Renewable leadership: A partnership of passion for the environment


Climate change, global warming, fossil fuels peaking, world water wars and the host of other issues that confront us – not only globally , but right in our backyard – necessitate that we start doing things differently if we are to sustain our life on the planet. Two activists, Lewis Pugh and Jonathan Deal, are forging a new management dynamic: renewable leadership.

Toward the end of his autobiography Achieving the Impossible, lewis Pugh says: “There’s a perfect speed for hostile water, and you’ve got to find it.” He was describing the waters of the Magdalenefjord in Norway , where he had gone in preparation for his first swim within the Arctic Circle, which took place at Vergelegenhuken.

The temperature was below 4°C; and after the 21-minute swim, his core body temperature had dropped to 35°C — the point at which hypothermia sets in. Some years later, in 2007, Pugh would use this strategy when he actually swam in the Arctic Ocean — known as the Black ocean — a mass of water some four kilometres deep and with a surface temperature in summer of minus 1.7°C. Pretty hostile.

He swam one kilometre in this water, wearing only a speedo, goggles and a swimming cap. He did it in 18 minutes and 50 seconds. He wrote about that moment: “What I feel is not victory nor vindication, but the sense of having survived.”

Pugh is trained for survival; and that is not simply because he was a corporate lawyer at the shark-infested Bar of London. Of the 200 applicants who entered with him on the gruelling, drawn-out ordeal of training to become a member of the United Kingdom’s elite Special Air Service (SAS), only he and two others received the coveted beret. When he left the SAS, he admits he wept on the train ride back home.

Law did not appeal to Pugh, and soon he was hankering for something else. When his six-month contract with the law firm he had joined after leaving the military expired, he decided it was time to do something different. As he says: “You don’t see many statues of corporate lawyers.”

He had wanted to be a champion long-distance swimmer. But a chance meeting with Clare Kerr of the world wide Fund for nature put his swimming in perspective: he was swimming in places where he should not have been able to because of climate change. The world was warming up, and unless we changed our way of managing our resources and our lifestyles, we would not survive.

“I swam in the Arctic Ocean — not because I am brave or foolhardy or a show-off. I swam because I should not have been able to do so,” Pugh says. “Global warming is a reality: the Arctic ice cap is melting; I swam in the glacial lakes of the Himalayas beneath Mount Everest, knowing that it should have been solid ice; I have seen the Maldives gradually being submerged by the rising waters of global warming.”

He became an environmental activist.

When Pugh heard that oil and gas companies planned to use hydraulic fracturing (see box below) to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo, he made a quick decision: he would get involved. he could connect the dots between the environmental damage it would cause (mainly contamination of the water aquifers), the resultant social conflict and the impact on climate change (the pursuit of more fossil fuels).

Pugh is decisive — and believes it to be a crucial trait in leadership — but his years in the SAS have taught him that planning, preparation and alternative plans are as critical. So he immediately contacted Jonathan Deal.

Deal grew up in rural honeydew, “running in the bush, catching snakes and riding horses”. He now owns Gecko Rock Private Nature Reserve in the Karoo, a 4 000-hectare eco-destination that offers a range of activities that are environmentally friendly and educational. Deal says he bought the farm in 2000 when he decided the corporate world no longer interested him — he ran a physical risk management consultancy — but the natural world did.

He is the co-ordinator of the Treasure the Karoo action Group (TKaG) – the reason he was the first person Lewis called when the latter decided to get involved. Deal remembers that first conversation. When he answered the phone, this calm, authoritative voice said: “Hello, Jonathan. This is Lewis.”

His response was: “Lewis who?” and the answer made him take a breath: “Lewis Pugh,” said the voice. And, as Deal says, “That was that.”

Pugh offered to help in any way he could. “We agreed to meet in Noordhoek for a sandwich the following Sunday. It was quite an occasion for me,” says Deal. “I was amazed at how easy-going he was and I also thought he’d be a lot younger. We clicked immediately.”

That same day, Pugh, the strategist, started marshalling ‘the troops’. He called around and got the name of a public relations firm, HWB Communications, and set up a meeting for the next morning at 8:30 a.m.

One can tell much about the way people handle their first meeting: not only had Pugh and Deal just met, they were now in a business meeting with a group of strangers, and presenting a common face. Deal is reserved, soft-spoken — almost laconic — and observant. Pugh is a presence, immeasurably polite, attentive and forceful. Both have reservoirs of intelligence upon which to draw.

Within the first few minutes of introductions, Pugh had stated his needs, his objective and his commitment. He talks strategy in military terms: he began this first meeting by repeating some words of advice given him by his commander on his first assignment in Iraq – “when you get into an encounter, the way you use your first magazine will determine whether you live or die.”

While the table was digesting that, deal started to ask questions. This pattern is reflective of their leadership style. Pugh often gets to his feet and paces the room during meetings. It is not a sign of impatience: it is more like a way of exorcising the need to stop the talk and simply ‘do something’. But he is too clever and too well-trained to do that. Deal makes notes and asks who is going to do what. They prepare, and act.

Both admit they still know very little about each other’s private- and business lives, but share a passion to stop further environmental degradation of the planet. Deal says they work well together, simply because they each have “a single-minded determination to achieve the same goals.”

Pugh agrees: “We know little about each other, outside of the work we are doing to stop fracking in the Karoo. But we have had to collaborate to win.” Deal has immersed himself in the technicalities and science of hydraulic fracturing. Pugh works the big-picture strategy through the media, legal and environmental angles.

Deal makes himself available for interviews, fighting every daily skirmish on the ground. Pugh uses his global influence and connections to find out what is happening in Europe and the United States; Deal works with local advertising schools to get the youth involved. Pugh asks how we can win the battle for the hearts and minds of the South African people; Deal attends the hearings in the Karoo. Pugh evokes an African vision, a commitment to our Constitution; while Deal works to grow the circle of supporters.
Pugh once said that he “always believed that there is nothing more powerful than a made up mind.” But he equally believes there is nothing more fragile than a made up mind. By this he means that in order to survive, you need to have the courage to make a “radical tactical shift”. We have relied on — and believed in — fossil fuels for so long, we need to make that radical tactical shift if we are to start thinking seriously about renewable energy.

Their collaborative leadership commitment is backed by their wallets: both have put large amounts of money into the campaign, and even more time. The leadership position taken by Pugh and Deal was never questioned or even discussed between them. Deal puts the collaboration down to an “almost instinctive” feel. “I know when to defer to him and he knows when to defer to me. It never gets to the point where there is conflict,” he says. “There’s no game plan — it’s just a wonderful working relationship.”

Pugh agrees. He says the battle for a good, clean and fair environment is the next logical step of the civil rights movement. “We fought for liberty — and won; we fought for equality — and won. Now we need to fight for our survival as a species.”

It is this environmental commitment that unites them, this willingness to look beyond the immediate solution of relying on yet more fossil fuel. What they want to see is a sustainable future based on renewable energy supplies.

“There is a tremendous amount of mutual respect,” says Pugh, but adds that there is very little “waffle”. They are decisive and move quickly, and are willing to delegate so that others within the campaign are never left waiting to act.
Deal says they talk every day on the phone, and willingly admits that he relies much on their friendship. “We talk about our frustrations and moments of despair,” he says “It’s not a macho, tough-guy relationship.”

Pugh concurs: “I am there to support him when he is shattered, and he’s there for me. What is most significant about this collaborative leadership is that it is renewable. First, because they are able to work within their areas of expertise without friction; secondly, because they use their bond of friendship to offload outside the core business concerns; and thirdly, because they are willing to incorporate and include others to participate actively within the campaign.

They are, in short, the civil rights leaders of the 21st century.

Fracking what?

The oil and gas companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, use a controversial modern drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), properly termed “high-volume slick-water horizontal hydraulic fracturing”. This process did not exist prior to a decade ago, having been developed by Halliburton after the year 2000. A drill is sunk through the water table and down into the shale rock and then horizontally into the shale (previous hydraulic fracturing relied only on vertical drilling). Millions of litres of water, mixed with a toxic compound of chemicals, is forced down the hole and the pressure fractures the shale, releasing the trapped gas. More than 30% to 40% of the chemical-laden water mix remains below the surface. The rest is pumped out and has to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Fracking will deplete the scarce water resources of the Karoo and may lead to contamination of the groundwater table.

[This story first appeared in Leadership magazine in June 2011.]

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