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Watch Out World – A Group of Women is Coming to Straighten You Out

Three hundred women. Three hundred women fighting to save our world, our health, and our future. Fighting and sailing.

I had the unbelievable luck to join the ranks of these 300 planet warriors on part of their epic global journey. I never considered myself a fighter, but if fighting means standing up to the industries pumping us full of toxic plastic chemicals, or protecting the health of our children and the lives of ocean animals, then bring it on.

Three hundred women are sailing around the world over the course of two years on a yacht named S.V. TravelEdge, 10 women at a time spread across 30 Legs. Their combined goal? To sample every region of the world’s ocean for plastic pollution so that we can better understand the global distribution of plastic trash – how it circulates through the ocean, how it breaks down, and where it ultimately ends up. All the plastic samples gathered over these two years will be sent to scientists who will analyze the data that could provide unprecedented clarity on the fate of plastics in the ocean, their impacts, and where we should target action.

Finding solutions to plastic pollution is a key aim of this voyage, but it’s about much more than collecting plastic samples. The entire trip is designed and managed by eXXpedition, an organization that is on a mission to help solve the plastic pollution crisis by empowering multidisciplinary all-female crews on sailing expeditions around the world. Participants conduct scientific research, explore solutions and learn how their unique skillsets can intersect the issue. Each leg of the journey is led by a Mission Leader who guides, supports, and motivates the team to realize their internal strengths and articulate what skills and passions they can bring to solving the plastic pollution problem.

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Exploring Antigua

I joined Leg 3, which sailed for 4 days around the waters of Antigua, in the eastern Caribbean. Spending several days in a beautiful tropical setting was certainly special, but the real magic was in the team our Mission Leader Sally pulled together: ten women from five different countries, each with a unique and inspiring story that led them to eXXpedition – and every single one of them a powerhouse in their own way (read more about all of these impressive women on our Leg 3 page).

Take Lara for example: an architect and professor who teaches sustainable design and encourages her students to push boundaries of self-expression – even if it means illegally hanging posters about plastic pollution along one of the busiest streets in Los Angeles. Or Kirsten, a psychotherapist who helps rehabilitate some of the most abused and traumatized people in the world, yet still manages to radiate the most dazzling kindness and joy you can imagine. Oh, and she rescues animals, builds boats, and advocates for mental health policy in her spare time.

Every woman onboard had a similarly remarkable story. Among us were artists, novelists, scientists, sailors, teachers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Most of us work full-time in addition to volunteering with organizations (or starting our own) and tackling issues we care about. But we all have one critical thing in common – we love the ocean and want to figure out how we can help rid her of plastic.

I would have never imagined how close I would become to nine other women in so few days. We immediately bonded and acted as one unit, a sisterhood held together by respect, enthusiasm, and grit. This bond only grew over the course of our trip. Some of us had no sailing experience, others years’ worth. We all worked together, and our impressive all-female crew (Anna, our captain, Maggie the first mate, and Sophie the deckhand and professional photographer) led us with poise, confidence, and patience.

Those women who were used to sailing on boats with men noted the massive difference in the energy onboard our all-women yacht. In an all-female environment, each of us felt safe to ask questions, we took care of each other, we felt nurtured. And there was always chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. And laughs, and hugs. It was beautiful.

“Women learn and communicate differently than men; not better or worse, just different,” said Jeanne, who leads a women’s sailing team in Seattle. Her crew was the first all-female team to win the 750 mile Race to Alaska, with no motor, no showers, and no toilets – just a bucket. We all marveled at Jeanne’s harrowing stories of race mishaps and challenges. She was our ship ‘mom’ and sailing queen, teaching us sailing basics with strength and patience, her voice filled with encouragement. Fortunately, S.V. TravelEdge is equipped with two (mostly) functioning bathrooms, tiny but sufficient beds for each of us, and power to run an engine as well as charge all of our devices. But we still felt some of the thrill of being at sea for several days.

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Each evening we were assigned an hour of ‘anchor watch’ for one hour during the night, where we sat on deck with a partner and made sure everything was fine with the boat and that we weren’t drifting off into the open ocean. The night watch pair from the previous hour would wake the next pair up at the end of their shift. I’ll never forget the soft brush on my arm and Jeanne’s sweet, gentle voice whispering, “It’s time to wake up Kristen, the stars are beautiful!” Each of the three nights we were paired with a different team member, three peaceful hours under a tapestry of constellations, the time spent in soft conversation with another kindred spirit.

On our first watch, Leah and I learned of our mutual background in coral reef science and conservation as well as environmental outreach. But I can only hope to achieve as much as Leah has in her life already. She has a master in coral reef ecology, and now teaches high school geography in her home country of Trinidad as well as running both her own ecotourism business and an environmental nonprofit organization. Oh, and she writes a Caribbean travel blog just for fun. Leah’s soft voice and poised demeaner belie the contagious joy and confidence she exudes. I loved spying her make little narrated videos of her experience throughout the voyage that she will no doubt share with her students as inspiration.

Chantal was another magical member of our team. She bounced around the boat like a sprite, every word rolling from her tongue a little gem of poetic truth. During our anchor watch together, I was drawn into her stories of spiritual, intellectual, and creative exploration. As an actor, director, writer, and all-around artist, Chantal’s lens of the world is always tinged with metaphor and symbol. Her ability to communicate these layered meanings to others is an unparalleled gift, one that allows people to connect more deeply with the world around them.

I shared by last anchor watch with Steph at the dark, still hour of 3am. Spending time with Steph is like sitting beside a gently flowing forest stream – she embodies a calming, quiet, yet welcoming nature that make everyone feel at ease. Originally from the Netherlands and now living in the south of France, Steph works in the yachting industry and leads sustainability campaigns in her company. Talking under the stars about our similar histories of pain, anxiety, and healing felt like dipping my feet in cool, rejuvenating water. Our conversation easily flowed from careers, to health, to spirituality. But Steph isn’t all demure; she’s a fiend on the dance floor and loves music! We had one gleeful giggly night of re-working lyrics to Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” into a song about ridding the oceans of plastic pollution. Our entire team ended up learning the song so we could sing it with the elementary school kids we visited at the end of the trip.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Sailboat

There are so few opportunities these days to spend concentrated time with a group of people, talking face to face without cell phones or emails or calls to distract us. Each day of our sailing journey we took time to sit in a circle around the galley table or up on deck, the sparkling turquoise Caribbean waters our backdrop as we learned about each other and from each other, and conspired together on ideas for reducing plastic pollution at several scales. I’ll cherish our shared laughs over Bobby the weird plastic toy we found on our beach cleanup, turning dish-washing into a 90s music dance marathon (pump up that jam!), and fanning each other in a conga line as we prepped meals over a stove in sweltering heat. Our Leg 3 mantra (and perhaps the mantra for the entire eXXpedition) became ‘sailing, science, and sisterhood.’

I didn’t step onboard S.V. TravelEdge expecting to gain 10 new soul sisters, but I left feeling I had. I grew up an only child, so the bond that so quickly grew between our team is all the more special to me, as it’s not something I easily find. Not only did each of the women on Leg 3 bring with them a valuable story and perspective, but we each contributed complementary traits that synergized our individual abilities, like a team of super heroes that combine into one giant, undefeatable foe. And that’s how we felt as we grew to know each other over the course of several days – like individual pieces of a greater whole that only combined could realize our full strength.

On day three we spent an hour sitting in a circle sharing the qualities we most appreciated about each of the others. I found myself sketching a diagram with four corners – air, earth, water, and fire. Within these four extremes I placed each of our team members, based on their dominant qualities.

Air is lightness, an innate joy that uplifts others. I put Kirsten and Leah in this category, along with Lisa, a luxury travel advisor from San Diego who’s enthusiasm is palpable. Any time the crew asked for volunteers to winch a sail, pull a line, or lower a manta trawl, Lisa was the first to jump in – always with a determined smile. She is gung-ho about everything and has a contagious delight for life and adventure.

Earth is grounded, solid, and supportive. I grouped Steph and Jeanne in this corner, as women who act as graceful, nurturing leaders to their peers.

Water is flexible, a far-reaching entity that connects disparate people. Here I placed the ever- flowing Chantal, as well as Jeanine, a multi-talented author, environmental consultant, and outdoor enthusiast. Jeanine is one of those amazing people that can fit in anywhere – she could just as easily hob-nob with top corporate CEOs as she could march on the frontlines with a group of environmental activists or captivate a group of elementary school children with her oratory skills. And she’s done all three!

Fire is strength, boldness, and leadership. There was no question that Lara fit in this category, as did Lindsey, a woman from D.C. who runs her own company that empowers young women and teaches them life skills. She also volunteers with animal rescues and works for a heavy metal festival every year. Lindsey is not afraid to flex her power to achieve her goals – but she does so with empathy and a deep concern for protecting the vulnerable.

Each of us contains some level of each of these qualities, of course, but I found it remarkable that the variety of personalities in our team covered the spectrum and complemented each other so harmoniously. It was nothing less than magic. By the end of our journey, we all felt stronger, more connected, more powerful, and more inspired to go out and take on the world’s problems. I can’t imagine how much more powerful we will feel after all 300 women have sailed. What an incredible network to span the globe.

It’s not ‘party done’ ladies, it’s party just beginning!

Stay tuned for more stories of science and sailing with eXXpedition in the days and weeks to come.

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Don’t Not Panic – mixed messaging is detrimental to climate change action

If you try to keep up with the latest in climate change news, you might feel a bit like I do right now: a deer in headlights.

Earlier this week, David Wallace-Wells published an opinion piece about climate change in the New York Times titled ‘Time to Panic’. He argues that based on current scientific understanding and predictions, it is completely appropriate—and even imperative—for society to be in freak-out mode over climate change. This, in turn, should motivate us toward desperate action.

Soon after, Eric Holthaus wrote a short response article in Grist titled ‘Why you shouldn’t panic’. His main argument is, “if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy.”

So, what to do when confronted with scenarios of extreme storms, loss of entire coastlines, and millions of climate refugees? Panic? Or stay calm and collected?

To panic or not to panic—that is the question

Mixed messaging has plagued the climate change movement for decades. Although the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change has steadily strengthened and future predictions all point to escalating negative impacts, how to communicate this to the public has remained a source of contention.

Messaging has wavered between extreme doom-and-gloom, à la Wallace-Wells’ nightmarish “post warming world”, and the more optimistic “but there’s still hope!” approach that many scientists and conservationists support.

Wallace-Wells’ reasoning for pressing the panic button is pretty simple: “What creates more sense of urgency than fear?” he argues.

There’s research to back this up. A study that looked at the connection between emotion and behavior change found that fear and guilt were stronger motivational factors than hope.

“Making people feel good is less important than making people feel accountable when it comes to making wise decisions about self-protection,” explain the study’s authors.

Fear is a biological response to perceived threat. When we feel threatened, our body releases hormones that sharpen functions that should help us survive (eyesight), while shutting down ‘inessential’ functions (digestion). This survival mechanism can indeed provide us almost super-human (albeit momentary) powers to overcome imminent dangers—like pulling people out of burning buildings or lifting yourself up over a cliff edge.

But living with constant fear can have serious health consequences, ranging from anxiety and depression to heart disease. When you’re faced with fear on a daily basis, your body can lose its ability to process emotions and make clear decisions.

As Holthaus says, “your brain literally can’t perceive reality accurately in that state of heightened anxiety. Just ask anyone who has ever had a panic attack. It isn’t fun. Fear shouldn’t be what we strive for.”

I’ve had several panic attacks throughout my life, and I agree; they aren’t fun. Your heart races, your chest tightens, you gulp for breaths, and your mind dabbles with the worst thoughts. You definitely aren’t at your most rational during a panic attack. But what these panic attacks did do was make me realize the very real connection between my mental and physiological health. And they made me act to prevent having more panic attacks in the future.

Taking medication, developing a practice of meditation and yoga, and setting realistic goals all helped me reduce my panic attacks. This doesn’t mean I’ll never have a panic attack again, but it helps me take control of the situation and regulate my behavioral response, rather than feeling paralyzed.

In the same way, I can see how using our fear of climate change impacts to motivate action could help us reduce our climate anxiety and regain a sense of ‘control’ over our collective future. It may not prevent all the impacts of climate change, but it could help us cope and adapt. And when it comes down to it, I think Wallace-Wells and Holthaus actually agree on this—if they could just get beyond their need to differentiate themselves and make people choose sides based on semantics.

Wallace-Wells says, “By defining the boundaries of conceivability more accurately, catastrophic thinking makes it easier to see the threat of climate change clearly.” A clearly defined threat incites action—when humans are confronted with catastrophe, whether earthquakes or war, we time and again work together to rebuild communities and societies.

Holthaus says, meanwhile, “It’s courage, not fear, that will bring about the long overdue world we all need.” This is not counter to Wallace-Wells’ argument. It’s just the necessary response. When faced with life-threatening fear, we must conjure courage in order to act and overcome the threat. After all—without fear, where does courage come from?

Conquering Fear

But how we manifest that courage matters, too. For Wallace-Wells, our focus on consumer culture and individual actions—like buying an electric car or forgoing air travel—is a cop-out, a distraction from the much more necessary collective actions and policies that must be coordinated across regions, states, and nations.

“That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.”

Holthaus’s article focuses on grassroots movements rather than government policies, and he references a recent essay by Mary Annaïse Heglar to drive home the lessons we can learn from the civil rights movement and the existential threat African Americans have felt for centuries. But even the quote he chooses to display from this essay belies the connection between fear, courage, and action.

“Nothing scares me more than climate change,” Heglar writes, “but I made up my mind to face it head-on—because of my debt to future generations and to previous generations.”

This sentiment echoes the tone taken by Greta Thurnberg, the 16 year old Swedish student who’s made waves by chiding world leaders’ inaction on climate change and has led a global student strike to unite the voices of her generation:

‘Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.’

To me, this is the biggest challenge we must address to act on climate change. We must perceive the threat as an emergency, one we don’t have the luxury to ignore. Not an emergency that we can’t do anything about—because we can. Once a house is on fire we can still put it out, keep it from damaging the entire property, and spreading to other properties. We can save the people and animals in that house. We can choose to re-build or not, and use different materials and develop strategies to reduce the risk of fire.

We can and should do this more comprehensively, at all scales, for climate change impacts.

In the end, I think David Wallace-Wells and Eric Holthaus are actually on the same team, with the same message—if they could only recognize it. We must turn our fear into action rather than paralysis, and demand the same of our leaders and governments.

As Mark Twain once said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

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Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Finding Strength in Nature

When you close your eyes and think of some creature in nature that embodies ‘strength’, what do you see?

I see a solitary oak tree, towering and ancient with countless gnarled branches, in the middle of a soft green meadow. This oak stands tall and proud, but bows respectfully to the sun whose rays filter through its dancing leaves. I in turn bow before this tree as to a wise elder, a seer of past and future; a monument to time.

If I was borne of a culture that had totems, a culture whose roots were as ancient as this timeless tree, I would like to think that my totem would be the mighty oak. Its outstretched branches pull the heavens toward earth, trapping spirits in its fortress trunk wrinkled with the memories of long-forgotten souls. Its roots, the tendril-anchors wrapped in life and death, are stabilizers ever changing and seeking. Its life-giving veins pulse with invisible strength, silent equanimity.

Ah, if only I could know what it is to be an oak tree. To shelter fluttering feathered creatures and nourish furry chattering beasts. To be singular but never lonely. To be energized by warm glowing energy and the outflow of animal breaths. Are trees the embodiment of enlightened souls? The Buddha reached his nirvana beneath the solemn watch of a sacred fig tree. But the Buddha was still only a man. Trees are something different still, regal in their mystery.

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Why am I drawn to the feet of a towering oak? Perhaps because I grew up surrounded by these oaks, played amongst their roots and shadows, and used their acorns in childhood games. They are familiar, a link to my past and perhaps a beckoning of my future.

Although I can never fully know the oak, I feel kin to it. My tendency to silently observe the world from the sidelines, allows me to imagine what it would be like to be a tree. A human-tree anyway, as that is all I know. I enjoy giving to others, but I am often limited in my ability to reach out to them—they must come to me. But if they do, I will do what I can to nurture. Maybe I am more like a paper-bark tree, my fragile outer layers constantly peeling to reveal new layers underneath. But I still aspire to know the sturdy oak, as if it holds the key to my Self. Maybe it is itself the key. The oak is, after all, my symbol of strength.

What about you? What do you draw strength from?