How Ernest Shackleton can help world address climate change

A pilgrimage to the gravesite of heroic explorer Ernest Shackleton reveals insight about climate change and transformative leadership.

The way Shackleton turned failure into triumph is an inspiration for world leaders

Explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874 - 1922) ultimately turned the dismal failure of losing his ship into a resounding success by rescuing every one of his stranded men from Antarctica. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Paul Kennedy is host of CBC Radio's Ideas.)

A hundred years ago, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton failed — in absolutely spectacular fashion. But some believe the way he turned failure into a historic triumph is inspiration for world leaders dealing with the crisis of climate change.

“Shackleton inspires us to look deep inside ourselves to see if we have the right, bright stuff to navigate the risks of climate disruption,” says Dr. Joe MacInnis.

The physician is an expert on leadership in high-risk environments, and a deep-sea explorer — he was the first person to dive under the North Pole and he accompanied James Cameron on his mission to plumb the depths of the Mariana Trench. Dr. MacInnis visited Shackleton's grave recently on a pilgrimage to South Georgia Island aboard the National Geographic ship Explorer, along with a group of botanists, ecologists and scientists from around the world. 

He says research from NASA, the National Academies of Science, and the International Energy Agency indicate our planet is in peril.

Dr. Joseph MacInnis is a Canadian physician, author and diving expert, and the first scientist to do a dive beneath the North Pole. He recently accompanied James Cameron on his mission to plumb the depths of the Mariana Trench. (Courtesy Joe MacInnis)

Warnings from scientists about the disastrous consequences of uncontrolled carbon consumption are growing more urgent, and the effects of climate change are already being felt. Sea levels are rising. Deserts are expanding. Weather around the world is increasingly and unpredictably violent. There are food shortages and flash floods.

The very future of the human species is on the line, and yet many of the world’s leaders seem unable to make the difficult changes scientists say are necessary to avoid environmental disaster on a global scale. 

Delegates from around the world are meeting this week at the United Nations conference on climate change in Peru. They're trying to lay the groundwork so that a legally binding international agreement on action to mitigate climate change – particularly regarding the emission of greenhouse gases - can be signed next year in Paris.

Dr. MacInnis says they should look at Shackleton's seemingly impossible accomplishment, and how he managed it.

Shackleton's leadership

In 1914, Shackleton planned to cross the frozen southern continent, marching from west to east and passing directly over the South Pole.

This photo of Sir Ernest Shackleton's ship, SS Endurance, was taken in August 1914 after it left Millwall Docks bound for the Antarctic. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Five thousand British adventurers applied to be part of the expedition. Those who went were selected based on somewhat unorthodox criteria. Meteorologist Leonard Hussey was known to play a mean banjo, for example. Physicist Reginald James was chosen partly because he could sing.

Choosing a team with diverse skills to meet unexpected challenges and pressures was part of the brilliance of Shackleton’s leadership.

On Jan. 19, 1915, those skills were called into play when their ship, Endurance, became trapped by ice. Ten months later, the ice crushed the wooden hull of the vessel and the men watched as it sank into the frozen ocean.

(Listen to Paul Kennedy's documentary on CBC Radio's Ideas, "Shackleton's Grave," starting at 9 p.m. on Tuesday Dec. 9, or stream it now.) 

Under Shackleton's guidance, the men built a camp and spent the next five months drifting on the ice of the Weddell Sea. Finally, they made their way to Elephant Island.

Knowing they had to find help, Shackleton came up with an audacious plan. He refitted a lifeboat and set out with a handful of specially selected men in a desperate attempt to reach a whaling station on South Georgia Island, more than 1,000 km away across one of the world's roughest stretches of ocean.

Members Shackleton's expedition pull one of their lifeboats across the snow in the Antarctic in 1916, following the loss of the Endurance. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For 15 days they faced the ugliest of weather and violent seas in a tiny boat. A 500-tonne steamer, bound from Buenos Aires for South Georgia, went down in the same hurricane-force winds.

Miraculously, Shackleton and his men made it. They found tiny South Georgia Island, a feat in itself, and walked 56 kilometres across its uncharted mountains and glaciers to reach the station.

Shackleton commandeered a whaling vessel to pick up the rest of his expedition from Elephant Island in Antarctica. He ultimately turned the dismal failure of losing his ship into a resounding success by rescuing every one of his stranded men.

Leadership lessons

In 1922, the explorer passed away after suffering a heart attack on a return voyage to Antarctica. Lady Shackleton agreed that her husband should be buried on South Georgia Island, at the edge of the Great Southern Ocean, because that’s where he belonged.

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and two members of his 1909 expedition team stand beside a Union Jack within 111 miles of the South Pole, a record feat at the time. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The frozen polar regions of our planet currently function as something like the proverbial canary in a mine shaft, and it's fitting that it was there Shackleton showed us qualities we need today to deal with the threat of climate change.

The glaciers Shackleton walked across only 100 years ago are now melting more quickly than anybody could have ever imagined, Dr. MacInnis points out. What once were permanently-frozen seas are now open water, emphasizing how dramatically climate change can alter the planet in a relatively short time.

“We need leaders that have the ability and the endurance to move the countries of the world towards an understanding of what is now occurring on our planet,” says Marylou Blakesley, a naturalist from Alaska who accompanied Dr. MacInnis on the recent trip to South Georgia Island. “And we don’t want to leave anybody behind.”

This photo taken in February 2010 shows Sir Ernest Shackleton's base camp in Antarctica. (Antarctic Heritage Trust/Associated Press)

The odds may seem stacked against humanity as the world begins to feel the impact of enormous environmental changes, but Dr. MacInnis says we can learn from Shackleton’s idiosyncratic style of leadership. He managed to get his crew to co-operate on a difficult plan and deal with seemingly insurmountable problems.

“He was a master explorer, not because of what he discovered, but because of the leadership principles he used to save his men,” Dr. MacInnis says. “Shackleton searched for the hard simple truths inside his own character, and in all the places he explored. He released himself into those truths and followed their paths, no matter how difficult or how dangerous.”

The job for today’s leaders, who are being called on to show similar creativity and force of will, is nothing less than saving the entire planet. 

(Listen to Paul Kennedy's documentary on CBC Radio's Ideas, "Shackleton's Grave," starting at 9 p.m. on Tuesday Dec. 9, or stream it now.) 


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