From Antarctica to Kilimanjaro to the Arctic Ocean, Barney Swan Learns from Nature
Barney Swan comes by his zest for adventure honestly: he’s the son of Robert Swan, the first person in history who walked to both the North and South Poles. Having accompanied his father in some of the harshest conditions in the world, Barney works to educate others to connect with Nature and care for the planet. Last year, he set a record by skiing to the South Pole while uniquely powered by renewable energy, rather than by the typical gas stoves and fuel. We spoke with him about what he’s learned in his travels, and how to go beyond polarized talk to engaged action.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Parvati Magazine: How did your father’s world-record expeditions influence you growing up?
Barney Swan: I went to Antarctica the first time with him when I was seven. It just felt normal. But when I went [back] with him at 18, everything that he’s done really started to sink in.
Parvati Magazine: In 2018 you completed another expedition with him to the South Pole. What was it like to return to “normal” life afterward?
ClimateForce for a Sustainable Future
Barney Swan: After two months, 24-hour daylight, getting frostbite on my feet, living in such a raw state, it was really poignant to come back. The noise of technology and social media felt out of control. Only now am I jumping into that space again and using it as a tool to share good stories about stuff we care about, because all the news that comes out seems to be very negative.
Even with these climate strikes, it sometimes feels like there’s polarity. We need to meet in the middle if we’re going to come up with solutions. That’s really what I’m trying to do with ClimateForce. We went to Kilimanjaro and planted 3000 trees with Jane Goodall. We’re taking people to give back, clean up trash, acknowledge the land we’re walking on and the fact that it does require resources to live a lovely life. If there’s one thing I want to be remembered for, it’s the idea to just clean up. Leave every space better than you found it.
Parvati Magazine: You have been criticized for receiving support from Shell on your expeditions. How do you respond?
Barney Swan: Coming back to that polarity piece I sometimes feel with these protests… if you’ve been on a plane, if you have a mobile phone, if you do pretty much anything in this modern world, oil has touched you. It’s made medicine and mobility and all of this stuff. And I’m not saying that we don’t have the tools and the technology to change that, but fundamentally oil has created the modern world. We need to work with these people instead of demonizing them. Yes, there’s some who are wanting to be greedy and not respect the land. But a lot are just wanting to learn and support their families, and still be a part of a community and do good for the planet. People do care.
Parvati Magazine: What is it like to be in harsh conditions for so long?
Living In Gratitude
Barney Swan: Whether it’s something small, like a road trip, or it’s spending two months in a tent in minus 45 conditions, it humbles you. It makes you appreciate your bed, warmth, being supported. So many of us have that abundance, but we don’t really live in gratitude.
[It] takes you out of your ego trip of thinking you’re this self-important thing. You’re connected to so much more. I think we need to look up, appreciate the sky, the earth, the air, the creatures. We need to not get engrossed in this world of technology that isn’t necessarily real. Nature’s real, conversation is real, eye contact is real. Dancing is real.
The more you receive and open up, the more the universe shows back. We need to keep that connection to the planet.
Parvati Magazine: This past summer you were in the Arctic with MAPS Ambassador Raj Phukan. How did this expedition compare to Antarctica?
Barney Swan: What’s going on in the Arctic is very different to Antarctica. The permafrost melting is releasing loads of CO2 and methane and accelerating a lot of things. The sea ice melt is accelerating quicker than people thought. When my dad skied to the North Pole, he experienced sea ice melt four months before it ever had. And by 2030, 2040, what he did back in the 80s will be impossible to do without a kayak. Things are just changing so rapidly up there. In Antarctica, it’s more subtle and it’s a very healthy ecosystem. The Arctic is suffering and is definitely flashing a red alert.
Barney Swan is the first person to ski to the South Pole powered by clean technologies. This expedition marked the launch of the ClimateForce challenge, a seven-year mission to reduce 360 million tonnes of CO2 before 2025. Barney leads expeditions around the world to connect leaders to projects, team building, and adventures on the front lines of our changing world.