In 2019 Florian Reber cycled 6,300km through North America, collecting stories of climate-change responses as he went. Late in 2020 our Editor Sam spoke with him about his journey, and the often political nature of the stories he heard.
In early 2019 we spoke with Swiss sustainability expert Florian Reber about Tales of Change, his project documenting stories from the frontlines of climate change whilst touring on his bike and splitboard. In 2018 he had completed a full traverse of the European Alps, from Trieste to Cannes.
In June 2019, for the second chapter of Tales of Change, he travelled to North America. From Vancouver his journey took him along the BC Epic Trail to the Canadian Rockies. He then turned south into Montana and, via some small detours, along the Great Divide Trail to Albuquerque. Here he took the train to Los Angeles, cycled to San Francisco, took another train to Poughkeepsie and cycled the final leg into New York City for the 2019 NYC Climate Week.
This 6,300km journey started, in fact, from my house in Vancouver. After hosting him for a couple of nights, I watched Florian pedal up East Pender Street and away into the suburbs. Over a year later, I was delighted to see him again over Zoom to hear more about his trip.
“Very Swiss” is how Florian describes his approach to planning, which centred around an Excel file outlining an indicative route with fixed dates for interviews, plus some wiggle room. Through a combination of excellent discipline and good luck - his entire list of mechanical difficulties amounted to just one flat tire - he stuck to this plan closely until the end.
As with his first journey, Florian’s aim was to hear and share stories. “My mission was not to convince anybody of anything,” he says, but to listen to people - people ranging from a previous President of the Haida Nation, farmers and ranchers practicing climate-smart agriculture, the Sustainability Manager of Yellowstone National Park, climate scientists, a forest firefighter and others.
Most of these conversations were planned, but not all. In Penticton, British Columbia, Florian saw a mural depicting animals and grey smoke. “On top of it, out of the fire, there was a pair of hands, and coming out of the hands came the animals and plants and nature. On top of it it said: ‘The environment is in our hands.’ I thought that was beautiful, and fits really well with what I was trying to convey.” Florian reached out to the artist for a conversation.
Aside from the far-reaching impacts that climate change is having on nature and communities in the US, two threads emerge from his stories: the political nature of addressing climate change and the unexpected positions of some people.
'My mission was not to convince anybody of anything.'
Stuck in Wyoming waiting for a new stove, for example, he met some ultra libertarians. They had opposed the creation of a local nature reserve designed to protect local ecosystems, on the basis it was ‘their land’. But, to Florian’s surprise, they loved solar energy: it granted them independence - and freedom from a government to whom they never paid taxes.
In Montana Florian met ranchers engaged with regenerative agriculture business models, like carbon farming. “Traditionally, that's not the image we have of a rancher in Montana,” says Florian. But he is sympathetic to the many challenges that stand in the way of such innovation.
For one, Florian says, “there is an ideological conflict sometimes, given that climate change has become politicised. It's difficult, maybe, for some of the more conservative communities to engage on the topic.” It is also risky taking a step without peers doing likewise.
More fundamentally, climate solutions must be framed “in a language that your audience understands,” continues Florian. When confronted with the reality that they “cannot continue doing business as we have done in the past, because it's wrecking soils,” the argument becomes about business, not political identities. “The regenerative farmers I met in Montana are entrepreneurs who understand working with nature is a solution for the planet and the bottom line.”
'There is an ideological conflict sometimes, given that climate change has become politicised. It's difficult, maybe, for some of the more conservative communities to engage on the topic.'
Another factor that may provide more than a trivial incentive is a love for adventure. One farmer Florian spoke with was a keen kayaker, living near the headwaters of the pristine Yellowstone River. On his trips on the country’s rivers he had noticed the downstream pollution and dying fish stocks, which were suffering from the overuse of fertilisers. His experience encouraged him to experiment with new models that helped him shift away from using chemicals that destroy ecosystems to micro-biological solutions that bring back life to the soils.
A political dimension also arises in the response to forest fires - a huge problem in the regions Florian travelled through. “There is political pressure to protect [wealthy] properties,” Florian says, recalling a conversation with a forest firefighter. This means “there is pressure to fight fires which, from an ecosystem perspective, shouldn't be fought,” when doing so means there will be more fuel available the following year, risking mega fires.
A huge missing component in these debates - a missing operating system, even - emerges through a conversation Florian had with Gidansa Guujaaw, First Nation hereditary leader and Raven of the Haida Nation in British Columbia. It was “a very spiritual, philosophical conversation about us - human beings - not being able, collectively, to take care of each other,” Florian recalls. “Individually we are loving, caring human beings. But as we aggregate and become collectives, it's just getting more difficult, and our inability to act in intergenerational terms is something which, to Indigenous communities like the Haida Nation, is the essence of their culture. Modern civilisations, as we know them, have forgotten.”
'Our inability to act in intergenerational terms is something which, to Indigenous communities like the Haida Nation, is the essence of their culture. Modern civilisations, as we know them, have forgotten.'
This conversation highlights how essential inclusive development is to our response to the climate and biodiversity crisis. This challenge is central to Florian’s current work, on the World Economic Forum’s 1t.org project. The project aims to mobilise and empower a global movement to help conserve, restore and grow one trillion trees by 2030, in support of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.
“We know that energy, transport and industry systems have to decarbonise rapidly for the goals of the Paris Agreement to be met. At the same time, protecting and restoring nature to store more carbon in the world’s forests, grasslands and wetlands is a crucial part of the solution that we still talk less about,” says Florian. “There are many ways of realising such nature-based solutions. Conserving and growing trees is one part of it - it's one very important part of it, because it has lots of co-benefits: for biodiversity protection, for local communities and for enabling the transition to bioeconomies. Growing trees is also something that everybody can get involved in - everybody can get their hands dirty or support a local restoration initiative.”
1t.org is many things: a platform, a movement, a campaign. “It's a different way of engaging on the topic,” Florian says. “It is about helping to achieve system change. The transition to a nature- and climate-positive system also has to be a just transition: it needs to meet the needs of millions of communities at the rural scale, and also young people, who will be building a livelihood for the decades to come. That’s the opportunity we have, and the movement we are building is connecting youth movements, and the grassroots, with senior decision-makers in the public and private sector, to make sure that ecosystem restoration is not an afterthought but recognised as a valuable solution for future prosperity.”
This work means Tales of Change is taking a back seat, for now. But it isn’t out of mind. “The connection to Tales of Change is about what's happening with the land, and the importance of nature-based solutions to addressing economic, climate and biodiversity crises,” Florian reflects. And, given his role involves catalysing a movement of global ecopreneurs, he isn’t ruling out a third Tales of Change leg aimed at exhibiting their work. If it comes to pass, you can be sure we’ll be speaking to Florian once more.