LEWIS PUGH, a name you’ve probably never heard, is one of the most important unsung heroes of our planet. Gifted with the ability to raise his natural body heat prior to jumping into freezing waters, he uses his superpower to draw attention to looming environmental crises.
At just 17 years old, he began his quest to protect the Earth’s oceans from humanity by launching himself into the Cape of Good Hope where he swam from mainland South Africa to Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s prison for 27 years.
He believes that every generation has its battles: for his grandparents’ it was the Nazis, for Mandela’s it was the fight for freedom, and for ours it is the environment and the oceans.
Over the next several decades, Pugh went on to complete long distance swims in every ocean of the world, including Lake Pumori on Mount Everest, to raise awareness about melting glaciers and decreasing natural resources. After years of swimming and campaigning on behalf of our waters, the UN named him the Environment Patron of the Oceans in 2013.
Dubbed ‘speedo diplomacy’, Pugh uses his title to meet with heads of state to negotiate policies that can protect marine life. Moreover, he’s effective. Where other campaigners were unable to succeed for 17 years, just a year and a half after his risky Polar plunge through sub-zero ocean temperatures in Antarctica, Pugh convinced the EU and 24 other countries to name the Ross Sea a marine protected area, the oceans’ equivalent of a national park.
In a 2010 TED talk, Pugh shared his terrifying belief that, ‘what we’re seeing in the Himalayas is the next great, big battleground on this earth. Nearly two billion people – so, one in three people on this Earth – rely on the water from the Himalayas. And with a population increasing as quickly as it is, and with the water supply from these glaciers – because of climate change – decreasing so much, I think we have a real risk of instability.’
He urges us to keep in mind that:
‘Just because we have lived the way we have lived for so long, just because we have consumed the way we have for so long and populated the Earth the way we have for so long, doesn’t mean that we can carry on the way that we are carrying on.’
Despite the doom and gloom Pugh strives to highlight with his crazy antics, we’re happy to report that he believes real change is possible, particularly in emerging economies.
If we all do our small part, then together we can transform the world.
Just as Pugh told his TED audience, fixing climate change needs to be everyone’s mission ‘because very, very few things are impossible to achieve if we really put our whole minds to it’. We each must find the one ‘radical, tactical shift’ that we can make in our relationship with the environment to ensure that our children and grandchildren live in a safe, secure and sustainable world, and commit 100% to doing it.
Truly, anyone can make a difference.
In 2016, Pugh joined the Versova Beach initiative to draw attention to the dedication of the hundreds of volunteers that come out weekly to clean the Mumbai beach. They have collected more than 7 million kg of sea waste thus far.
One young Mumbaikar recently shared with Brandon Stanton, famed Humans of New York photographer and storyteller, ways anyone can conserve the environment.
‘I have a big book about tiger conservation, and I always knew that the ocean was in trouble. But, I didn’t really become an environmentalist until I got to grade one. That’s when I thought of many interesting ways to help. Some things you can do are reduce waste, carpool more often, spread awareness, plant trees, not cut trees, cut carbon emissions, and reduce nuclear disposal. I’m too young to start nuclear disposal because it’s dangerous and I don’t have the proper gloves. But I do recycle and keep plants on my balcony.’
So, what’s your radical, tactical shift?