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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reality check from the top of the world

Cycle for Change project to traverse 4,000 km, help raise awareness of climate change


Staff writer

"I suppose I just couldn't sit down and listen to it anymore. I couldn't go to the pub and just keep complaining about it and not actually go do something about it," says Gavin Dixon.

News photo
Bike crazy: Gavin Dixon, seen here with his commuter bike, is set to embark on a 4,000-km bicycle journey through the Himalayas and to the Ganges Basin to help raise awareness of climate change. ERI HIROSE PHOTO

The Australian native is speaking of climate change and man's hand in it. It's a topic that is known to trigger a head-in-the-sand position or, more often, dissipate when thoughts move on to more immediate concerns, such as what's for lunch. Climate change is something people don't like to think about. It's scary. It's far away.

"I found that a lot of people are saying, 'Well, I know it's happening,' but they give it a thought for a minute and then they lose the connection with it because they don't understand and see it happening within their lives," Dixon notes.

Climate change is also something comfortably distant or excusably mind-boggling for the majority of people in the developed world. "When you hear that 250,000 people were killed in a tsunami, it's too big a number to comprehend," Dixon points out. "People just turn off and it becomes a number on the pages of the newspaper or in a two-minute sound bite. I wanted to change that somehow."

Dixon, currently an MBA consultant in Tokyo and self-professed "cycling nut," decided he was going to try to bring the reality of what's already happening in many parts of the world closer to those who can do something about it through political activism and changes in personal lifestyle. "This stuff really is happening, now. It's not just polar bears on shrinking icebergs. I want to connect people with the reality of what's going on and say, it is time to take action."

Next month, Dixon, together with girlfriend Eri Hirose, will embark on a 4,000-km bicycle trip from Kathmandu, through the Himalayas to Ladakh in northern India, and back through Nepal to the Ganges Delta and Dhaka, Bangladesh. It's a journey that will take the 38-year-old Dixon and Hirose, 27, through "mountains into temperate forests into the lowlands and into the river deltas."

"(Nepal) goes from 90 meters above sea level to the top of the world in a relatively short span," Dixon explains. "You can go through a whole range of environments. In a compact area, you can see an astonishing array of different effects of climate change and what's happening to the glaciers, how it's affecting the people and the fact that that within 30-40 years there's going to be no water for anything up to 70 million people down in the Ganges Basin."

News photo
Top of the world: The Himalayas will mark the starting point for the bicycle tour project Cycle for Change. COURTESY OF GAVIN DIXON

The project, Cycle for Change, is partnered with the World Wildlife Fund and is specifically a partner to WWF Nepal's Climate for Life campaign. From the end of June to journey's projected end in mid to late October, Dixon and Hirose plan to highlight what is happening in the areas and how they and the people living there are being affected by climate change. They will relay this to people around the world through Web site videos and a blog. Cycle for Change, a wholly nonprofit undertaking, is also establishing contacts with high schools in Japan. Dixon plans to field questions from students, "build a connection and try to get a narrative going so that people will want to come back and see us."

"We'll be out there experiencing things and the important thing is that it's not just the negative side," Dixon says. The cycling pair will be covering projects by the Nepalese, Indian and Bangladeshi governments already established to deal with climate change, such as the artificial glaciers being created in Ladakh to ensure water flow.

Is what they will witness indeed caused by climate change? "I haven't got a 100 percent answer for that," says Dixon. "But, on the balance of probabilities, and if we can rely on any sort of scientific studies and claims, you can't just deny it.

"Things are changing. There's no doubt about that. Is it human-induced climate change? We are definitely having an effect. To say that the way we live our lives is not affecting the environment is ignorant in the extreme. We are a major part."

Dixon has already seen much of the world close at hand. Born in Sydney and raised in Melbourne and Germany, he was always ready to get up and go, strike out for the unknown. After a college education in economics, his life took a varied road through an array of colorful jobs and 55 countries.

His first trip to Japan was in 1993, when he taught for six weeks at Nova, caddied on the pro golf tour, and "worked at some yakuza bars in Umeda." He went back to Australia for work in international marketing selling "cheese to the Chinese and carrot juice to Japan." It was worked he "hated" and he quit and went to Cairns for stints as a tuna fisherman and scuba-diving teacher. In London, he worked in a pub until an ad for tour guide caught his eye. A decade of organizing tours throughout Europe followed, two years living in Spain, working on buses through not only Europe, but Australia, Fiji and New Zealand as well. "It was six months on, working every day straight, and then six months off," he says. "Basically, I was trying very hard not to grow up."

He packed for Thailand when the tsunami hit in 2004 to help as a volunteer.

Some time later, after a stay in Cambodia and while sitting in a bar in Chang Mai, Thailand "watching a Liverpool-Chelsea game," he got the urge to return to Japan. That was four years ago.

Dixon attributes his action-oriented inclinations to his father, whom he remembers telling him, "Son, you're too big for Australia." The elder Dixon placed high value on curiosity. "He always said, 'the best education you'll ever get is to jump in an airplane with no money and go somewhere you don't know anyone.' " It was advice the younger Dixon took to heart.

"Dad always said, 'you've had a good day when you've learned something in the day. You've had a bad day when you haven't learned something.' He would talk about having an inquisitive mind, not being normal, not following the normal path, but actually thinking about things and not believing everything. 'If you're interested in something, go and have a look at it' he would say. 'Don't ignore it if you think it's important.'

"He said, 'Get yourself out there, son.' "

Dixon's journeys have molded him in many ways. His own politics, he claims, have "come a full 180 degrees over the last 10 years. I was conservative, a free market liberalist, laissez-faire capitalist and it just doesn't seem to work." His social politics began to change 15 years ago when he started traveling. "My economic and climate politics changed in the last 4-5 years. I've seen the world from the top to the bottom and there's a colossal gap."

Things were most eye-opening in Peru. Four months driving through the Andes showed him "abject poverty and the climate change that's already happening up there, unreported climate change and the effects thereof," he says. "You talk to the locals and they haven't had a decent rain for however long. The soil is dying because it's not being replenished because the water is not bringing the mud down from the hills and so on."

Dixon says, "I'm tired of people saying, 'Oh, it's not really happening' or 'I don't care, I'll be dead by the time it happens here.' Well, if anyone's got kids, they've got a responsibility to at least think about it and at least maybe try to get something done," Dixon says, lapsing from his usual motto of "don't preach, show."

"Mostly the way we're living our lives is we're trying to have infinite growth, whether it be economical or population or whatever, in a finite world. That's just trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and that's just not going to work."

Dixon claims he is no different than anyone else. During his years as a tour guide he "was pumping so much carbon into the air it was frightening, out of diesel buses for thousands and thousands of miles." Nowadays, Dixon pumps out 40-50 km a day on his bicycle, commuting from Chiba to Tokyo.

His upcoming journey will take him through four mountain passes of 5,000 meters or above. "They say you can drop 10 kg doing that. I can get rid of this," he says slapping his belly. "These days I'm living mostly on ramen and beer." The days ahead will surely be leaner ones. Dixon and Hirose will camp out and "rely on the hospitality of the locals." The touring bikes, "built like bricks" Thorn Ravens, will carry a combined weight of 60 kg of equipment.

Dixon says he is also open to the possibility of another member on the team. "If someone wants to come join us and they can get organized in the next 6-8 weeks, we can sit down and have a long hard talk about it." What the project sorely needs is more sponsors.

Though equipment makers have stepped in to help, Cycle for Change is still looking for sponsors or other help in a number of areas — communications, PR, marketing. Recession-hit Japan has made sponsors shyer than usual, Dixon laments.

Nonetheless, the project, with the help of its WWF partner, is expected to get high exposure, with likely coverage by CNN and the Discovery Channel. "There has been keen interest from other WWFs around the world," Dixon says, and there is a great deal of interest in the project as a leadup to the Climate Conference in Copenhagen in December.

Dixon is already looking beyond the journey as well, hoping to see the project expand in coming years. "My aim would be to almost run this year's project as a beta test and to get people doing the same thing all around the world under the banner Cycle for Change.

"We're trying to inspire people to, one, change their own behavior, and two, get politically active. That's the only way things are going to change," he says.

"Not doing something just because it's going to be difficult, that's just not an option."

For further information see: Cycle for Change Web site: www.cycle-for-change.com; blog: cycleforchange.wordpress.com; WWF Nepal site: nepal.panda.org/


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