Leading sustainability consultant and champion Athena Lambrinidou recalls the moments that made her reconsider her place and role within the planet.
I am on anchor watch on the bridge of the Rainbow Warrior off the coast of the New Georgia Islands, that form part of the Solomon Islands in the South West Pacific. I have been at sea now for four weeks, travelling around the Marshalls, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Solomons campaigning against illegal deforestation and the use of nuclear weapons. It is around 11am. All our official meetings, until this moment, have mostly been with men in positions of authority, the same kind who tend to dominate meetings wherever you are in the world. Typically, there has been a lot of grandstanding talk but no real action.
Then, through my binoculars I see something small driving wildly towards our ship. I can just about make out a canoe with a small electric motor driven by a woman in her mid-forties. Sitting proud within the vessel is a defiant-looking woman in her late seventies. The two women come onboard and ask to speak to someone. They tell us how a mining company came to their island, together with representatives of the government, and how their men granted them permission to start exploring. The women are dead against this. They speak clearly, in a no-nonsense manner. They talk about their vital spiritual connection with the land. They have told their men that they have no choice but to listen to them, as it is from their women’s bellies that they have all come forth. It seems that that authority is not enough now. The women say they need legal advice and scientific information. Suddenly, I remember stories of how, before colonization and Christianity, many South Pacific Island countries used to be matriarchies. I am also reminded of another time, on another boat and my own vital connection with the planet...
We have crossed the Panama Canal and have caught the trade winds south of the Galapagos. At this point, we have already been at sea for 13–14 days, slowly making our way west to Tahiti and the Cooks before heading south towards Aotearoa, New Zealand. We have set all sails, turned off all engines, and our maximum speed is 6.5 knots. There have been no ships on the horizon or any signs of civilization for almost two weeks now. All we hear is the sound of the wind on our sails, the waves across our hull, and the occasional chipping hammer. All we have seen is the continually changing colour and shape of the sea and the chance curious whale or school of playful dolphins frolicking on the horizon. Unexpected squalls have us running up and down the deck, reefing sails, buttoning down hatches. We are all mesmerized, hardly exchanging any words with each other.
In my breaks I have been reading two books: a Greenpeace one, entitled Testimonies: Witnesses of French Nuclear Testing in the South Pacific and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki.
I have had the inordinate luck to be on the 4–8am watch with Daniel since we left Panama. Day after day after day: sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, starry nights, moonlit nights. Tapio, our chief engineer, is up at 630am every morning, rolling his first cigarette of the day, looking out at sea and saying, every day the same thing, ‘Good morning! Good wind’.
On a very dark and starry night, during my first hour rounds, I go to check out the sound of dolphins on our bow. The bioluminescent plankton surrounding our ship lights up the outlines of the dolphins’ bodies as they jump in and out of the waves like magical Christmas lights. I look up at Daniel and smile the biggest smile.
Back on the bridge, watching the stars move across the horizon, I ask Daniel to remind me how everything works and moves around each other out there.
That day, at 440am, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, for one second that has lasted a lifetime, absolutely everything made perfect, musical and powerfully harmonious sense.
I am in a café by the parking lot where we keep our maintenance van, waiting for my next assignment as the driver for a local NGO in Greece assisting vulnerable refugee families.
I have been back in Greece for 11 years now. I returned from New Zealand at the call of George Papandreou, a forward-thinking Greek politician, who asked me to help him design projects linking the environmental crisis with participatory democracy. Since then I have worked with and around many a politician, filmmaker, business owner and journalist, passionately trying to solve the unprecedented resource crises unfolding before our very eyes. Although each one of them looked like they really wanted to listen, something inside them meant they couldn’t or didn’t really want to hear. In the end, I had to take a break from worrying about the state of the planet’s environment.
Outside my day job, I have been meeting with a small yet powerful group of groovy older Greek women. We have been strategizing some creative ideas for direct action aimed at putting an end to the complete insanity of new oil and gas explorations in Epirus, Greece – one of the most pristine and magical areas left in our country.
The world looks pretty bleak at the moment. I have been dreaming of saving up enough money to stop in Trinidad, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Hawaii on my way back down to New Zealand at the end of the year. I look forward to meeting more of ‘my kind of people’ in every stop and in a local café by the sea somewhere to keep planning, together, how to take our planet back.
Athena Lambrinidou helped set up the first Greenpeace office in Greece and then, in 1991, embarked on a seven-year journey to the Mediterranean, the US, the Caribbean, and the Pacific on board various Greenpeace ships, campaigning on climate change, nuclear waste, fisheries and marine pollution, among other issues. In the summer of 2006 she was called back to Greece to design projects linking the environment with participatory democracy by the then head of the Greek Socialist Party, and later Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou and later was on the organizing committee of a ‘Religion, Science and the Environment’ symposium held in the Amazon under the auspices of HAH Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. In 2007 she formed the sustainability consultancy dotearth.gr, working with a diverse range of clients to develop long-term climate change and fisheries depletion strategies. She then created ‘The Aunties: Taking the Planet Back’, an international digital magazine and radio podcast with the aim of igniting meaningful conversation, collaboration and, ultimately, progress on the climate and resource crises. She is currently taking a welcome ‘meditative break’ from the environmental movement by serving as the maintenance van driver of a local Greek NGO taking care of vulnerable refugee families in Athens.