Our most limited and cherished resource is time. We only have so much of it during our short experience on Planet Earth, and arguably there’s never been a more important chapter in Earth’s history for us to make use of time in ways that benefit our home planet.
The indomitable and pioneering primatologist, Jane Goodall, says, “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Her words sat front and center in my mind as Greg Hill’s and my conversation quickly leaned into his terrifying near-death avalanche experience in the big mountains of Pakistan that dramatically shifted his life’s focus toward the existential question of “What positive impacts can I have while I’m here?”
“…I should have died. It was massive…After I was rescued, I sat there processing what had just happened and kept thinking about my legacy. If I had died in that avalanche, how would I have been remembered? I hope I would have inspired people to dig deep and follow their passions…There are some great things that I’ve done in my life that I am definitely super proud of. But I also realized that most of my actions and pursuits were selfish, even though I felt like I was influencing people to do great things… Most of it was personal, and there wasn't enough focus on the rest of the world…Looking at my kids, who were eight and nine, I was like, “God, what am I really teaching them? Am I teaching them to live a great life but not care about your effects, your impact? And so that was really when the switch happened. I said, “OK, well, what can I do? It just slowly dawned on me that I need to find those little battles, those little wins and opportunities to slowly change my habits to have a more positive impact on our planet.”
Reflections on meaning and our desire to have a profound and positive impact on our home planet
As a father of two and hero in the ski community, Greg reflected on everything past and present. He decided to dig deep, reassess and ask some big questions. Let’s just say the outcome was electrifying. In 2019, Greg asked, “Is it possible to climb and ski 100 peaks without burning any fossil fuels? If it was possible, what impact would it have on his life, his legacy, the global ski community and more broadly, planet Earth?
As a U.C. Berkeley trained ecologist, environmental activist and outdoors man, I’ve asked some of those same questions throughout my life. And in the introspective journey one goes on when asking such questions, you are reminded that we are all connected to this blue marble in the sky, just like the birds, bees, giant mountains, seas and trees. I felt this at a young age and knew this connection was to be revered. Since my early years, my life and pursuits have orbited around a desire to have a positive impact on Earth, to connect with nature and animals. Professionally, wildlife and wild ecosystems have become the focus of my work as an activist, creative and CSR communications and strategy consultant. Just as Greg challenged himself to kick the habit of relying on gas guzzling snow machines, trucks and helicopters to chase snow and adventure in the high mountains, I took on a similarly inspired challenge. I wanted to do more than my purely science and creative pursuits allowed by way of writing, filmmaking or social media. Is it possible to help revenue driven companies, with footprints that eclipse yours and mine by orders of magnitude, drive real, positive impacts while reducing negative impacts?
Photo by Jonas Hill (Note: birds handled with required training and federal bird banding permits)
Patagonia Inc. has taught us it’s not mutually exclusive to grow a hugely successful outdoor brand with revenues exceeding one billion USD while building an enterprise moored to the mission of being in the business of saving our home planet. Six years on, I’ve worked as a CSR consultant with a number of exciting brands in the outdoor and tech spaces, and I’ve come to learn that big ships can turn. Slow at first, momentum quickly becomes your friend in such pursuits. Shifting the course of a 500 million dollar revenue brand an inch may feel insignificant in the short term, but when you consider how incremental, small pivots, add up and affect our planet at scale then it becomes clear that progress towards sustainability is a journey worth taking and celebrating. Like Greg, I’ve taken on this challenge simply because I have the opportunity to do good, hopefully inspire others to do good, and join the growing groundswell of conscious global citizens’ hell bent on saving our home planet!
EARLY YEARS OF GORE-TEX ATHLETE GREG HILL
For Greg, the aspiration to live a sustainable lifestyle may have leapt into the limelight of his mind’s eye following that fateful day in the massive mountains of Pakistan, but I later learned that kernel of inspiration had been planted long ago. He was raised by a family that revered nature, and encouraged him to be outside, think about how we all are a part of nature, and have the potential to do incredible good in our lives.
Greg explained, “Environmentalism has always been a part of my family, my DNA. I grew up in Quebec on 300 acres, and I was always running around outside, surrounded by the Appalachians and the beauty of nature. My mom was a vegetarian, not necessarily just for environmental reasons, and we were just exposed to that way of thinking and approach. I think a lot of the inspiration came from my older brother's influence. He started the website, treehugger.com and gave an inspiring TedTalk, “Why I’m a Weekday Vegetarian” (with +3m views!) and started pushing the idea of sustainability way back then.
“The more you look into your personal footprint, you realize, I know I can do this better.”
Greg went on to share that it wasn’t until his brother, Jim Hill, suggested he work out a rough calculation of his carbon footprint that everything became clear. After punching in data covering diet, transportation, energy use, and a myriad of other small decisions and choices we make each and every day, did he realize that the onus really is on each of us to adopt a different mindset, to realize that we have a choice to participate in the trends, behaviors and cycles perpetuating the climate and ecological crisis or to pause, reassess and pivot towards a planet minded lifestyle.
After that first exploration into his personal footprint, Greg was quick to realize that it's impossible to understand how big the effect is until you break it down to the numbers. And while it’s abstract and sometimes hard to contextualize, for Greg, one thing is clear, “The more you look at it, you realize I know I can do this better.”
ON A MISSION TO A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
Greg and I share a mission to have a positive impact and reduce our negative impact, much of which is an outcome of the systems we live in and a legacy of rampant disregard for our planet starting at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. As an ecologist, surfer and keen adventurer, I’m drawn to nature. I think about how my impacts ultimately affect them. I have oriented my life around a hyperlocal connection to place. I rarely travel by plane and often take public transportation when I leave our small village in the Norwegian arctic and head to the big city, Oslo. I like the slow pace of this life. It allows me to really shake hands with the places I visit and call home. That’s how I build connections, lay roots, and begin to appreciate the subtle ecological threads of home that inspire me and my work. This is a task and process that cannot be done quickly. As the famous western horse trainer Buck Brannaman says, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” It takes time to really know the ecological intricacies of a place. It’s this deep, intimate knowledge that informs my approach, pursuits and the focuses I orient around. There’s no way to understand the comings and goings of migratory birds, the seasonal bloom of arctic flowers and the orcas who call the waters beyond my home without taking the time to learn their ways. In time, the magic reveals itself. This slow approach translates to filmmaking, photography and even working with brands. There’s no rushing in nature and I think that’s something we can all learn from!
For Greg, as a father and skier, it was natural for his focus to orient around family, snow and the mountains. In our conversation, it became clear that we both have found it’s important to have your efforts orient around what you love. We protect what we love. We can dig deep and find the energy to act for those things we can’t live without. The next step is taking a hard look at our lifestyle choices and starting to find levers to pull that will enact change.
It’s no surprise that some of our most established systems can become some of our biggest barriers to entry for a more sustainable lifestyle.
If there’s no sustainable public transportation option, we have to drive ourselves. If there isn’t an established network of electric vehicle charging stations, we have to drive petrol powered vehicles. The same systems occupy every segment of life from food and agriculture to clothing and even banking, if we consider those banks that lend money to fossil fuel companies and those few (but a growing number) that have moved away from funding oil, gas and extractive industries.
A recent study suggests that over the last 20 years, just 100 fossil fuel producers have contributed and are responsible for 71% of the greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. This data alone tells the story of how complex and yet, in some ways, simple this unfolding planetary tragedy really is. Big fossil fuel companies and just 20 of the world’s biggest developed economies are the key drivers of the climate crisis, and yet each of us has the opportunity to do something about this, to inspire our communities to vote with their dollars, voices, and daily habits that ultimately trickle down to the decision makers, policy makers and companies who have such a tremendous impact on our home planet.
There’s no silver bullet, but one thing is for sure: historically, fossil fuel companies have been wildly effective at shifting the blame of the climate crisis from their shoulders to ours. This leads to burnout and inaction due to the overwhelming situation we are in. Yet hope, change and a new way forward lies in each of us. It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, right?
When I asked Greg where he gathered the energy to make this shift in lifestyle and mindset, he responded by saying, “I realized I need to be better. I can't stand on my little soapbox and preach environmentalism if I'm not trying to be better. I can't help the companies I'm working with change and be better if I'm not trying to be better myself… The planet doesn’t need a few perfect advocates, it needs millions of imperfect advocates!”
As we dug further into this notion of being an ‘imperfect advocate’ Greg posed this thought-provoking question:
“Do you drive the truck to the climate rally if you only have a truck, or do you not go?” We both paused and let that question sink in a bit…
These are the questions each of us faces in our own way, right? Do you buy the kale that’s not organic if that’s all that you have access to, or do you skip it because of how it’s grown and the impacts that style of agriculture can have on nature? What if organic isn’t an option for you, but you care about bees and butterflies and the health of our soil? Is it contradictory to have a non-organic diet and still advocate for organic agriculture, plant a garden and try to eat locally?
Greg responded to the truck and climate rally conundrum by saying, “Maybe you drive it that one year and then by the next year you figured out a better way to do it… I think we have to set examples so that people can see that it works and then maybe it'll be less scary for them to take those steps in their own way…”.
Greg is a Protect Our Winters athlete, which means he is part of an inspiring group of athletes at the forefront of climate activism. Charles Post, the author of this blog, is a member of the Protect Our Winters Science Alliance, which is a team of scientists committed to pushing for climate policy and advocacy.