Tim Jarvis AM: 2024 Australian of the Year for South Australia

Tim Jarvis AM is a man of many titles. These include explorer, writer, speaker, filmmaker, and passionate environmental advocate, and now the 2024 Australian of the Year for South Australia.

WORDS: Kate Holland

PHOTOS: Claudio Raschella

Tim Jarvis has been been described by the Australian Museum as an adventurer who never chooses the easy road. Some have been icy cold, in fact. Tim has recreated several Antarctic expeditions without the benefit of modern technology and says they taught him plenty of transferable lessons for tackling global issues like climate change. He’s putting some of them into practice right here in SA.

Paint us a picture of Tim Jarvis as a child. Was it always obvious that you would become an adventurer and planetary caretaker?

My passion for adventure and sustainability started as a young child growing up in Malaysia in the 70s. I then went to a school that espoused the principles of ‘learning by doing’ and getting outdoors, (UWCSEA) in Singapore. It gave me self-confidence from needing to think on my feet and make decisions. I also developed a love of nature that has continued into adulthood.

The longer I’ve gone on, the more I’ve come to realise how under threat the natural world is from our behaviour and conscious indifference. 

My journeys to the polar regions over the past 25 years have really focused my mind given how fragile and susceptible to pollution and climate change these regions are. Not only do I feel compelled to act, but I feel if I didn’t use the opportunity my expeditions, media coverage and work afforded me it would be an unforgivable wasted opportunity. 

What brought you to Adelaide? John Rymill, Sir Douglas Mawson and Sir Hubert Wilkins – three of the famous pioneers of Antarctic exploration from Australia – were all South Australian. Did that play a part? 

No, I actually came to South Australia as an environmental scientist looking at the health of the Murray-Darling river system. The work was here because the Murray mouth is here. We, as South Australians, are reliant on all the other states upstream doing the right thing for our water supply and the health of our environment, so it’s a very emotive issue. 

I’d done several Arctic trips before I arrived in Adelaide. Once I got here I immediately became aware of South Australia’s proud polar legacy (particularly in Antarctica) and the incredible journeys of Douglas Mawson, Hubert Wilkins and John Rymill. This led me to undertake a journey in Antarctica in 2006 using the same period clothing, equipment and starvation rations as Mawson had on his 1913 journey, to honour his legacy.  

South Australia has been producing this adventurous can-do attitude in people for many years and it continues to this day with many exceptional men and women doing work in a whole range of fields.

You are lauded for re-creating both Douglas Mawson and Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions true to their experience and not only surviving but applying what you learned to educate the world about the urgent need to find practical solutions to climate change. Can you give some examples and demonstrate how they helped with your crossover from adventurer to conservationist?

In the first instance, I think in many people’s minds, melting Antarctic ice is the litmus paper showing us how climate change is impacting the planet. Telling stories about these journeys gives you immediate agency to talk about and show the effects of climate change. 

Above and beyond this though, these journeys teach you so much about how we can approach dealing with climate change. This includes lessons learnt from how those early explorers went about things but also the techniques I have learnt from carrying out expeditions myself.

Take for example Shackleton’s intuitive understanding of his team members’ different personalities and his ability to tailor his message to each one in a way that resonated. This provides insights into how we can better connect with those whose environmental behaviour we seek to change. His optimism when dealing with problems – ‘difficulties are just things to overcome after all’ – demonstrates how we should measure our effort, control what we can, and strive to remain positive and react and adapt. Even the apocryphal expedition recruitment advert he ran ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey…Safe return doubtful’ is a masterful framing. It inspired a team that was prepared for and rose to the challenges faced. I think we can learn from this and apply it to our battle with existential crises like climate change and biodiversity loss. 

Expeditions also teach you to break down the enormity of the challenge into bite-sized pieces, celebrate success along the way, and control what you can (acknowledging that you can’t control everything). These are all transferable lessons for how we can approach global issues like climate change. 

Dialogue around climate change is crowded and certain sectors are either overwhelmed or jaded towards inaction. How do you combat that? 

I think the first thing is to let people know it’s not too late to deal with the issue. This involves getting a balance between showing the resilience of nature as well as the pressures we are subjecting it to. Too positive about prospects for the planet: complacency kicks in. Too negative: people become despondent and feel it’s too late to act. 

Secondly, you need to remind people that although their contribution may be small, it’s significant. As I mentioned before, a golden rule of successful expeditioning is controlling what you can. In the context of climate change, we need to avoid being overwhelmed or distracted by what others are or aren’t doing.

Thirdly, you need to choose language and metrics that suit the person you are trying to engage with or whose behaviour you are seeking to change. There’s no point using things that are too remote or unfamiliar. In the case of encouraging renewables uptake, for example, it doesn’t even have to be a moral argument as the economic case stacks up so well. Pick the path of least resistance!

Fourth, we need to clearly explain what that person can do in their domain to make their contribution to solving the problem. This needs to be within their means but also within a timeframe that makes sense to them. A politician or CEO normally thinks in three-to-four-year time frames, for example. There’s no point giving them a 20-year plan. 

Finally, we need education around the issue. Once people understand it better, they can make more informed decisions, and this can block out the noise coming from uninformed commentators.

You are currently working on the Forktree Project, a registered charity striving to return a degraded 133-acre former pastoral property in South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula back to nature. What are the goals of this project and what does it involve?

This is a rewilding project that involves restoring the property by planting tens of thousands of native trees and shrubs, creating valuable habitats for native flora and fauna, and sequestering tens of thousands of tonnes of CO2 over the life of the project to help combat climate change.

The Forktree Project has three main goals in addition to the restoration of the footprint of the land itself.

GOAL ONE: To set up a native seed nursery and rare seed orchard to grow native plants for use at Forktree and other Hills and Fleurieu properties. This will help combat biodiversity loss and provide desperately needed native habitat for native flora and fauna. The rare seed orchard involves growing threatened species in a dedicated vermin-proof 1.5ha area for ease of seed harvesting and propagation and as a security population in the wild. The focus is on species that are rare or of significance to First Nations people. It is intended that First Nations land managers will be trained to help run these facilities as part of an educational outreach program and as part of their involvement in the project.

GOAL TWO: To trial innovative sustainable land management and plant husbandry techniques and provide sustainability-based guidance to others. This includes ways of calculating both above-ground and soil-based carbon for small/medium-sized rural landowners to reduce the costs of accessing carbon offset funding. We hope this will encourage their participation in land restoration. We’ll also trial innovative irrigation technology in our nursery and seed orchard. 

GOAL THREE: To educate the community about the importance of environmental stewardship, both through the provision of curriculum-specific educational content to schools and the modelling of proactive sustainable practices. Principal target audiences include schools, young people, the local community, and rural landowners.

How have people (both near and far) responded to Forktree? Are there supporters and/or detractors that you wouldn’t have expected? 

The majority of people are very supportive of what we’re doing. We’re happy to share information and are pretty understated about what we do. We have supporters right across Australia but also from as far afield as the UK, Europe and the US. 

There are a few detractors who either don’t believe in climate change or don’t see the value of restoring land for nature, but I’m always prepared to engage with them and have a respectful conversation. 

At the end of the day, almost half of global GDP comes from services nature provides us for free, so we can’t afford to abuse it. (For example, producing the food we eat, cleaning the air we breathe and the water we drink, producing the soil we grow our crops in, pollination services, microbes that break down our waste, pharmaceutical wealth, and the list goes on). 

In March this year, you posted a picture of a sapling that was grown in the Forktree Project nursery and left lying on its side in the bush after last year’s tree planting season. The roots had managed to grow out of the pot and into the ground on their own. You described this as ‘amazing resilience’ and commented that where there’s a way nature will find it. Do moments like this give you hope?

Nature’s resilience always gives me hope. Look at places like Pripyat which has recovered from the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Alaskan wilderness that bounced back from the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, or the recovery that is steadily occurring on KI since the devastating 2019 fires. The fact that nature continues to survive despite our best efforts to destroy it with overconsumption and fossil fuel emissions is amazing.

I think the key message is that nature will find a way. All we have to do is give it a chance and it will come roaring back. But this does require effort on our part. We need to stop making things worse by decarbonising our lives. Plus, we need to rehabilitate and regenerate nature by proactive acts of restoration to sequester CO2. Both are needed to combat the effects of climate change as carbon dioxide has a 200-year life in the atmosphere.

We also must be careful not to overstate nature’s resilience or people will get complacent and feel they can simply sit back and let nature do all the work. 

What other projects and plans are currently on your agenda?

I’ve got lots of things on and work best when under a bit of friendly pressure. I’m the founder and presenter of Thin Ice VR – a film project that uses ground-breaking VR to show climate change in Antarctica (winner Best VR film at Cannes and LA Film Festivals 2022). I also work with The Pew Foundation and Australian Marine Conservation Society on marine conservation issues and was instrumental in helping secure the 475,000km2 Macquarie Island Marine Sanctuary declared by Minister Plibersek in July this year. We are now turning our attention to Australia’s other two subantarctic islands – Heard and McDonald Islands – and aiming for the protection of the oceans surrounding these islands too. 

I also raise awareness of climate change via my 25Zero project and the plight of the world’s melting equatorial glaciers. It involves climbing all those mountains at the equator that have a glacier. I’ve done 16 out of 25 so far.

I’ve heard you describe yourself as a list maker. If you were encouraging everyday people to create a list of the top five things that they can do to start combatting climate change, what would they be?

1 – Use less electricity. It’s the largest contributor to your carbon footprint. In fact, almost 40% of a country’s carbon emissions come from the electricity used to heat, cool and light buildings. The best things to do are: Use less electricity; and switch to green power so that anything you do use comes from renewable sources. If finances allow, generate your own by installing solar on your home. The return on investment for solar panels is very fast, particularly as electricity prices skyrocket.

2 – Re-think your transport. Cycle or walk to work, take public transport, car-share, fly less for work and where you do have to fly get carbon offsets for all your flights (they only add a tiny amount to the cost – perhaps 1%) and try taking holidays locally. In developed countries, a quarter of all energy used is for transport, with almost all of this from petrol.

3 – Eat less meat and eat local. The more you make your diet plant-based, the healthier it is for you, animals, and the planet. Converting forest to pasture land for cows or sheep to graze on reduces the planet’s ability to absorb CO2. Grazing animals also produce a lot of methane which is 24 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2. In fact, methane made up 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to the IPCC. Approximately 10 per cent of energy use goes into growing, processing, packaging, and shipping food and about 40% of this packaging and food we don’t eat ends up in landfill. 

4 – Invest well. Think about where you put your money or your pension/Super. Put some (if not all) of your super or investments into an ethical fund that doesn’t invest in environmentally damaging activities. They are some of the top-performing funds financially these days as they invest in growth areas like technology and renewables – a trend that is set to continue. You can earn a better return on your investment whilst saving the planet. A win-win. Australians have US$2 trillion invested in their superannuation plans. That’s 250 times more than the UN’s Green Climate Fund set up to tackle climate change!

5 – Get involved. Pick a local sustainability project that you can get involved in. There are many great initiatives that need your help and the sense of satisfaction you get can be huge. Think global, act local, as the saying goes. Or remember this: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is today”.

As an overarching thing, I’d say consume less, reuse and recycle everything you can. Reducing what we consume means less power, water and raw materials being needed to produce new things as well as reducing what gets thrown away. Australians throw away six tonnes of clothes every 10 minutes to landfill, for example! Plus, rubbish in landfills produces methane emissions. 

Also, avoid Palm Oil or, if you have to use things that contain it, make sure it comes from sustainable sources.

Tim doesn’t only refuse to take the easy road. He tackles many of them at a time. The planet is no doubt grateful.

How to follow Tim’s adventures or get in touch:

Websites timjarvis.org or theforktreeproject.com , thinicevr.com

Email via the Forktree Project hello@theforktreeproject.com 

Instagram @timjarvisam or @forktreeproject

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