Wednesday, 15 September 2010

How Ellen MacArthur learnt about sustainability

This week the round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur spoke at the Rye Arts Festival. Mike Pepler, our UK Awards Manager, went along to hear her discuss her new book, sustainability and the 'circular economy'.

Full Circle tells the story of how Ellen MacArthur dreamed of sailing round the world since she was a little girl, and eventually achieved this goal in 2001 and became famous - which was not what she was seeking at all. She carried on sailing and competing, and set a new record time for circumnavigating the globe single-handed in 2005.

During her ocean journeys she often passed deserted islands in the Southern Ocean, and was surprised to see how much life there was there, despite the harsh conditions. In 2005 she joined a project on South Georgia for two months to monitor the albatross population on the islands, and found it a life-changing experience. While there, she saw the abandoned whaling stations, which had operated from the early 1900s to about 1960. Many thousands of whales were processed there, mainly for oil, which was an important industrial feedstock. With the increase in mineral oil supplies, and the decline in the whale population, the industry eventually ceased to operate.

Ellen was struck by the way people had come in to take a resource with no thought to whether it could be sustained, and then abandoned the towns and industry on South Georgia when they were done with it. She started to research how different kinds of resources were being exploited across the world, and quickly realised that many of them were going to be in short supply soon, just as happened with whale oil many years ago. She also realised that in the same way she had to conserve her supplies while on a long sailing trip, the world as a whole had to conserve its own resources, as there is no resupply vessel on the way.

In 2009 she gave up competitive sailing, so she could focus on what she saw as the bigger challenge of encouraging the world to move to a sustainable footing. The key idea she is pushing is that we need a 'circular economy', where resources are reused and recycled, and energy is supplied from renewable sources. In order to campaign for this, she has recently launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is well worth a visit.

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