World fellow rows around world to save it

Savage rowed around the world in an attempt to spread her message of fighting climate change.
Savage rowed around the world in an attempt to spread her message of fighting climate change. Photo by Roz Savage .

Roz Savage, 44, set out from the Canary Islands in 2005. Seven years, 15,000 miles, 5 million oar strokes and four world records later, she arrived in Mauritius. Last month, she began a new chapter of her life as a World Fellow at Yale.

An ocean rower from England, Savage uses her seafaring expeditions to promote environmental stewardship. By participating in the World Fellows program, she said she hopes to explore some of life’s big questions, gain academic credibility for her environmental campaigns and develop a network of colleagues who will be able to help her effect change.

“I’m really fascinated by what motivates humans, why we don’t always behave as rationally as you might expect a supposedly intelligence species to,” Savage said. “You would have thought, when scientific data makes it fairly clear that the future of the species is threatened, we might feel motivated to do something about it.”

To investigate this question, Savage is auditing two classes at Yale: F&ES 745: “Environmental Writing” and PSYC 479: “Thinking.”

One of the challenges in motivating people is that each individual action does not have immediately recognizable consequences, Savage said.

“It has taken me about 5 million oar strokes to get around quite a substantial amount of the world,” Savage said. “One oar stroke doesn’t get you very far, but you take 5 million of them and it really does add up. Likewise, a lot of our environmental problems … are the result of 7 billion people feeling too small to make a difference.”

There are other roadblocks to significant environmental change, said Justin Haaheim DIV ’10, Connecticut regional coordinator at 350.org, a grassroots environmental organization. Haaheim said the magnitude of the change necessary and the powerful forces opposing it, such as the fossil fuel industry, make progress difficult.

Another challenge is navigating the territory between informing people about environmental problems and persuading them to change their behavior, said Cyril May FES ’89, former program coordinator for Yale Recycling. To address this problem, May uses magic shows to inspire people to become better stewards of the environment.

“If you share the breadth and depth of environmental issues in an unflattering fashion, it doesn’t motivate people other than to become despondent and depressed,” he said. “We need to activate people, not depress them.”

May said that successful environmental campaigns have two parts. The first is to grab people’s attention, as May does with his magic; the second is to give them something they can do.

Savage’s journey was a successful first step, May said, because it provided a “gee-whiz factor” that could not be ignored.

The next step is providing a concrete path of action, May said.

“It’s crucially important to give people something to do,” Savage said. “‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was great at raising awareness, but it left people all stressed out with no place to go. Calls to action [have to be] something that [people] can do starting right now to make a difference.”

One such call to action that Savage is working on is a trash mob, a communal cleanup of a public place, such as a beach or a riverside. At the trash mob, Savage would also collect signatures for an electronic petition so that she could bring environmental issues into the British House of Commons. She hopes that this on-the-ground work will put her in a better position when she interacts with politicians.

“I think it helps give me credibility to go to the politicians if I’ve actually been working at a very hands-on level, seeing what’s happening in the real world,” Savage said. “Westminster in London can become a little bit of an ivory tower. Hopefully I can provide a conduit between those two levels.”

Bonnie Fleming, associate professor of physics at Yale who teaches “Science and Public Policy,” said in an email that one of the largest challenges in making environmental policy is balancing the needs of local communities with the national need for environmental action.

While Savage acknowledges the importance of politics in addressing environmental problems, she is not yet sure where she wants to focus her efforts.

“I’ve put myself in … a place of mental openness,” Savage said. “I’m interested and fascinated to see what happens.”

In 2010, National Geographic named Savage an “Adventurer of the Year.”

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