things. Even though they are serious, but you can be light about it. Sometimes, in a dark humour, kind of British pesky way. I hope that our species can get our shit together, and not have this big mass extinction event. But if it does, you want to sit back and rock your chair, and realise you gave it your best shot. (You didn’t remain passive, because that would suck to feel that, that you didn’t do enough.) Still, you’d want to be playful, think that you had some fun, and shared some beautiful moments with friends. That you got to experience some good in the world, instead of just getting lost in the pursuit.
I just read a good quote the other day, “Integrity is about what you do when no one else is watching”. I don’t want to clean up rubbish or plant trees or mentor someone or do something for the sake of recognition. I want to do it because it’s the right thing to do and be stoked just within that. Not needing validation or recognition, or all of this ego bullshit. Just doing it for the right thing. I’m trying to do the right thing for our future. Obviously, I’m still driving a diesel truck, and got fans going—I’ve sourced renewable but the grid system still isn’t clean—I’m still a part of the problem. But I just want to do my best to be a part of the solution and invite others, very inclusively along that journey.
On (loving) awareness as a daily practice…
Counting gratitude and putting that intention into everything. For example, take a glass of water, it’s just water, but if you really hold it before you drink it, even if it doesn’t feel different, that intention makes your association with it different. I think trying to imbue that gratitude into life all the time, for being able to just breathe, or just listening to trees… all these basic moments, and the opportunities to do that stuff.
I love Ram Dass. He’ll always live on, though unfortunately, he’s not with us anymore. I always have the mantra in my head. When I’m getting sucky, or pissed off, or frustrated, or judging myself too much. I just repeat, in my head a few times, “I am loving awareness”. I’ve always liked that statement for some reason. Because it puts you back into that ghost in the machine, puts you in the back, to just be looking into your life, and trying to be aware, lovingly, about it. It’s such a simple thing. But be kind, make yourself useful, and catch yourself before you make that same mistake. Catch yourself—that’s awareness, to check before you act. Just awareness, constantly, as a day to day, moment to moment.
On finding the middle ground…
I think we have to not find ourselves at the top of the waves or at the trough too much. But trying to find that middle ground in our lives… learning when to surrender, and also when to be active. Just that awareness between both of those spaces. I think it’s just about finding ways to sustain ourselves. It’s about how we approach the world. Having 15-hour days three days of the week, then being kind of depressed for the next four. It’s not sustainable.
We need to find that middle ground. Finding that middle ground is also about that dance between acknowledging both your light and your dark and just choose which one you want to feed every day and just be aware that there are two of them. And that they’re both coming at you from very different angles for different reasons. But at the same time, they’re both forms of us.
Three things I’m taking away from this conversation with Barney
1. We have to humanise global problems without demonising how we got into this situation.
2. Don’t submit to mental torture by lingering in the shadows.
3. Hug your dragon instead of slaying its head off.