We had no idea.
When we said out in 2009 to bike around the world we had no idea what was waiting for us.
There are 790 mountain gorillas left in the world – we were mock-charged by one of them along the side of the road in Uganda. There are thousands of people in Mozambique who live and farm along land that is at sea level and already prone to flooding – we slept in their villages and shared cashew beer with them along the road. In Namibia and Tanzania, people dig holes in dried river beds to get drinking water – we followed them down to the sand and carefully spooned water into our bottles on countless occasions.
We set out to bike around the world, visiting permaculture projects along the way. We knew that the environment was important, but we figured we had time, that things weren’t so bad. Sixteen months and 12,000 kilometers later, we had met so many new people and seen so many new things that biking around the world didn’t seem to make sense anymore. Deforestation wasn’t something for the future – the gorillas are disappearing right now. Climate change isn’t just an abstract concept – it could flood the coast of Mozambique tomorrow. Drought and water scarcity are not just passing struggles – they are daily life for millions of people.
It was seeing all of this that inspired us to trade the bikes for a video camera. Africa convinced us that it was urgent that we all take action for the environment, and so we thought we would spend the trip in Latin America finding people working on solutions, sharing their ideas and experiences and showing how each of us could take action in their own community to make the world a better place. The Rio+20 Earth Summit became our destination, the biggest international conference in the history of the UN, directed totally towards sustainable development.
Finding people working on solutions turned out to be the easy part. Whether it is cycling activists or transition towns or organic farmers, there is no town, city, or country that doesn’t have masses of people working on environmental solutions. The harder part for us became actually figuring out how to make movies, how to manage our website, and how to balance all the work our project suddenly entailed with all the hours on the bus we needed to get to Rio – while still enjoying the unbelievable landscapes and cultures we were passing through.
In Latin America, as in Africa, the people we met were the most powerful part of the trip. Whether it was spending Christmas in an indigenous community in the Amazon, dancing and sharing liters of yucca beer, or pushing a tractor along a dirt track in the rain in Chiapas in the middle of the night, or waking up at 4:00 am in a farmhouse along the Ecuadorian coast to accompany the farmers as they prepared for the weekly market, seeing the incredible resilience, decency, and determination of people all over the world trying to solve our environmental problems inspired us again and again. If we could all be half as dedicated as the farmers reforesting in Chiapas, or the indigenous communities protecting the Amazon in Ecuador, or the coastal farmers sacrificing sleep to bring organic produce to poor communities in the city, then the world could change over night, we could have a better world tomorrow.
With all this inspiration, we arrived in Rio for the Rio+20 Earth Summit. Heads of state from 130 nations came together to discuss sustainable development and the environment. The opportunity was tremendous – oceans, fossil fuel subsidies, new sustainable development goals, the Rio+20 summit was supposed to be the time for nations to pledge to measurable targets on all these issues, even committing money to back them up.
Of course, none of that happened. Negotiations began with a controversial text drawn up over the past two years in collaboration with civil society. When it became clear that member states would never agree to such a document, the Brazilian delegation simply tossed it in the trash and wrote a new one over night. The new text, the final result of the conference, was barely worth the paper it was printed on – “The longest suicide note in history,” the executive director of Greenpeace called it. But it let the UN set up a photo op with all the governments declaring success, and that was what mattered most in the end. A tremendous opportunity to build a better world passed us by in Rio. What could have been a huge step forward became instead a complete non-event, a wasted chance to secure a liveable future.
But make no mistake, the problems we face are worse every day – just because our governments have decided not to act doesn’t mean our problems have gone away:
- As we sit writing this post, the United States has just completed the warmest first half-year in its history, capping off the warmest 12-month period on record, setting in the last half of June alone 170 new temperature records. The odds of this happening by chance were estimated by the US government at 1 in 1.6 million.
- The Great Plains are being ravaged by a drought that, with two months of summer still to come, is already being compared to that of the Dust Bowl and labeled the worst in American history. All of this will have impacts on the global price of food – soybean prices have already reached an all time high, and on July 9th, corn prices rose the maximum amount allowable on the Chicago Exchange.
- In Colorado and other western states, forest fires are burning out of control, a direct result of climate change-aided bark beetle infestations that have destroyed forests and a below-average snowfall that melted sooner than usual, leaving the ground warmer and drier.
- As we flew home from Rio, Tropical Storm Debby was flooding parts of Florida – Debby was the 4th tropical storm to form in the Atlantic before July 1st, another ominous first.
- In January, methane fountains were found in the Russian Arctic, suggesting that methane (a greenhouse gas 60 times worse than CO2) on the bottom of the sea floor may be starting to come to the surface, a potentially catastrophic development for the planet.
- The Arctic sea ice cover is on pace to set a record low in 2012. The previous record low was set in 2011.
All of these events correspond exactly with what climate scientists predict for a warming world. All of them are just the beginning. When we set out, we thought environmental problems were avoidable, we thought we could take action and things would be okay. Almost a thousand days later now, we know that’s not the case. The world is warming now, it is too late to stop it. Our governments will not take action and cannot be expected to. What remains to be seen is just how much it will warm, how bad things are going to get. And for that, we need to take action.
There is good news. The good news is that solutions already exist and that they are beautifully simple. We don’t need our governments; we will be better off without them. Corporations will stop polluting when we stop giving them our money to do so. To plant trees, to build communities, to save seeds, we don’t need anything other than our own energy and determination.
And things can change fast. When we left on our trip, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt were all ruled by ruthless dictators and the word “#occupy” didn’t exist. People are acting, people are stepping up, there is a rising chorus for change, there is a movement out there, growing every day, fighting to make the world a better place.
So what lies ahead for the Permacyclists? Well for the next few months, we’ll be applying for a green card for Annabelle and finishing up our last videos and photos from the trip, including some projects we’re filming in Belgium and in the US. So yes, there are more projects to come and we will be continuing the website, Facebook, and twitter pages, so do keep checking in.
In January, we will start trying to put into practice all the advice we’ve picked up along the road – to take our small part in that chorus for change. We are planning on moving to Woodstock New York where a friend has some land and where we hope to grow our own food, to join the transition movement, to save seeds, to plant trees, and all the rest that you’ve seen in our videos along the way (yes, even to break a few laws if we have to). We’ll keep the video cameras rolling, and we’ll have more movies about our experiences and about other cool local initiatives.
As a final thought on the experience we’ve just completed: if you had told us when we set out on our bikes in the Brussels rain almost 3 years ago that we would spend one of our last days in Rio talking to Bill McKibben (our hero!) and filming the walk-out of 100+ members of civil society from the largest conference in UN history, we never would have believed it.
It has been an unbelievable trip.
But now the work starts.
Now the real journey begins.