Photo: Doug de Mark

Roz Savage, the first woman to row across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, has spent 550 days of her life at sea. But the Royal Geographic Society World Fellow, 2010 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, United Nations Climate Fellow, and author of “Rowing the Atlantic: Lessons Learned on the Open Ocean,” is temporarily landlocked in New Haven, Connecticut, where she’s guest lecturing, teaching, and mentoring students as a Yale World Fellow. Savage is using her six-month stint at Yale to educate students on everything from climate change to the importance of fearlessness. In the midst of a packed schedule, Savage explained to us how she became such a passionate environmentalist.

Discovery: Were you an environmentalist before you started long-distance rowing?

Roz Savage: The environmental mission very much came before the rowing. I had my environmental epiphany in early 2004, when reading a book about the Hopi tribe of North America who, like many indigenous people, understand the deep interrelationship between people and planet in a way that the “developed” world seems to have lost sight of. When I read about their beliefs, it hit me with all the force of a fundamental truth. It was about six months later that the idea came to me to use adventure, specifically ocean rowing, as a platform to spread this message through social media, books, and presentations.

D: When you dipped your paddle into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, did you have any sense of how much environmental degradation you would see in the coming years?

RS: Over my seven years of ocean rowing I certainly have seen a lot of environmental degradation—plastic pollution, impacts of rising oceans on small island states, deforestation and mining in Papua New Guinea, coral bleaching in Australia—but you don’t have to row across oceans to see the damage we are doing. You only have to walk as far as your own trash can and think about where that waste is going to go, and how long it will persist there, to realize that the path we are on is not sustainable.

Photo: Roz Savage

D: Tell us about a shocking scene in your ocean travels that illustrates the environmental damage you’ve seen.

RS: It is so depressing to see plastic pollution way out in the middle of the oceans. We did a cleanup in Hawaii on a remote beach. It was covered in plastic. Where you might expect to see banks of seaweed, instead it was banks of multicolored plastic: toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, cigarette butts, toys, bleach bottles, fishing equipment, crates, and so on. Not only is plastic unsightly and dangerous to marine life, but it is actually a toxic substance. As it breaks down it releases a payload of chemicals that have been linked to cancer, diabetes, and hormonal disruptions affecting metabolism and fertility. Plastic is not bad in itself, but it needs to be treated as a controlled substance, and not allowed to escape into the natural world. It is simply poisonous.

READ MORE: Roz Savage Takes Ocean Activism for a Row

D: Are you most passionate about getting plastic out of the oceans, cleaning up oil spills, trying to stop the Arctic from melting? What’s the biggest issue?

RS: These are all important issues, but they are all symptoms of a deeper problem—what is going on in seven billion heads around the planet. We all want a decent quality of life. I understand that. Education, health care, happiness, the opportunity to prosper—these are all important. But we have been sold a myth by corporations greedy for growth that our quality of life is directly related to buying more, buying bigger, buying newer. It is not true. These things might bring an ephemeral happiness, but not a long-lasting sense of personal worth and value.

We need to see through this myth, and take back our power to determine our own definition of happiness, that serves our own needs rather than a corporate bottom line. At the moment we are consuming ourselves to death. As “consumers,” we are quite literally consuming all the world’s resources and then throwing them into landfill. We can still have a fantastic quality of life, in fact an even better quality of life than we do now, by focusing on the important things such as happiness, good relationships, and finding a job we love, rather than looking for fulfillment in the shopping malls. And this is what needs fixing.

D: What environmental goals are you working toward now?

RS: During my time at Yale I have been exploring how we can improve communications around sustainability issues. Over the last few decades, the environmental movement has had a naive belief that we can throw science at people and it will make them change their behavior. That obviously isn’t working. Instead of scaring people, we need to motivate them and give them something positive to work toward. We need to create a vision of what a sustainable future can look like, and use stories to explain its benefits to people in terms that are clear and appealing—emotionally, financially, and with regards to their future health and happiness.

Photo: Roz Savage

D: Has it become disheartening to see so much changing so quickly?

RS: I do have dark days, when the present system seems to be so entrenched that I can’t imagine us achieving the changes that we need in the time spans that we need them. The next ten years are absolutely crucial for climate change and for the oceans. After that there won’t be much left worth fighting for. But there is no point in becoming despondent. Apart from anything else, I want to go down on record as having done everything that I possibly could to make a difference. It allows me to sleep at night, and to look myself in the mirror, to know that I am doing my utmost to turn this around. I wouldn’t be able to look a young person in the eye if I didn’t believe I was doing my best to safeguard their future.

D: What do you plan to do next?

RS: I am still working on my grand plan for the next chapter of my life. I am done with the rowing—I pretty much ran out of oceans—and I want to take my campaigning to the next level in a more direct way. This semester as a Yale World Fellow has been incredibly formative, and informative, and will pave the way for what comes next. In the short term, that involves my Pacific book coming out in October 2013, and various speaking engagements across 12 countries next year alone. Beyond that, I am still pondering. My years as an ocean rower have made me believe that almost anything is possible, given enough determination and dedication, so whatever comes next, it has to be a big step upwards and onwards.