The TH Interview: Will Steger, Legendary Polar Explorer and Environmental Activist
While his steely look in the photo above caught my eye on his bio-page, I must admit that I was a bit uncertain of what to expect when we recently connected by phone for a TH interview. But I quickly discovered that behind the frozen exterior is a fascinating human being with a heart of gold. He's a one-time high school science teacher who has spent the last 40+ years of his life exploring some of the most remote and unwelcoming reaches of the planet. And he's heading out again this spring along with a team of top young explorers like Sigrid Ekran, the Iditarod's most recent rookie of the year, and Sam Branson, son of Virgin's founder Sir Richard Branson, to help educate the millions of expected youth around the world who will follow their journey via the web.
His insight into the issues surrounding global warming and his personal take on the environmental movement are well worth reading. Enjoy. Treehugger: Maybe you can start by explaining for us a bit where that passion comes from, that drive to head out to parts unknown while so many would just as soon stay home at night and watch it on TV?
Will Steger: Well, it's an adventure in a way. I mastered the cold where very few people have been Learning the skills, and dog teams, and this whole thing. Ironically enough I've taught earth science, and watched the weather and studied the climate my entire life. And I've found that the arctic I thought was endless as a teenager is starting to change. It's been a very personal adventure, but we need to get the word out. It's like a science fiction movie, with every shelf I've walked on disintegrating
TH: Last year you took an expedition to Baffin Island as part of GlobalWarming 101 along with several Inuit guides. What changes grabbed you the most outside of the melting ice?
WS: Well, last year we went with the Eskimo hunters, and they were our eyes and ears We went to some places I've never been before, but they've been there for centuries, and with their oral history they know all the names and creeks, so we were really seeing it through their eyes. Their shock was what struck me the most Creeks and rivers they'd never seen in March running all around us. I guess it was the accumulation of hearing them say over and over "we've never seen this before" With the changes I've seen in less than 15 years and especially the last 5-6 yrs. accelerating.
TH: Who inspired you when you were younger to go out and do the things that you've done?
WS: Well, I really enjoyed reading the adventures of Huck Finn because of the sense of adventure and meeting people along the way when I was 15, along with National Geographic photographs. When I was a kid, no one had a kayak or climbing rope in Minnesota, so the images in National Geographic were the ones around which I wrapped my dreams. But I have to thank my parents, they never camped a day in their life, but with 9 kids they gave me all this freedom. They gave me license to explore. When I was 12-15 I plotted out what I wanted to do. So when I had my academic degrees, by the age of 25 I went out into the wilderness. And I was going up there to live, not to come back to an urban area. The next 10 years were lean, because if hunting wasn't good we didn't eat very well. I always had a clear vision of where I wanted to go I was organized and disciplined when I had to be. I was the first one ever to put together a dog-sledding school up there in northern Minnesota. I've come to realize that there's always a matter of excuses, but I've always been good at organizing, bringing things together. And survival skills were necessary, so I had to think out of the box.
TH: Tell us a bit about the goals of the Steeger Foundation, GlobalWarming101 and the upcoming Ellesmere expedition itself.
WS: Well, for 20 years I ran my non-profits out of schools, but I always wanted my own foundation. About 5 years ago with the global warming crisis, I realized the timing was right. So I took the call to action and started organizing. Our initial mission was education back when global warming was not a hot topic. Local level, and we went where there was most resistance. We've always been given this line that it's the worst thing for the economy, and actually it's the best. We actually got the conservative base, churches on board who really embraced it. We've really changed the political landscape in Minnesota by creating a constituency around global warming. And the youth is going to become a huge movement. Putting resources into mobilizing youth, and we're looking more local and regional and its really taking off. As part of this we're traveling up in Ellesmere Island, and taking 6 youth with us. Our main goal is to get our audience to take action.
TH: And you've picked a fascinating group of people to join you including Sam Branson, Sigrid Ekran, Ben Horton, Sarah McNair-Landry, Eric McNair-Landry and Toby Thorleifsson. Why this particular group?
WS: Well, four of the six are pro dog-drivers. And I've got a great mix with two of the world's top kite skiers included. And they're all just the top young polar explorers of today. They're all real cooperative, real social, committed, and great role models.
TH: You'll be communicating with people who follow your adventure on the site so personally, as people can essentially tune in and pick up on what you're seeing in close to real time via the website. But so many people see the ice melting, hear about the ice melting, and yet do nothing. What lies at the root of their apathy?
WS: Mainly, people are reading about bears, but so what It really hasn't affected economy yet, and this generation doesn't know how vulnerable they are. People say they're the generation of choice, but they could be in the streets 10 years from now. I think it's a spiritual problem, excessive materialism and entertainment. It's going to come down to making better personal choices, and simplifying life and we're also going to have to adapt. It's rampant materialism, and we're not seeing cause and effect. The change can't be another rock concert where we have a good time and go home and all feel good but no action.
TH: Given that, what gives you hope that this current generation will be able to solve the problem of global warming before its too late?
WS: I just keep working day and night on it. I've seen a lot in the last 6 months that's encouraging. People are starting to take steps. We've got to move, take action. We're starting to see it, but it's not strong enough yet. I think it's really going to be in the youth movement. It's only the youth that can do this. They're the largest population outside of baby boomers today and they have the social numbers to pull it off. We were so lucky in the 60's to have all the rules to break, but in terms of hope I think it's going to be in the young people. In the churches they're taking it on as a moral issue, I was a little reserved about even going into a church, but I'm really comfortable around conservative Christians. And I find they're well organized We are so out of touch with the reality of nature. We think the dollar bill, and you buy stuff and that's life. But the reality is the economy can be quite fragile. It's an energy crisis and security as well
TH: A recent poll of Americans showed that roughly 58% of Americans said no to an increased tax on gas to do something to solve the problem despite being reasonably well-informed about the fact that it's occurring due to the efforts of so many dedicated people What do you believe it's going to take for that same 58% to swing towards action, even at immediate financial cost?
WS: I don't know. Maybe try 6 or 8 or 12 percent inflation. Inflation is the thing that is the first issue to be concerned of. We need 3% growth to maintain our debt and so the economy is really on borrowed time.
TH: With so little mention of the problem in the campaigns for the presidency, do you have hope that we will, in fact, be able to find a political part to solving the crisis?
WS: 4$ a gallon for gas will make a difference. That's definitely a wake-up call. I have a lot of faith in the market. I know the market is going to drive a lot of this, and it will start in a small way but there is a real bonanza here. Foreign investment in wind power, etc., in response to governmental mandates will save the day.
TH: So how do you believe that the average American or global citizen can best make a difference in the fight against global warming?
WS: Two things Number one is self-initiative; to take this on and motivate themselves. We're always waiting for the leader to do it. With the web we can do it, personally connect with other people and start organizing. I think one of the problems has been a kind of social disengagement. Global warming is starting to engage our communities. Social engagement is a very good thing, so empowering yourself and then engaging with other people. Right now there's a lot of that in Minnesota.
TH: And If there's one message you'd like people to take away from this entire effort, what would that be?
WS: That would be that there's hope. It's human nature to put our head in the sand on this type of challenge. But there is hope, through self-empowerment and social action.
TH: Maybe you can also provide us with some suggestions on great books you've read recently that some of our readers might benefit from?
WS: I like "Bowling Alone", which is about social disengagement. I'd moved to Minneapolis alone, and was starting from scratch. And I was struggling with what the problem was, and I saw global warming as a way of social engagement. It was an important book for my development at that time. "Red Sky in the Morning" is also a terrific book. And I really like realclimate.org, which is an excellent site for questions about global warming because the average person can read and understand it.
TH: And any personal heroes of your own?
WS: Well, as a role model for putting together your own exploration and a model for public service, Fridjtof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer really is a person whose ideas helped me a lot. So I guess you can call him a personal hero.
TH: I'd just like to thank Will for taking the time to speak with us, including close to an hour by cell phone in the back of a cab while traveling, and point out that he is also the author of four books including Over the Top of the World, North to the Pole, Saving the Earth, and Crossing Antarctica. You can check out his upcoming exploration via Global Warming 101 and follow the podcasts and blogging efforts from the field beginning in March. And hopefully, millions of schools will too...