Brisbane to Copenhagen by bike, an inspirational journey

10 February 2011

Breaking out of the monotony and predictability of conventional urban life is a dream to many. But fear and expectation connive to keep most people safely locked in. Turning the dream into reality can be hard and risky, but the potential reward is so great that I want to know, what's stopping you?

Images and blog post By Kim Nguyen

In 2008 I was a working in an office in Sydney, Australia. Nice office, good pay, boring job. I was sitting in front of a computer, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. I was getting pains in my back from all the sitting, and headaches from staring at the computer screen. It didn’t feel right. I was sure this wasn’t what evolution was suppose to lead to. Millions of years developing the human body and mind, the best procreating with the best, to produce office cubicle workers.

I wanted something different. And I got it. In August 2008 I set off on my bicycle from Brisbane Australia to cycle to Copenhagen Denmark. Part of it was a desire to reject my boring office job and predictable life, part of it was a desire for adventure, to test myself, and part of it was a desire to save the planet from Climate Change.

Politics plays a very important part in all of our lives, whether we like it or not. The laws that determine what we can and cannot do, the education we receive, the health care we are entitled to. I’ve always had an interest in politics, although I haven’t always done anything about it. But what struck me about all this politics, about our economic models, our social systems, the left and the right, is that it will all be meaningless if we don’t have a planet we can live on. So the environment, the planet and climate change are what motivated me to get political.

I like the sound of getting political, of having an impact on the people around you and changing the direction of your community, your society. But in reality trying to do that is incredibly hard. There are so many forces against change, forces that benefit from the status quo, the rich and the powerful, that will do anything to keep things the way they are. Just look at Barack Obama, a very intelligent, ambitious, well connected man, who swept into power saying “Yes We Can”, with a mandate to tackle climate change. Two years trying to force through health care reforms, no discernible action on climate change, and his ability to make any further changes has been severely shackled by mid-term election loses. And he is the American President. It shows the challenge the rest of us are up against.

But I figured I could have a little impact, and that’s better than no impact, and change has got to start somewhere right? Luckily there are lots of people who think like me, having lots of little impacts, some are having big impacts, and change is starting all over the place. I set up the Ride Planet Earth campaign, to promote simple action against climate change, like using sustainable transport. By cycling across 3 continents I thought I could raise awareness about the impacts of Climate Change on the Global South, and help inspire people to do something about it.

I arrived in Copenhagen in December last year, in time for the COP15 UN Climate Change Summit. In many ways the campaign had been a big success. There was an international Ride Planet Earth action, the day before the summit began. 50 different events were held across the planet, where people demonstrated their capacity and willingness to do something about climate change. I had collected plenty of messages from people I met whilst traveling that I presented to Kevin Rudd and the UN. I had left Brisbane alone, but arrived in Copenhagen with a group of seventy.

My journey had taken me through some of the most beautiful and harsh environments on the planet. I had cycled through the deserts of Northern Australia where I had been hospitalised for heat exhaustion. I had cycled through the tropical monsoons of South East Asia, where I was hospitalised again in East Timor. Again it was heat exhaustion, but this time I collapsed whilst cycling, landing on my face. I needed 10 stitches that I received without painkillers from the dirty little hospital in Dili. The needle going in and out millimetres from my eye was the scariest and most painful thing I think I’ve ever experienced.

The far Eastern slopes of the Himalayas were tough, crossing from Laos into China but Mongolia was by far the toughest. I spent 32 days cycling through the Gobi Desert and Mongolian steeps. I fought constant head-winds, dust storms, sand and rocks for roads, I got lost and ran out of food and water. I would never do it again but its the best thing I’ve ever done. After that it was plain sailing through Russia, Central Asia and Europe, although  the 2009 winter was a bit cold to be cycling and camping in Scandinavia.

It was a personal achievement, but ultimately the Copenhagen Summit was a failure. We didn’t convince our leaders to take the action necessary to stop climate change. After the summit they went back to their countries and back to business as usual. Which leads me to now.

If you care about something you can’t stop until its right. It would have been easy to fly back to Australia, to go back to my old job, back to my regular paycheck, maybe even my ex-girlfriend. I had devoted one and a half years to this, devoted myself entirely, worn down my body, made a tent my home, the road my companion. I could have said “I’ve done my bit.” But I hadn’t. There is still so much to do.

I decided to keep Ride Planet Earth going. Last year my friend Jeff Katrencik cycled from New York City down to Cancun Mexico, via Canada. It was about an 8000 kilometre trip. He was representing Ride Planet Earth. On November 28 2010, the day before the COP16 Summit began in Cancun, in cities, towns and villages around the world people took to the streets again. It was the second Ride Planet Earth international action, to show the capacity and willingness of ordinary people to do something about Climate Change.

A ride took place in Amsterdam too, where I’ve been living since Copenhagen. A group of us cycled through the cold and snow into the centre of Amsterdam. We cycled 4 person-bikes and a big musical 3 wheeler, celebrating sustainable travel and people power.

But for the past year, rather than focus on cycling, I’ve been thinking about how the arts, music and performance can contribute to making our future sustainable. A few days before I arrived in Copenhagen I met a strange old man named Chris Keene, who was cycling a recumbent tricycle to the Summit all on his own. He was cold, tired and dirty, but awash with ideas and enthusiasm about how to make the world better. He told me about his idea to create a Zero Carbon Concert, a world concert, that would run on solar, wind or other alternative energies. I was inspired.

Last year the Amsterdam Zero Carbon Collective was born. In late November 2010 we joined with Chris to participate in the Zero Carbon World Concert. We put on a night of music, dance and good vibes powered by bicycle generators. The night was a major success. 7 bands played an amazing mix of music, the venue was full, and everyone was keen to cycle and create the electricity needed to power the music and lights. Everything had somehow fortuitously come together at the last minute. We had been furiously fixing bike generators in the freezing cold, one of the performers had gone to America at the last minute so reinforcements needed to be called in. In the end we had musicians queuing up to perform.

There were successful zero carbon concerts held in Shanghai, Melbourne, and all over the UK, that linked up with arts events all over the world, inspiring sustainability with creativity.

This year we’ll be holding regular workshops to develop the skills and know-how to create more sustainable art, music and performance events. This summer the Amsterdam collective will be holding their first Zero Carbon Festival.

There are immense challenges ahead, but the future is what we make it, and making it looks like it could be fun. So if you are spending your days behind a computer screen, wondering how your life could be different, think of something you could do that means something to you, get up out of your chair and do it.

For more information on Ride Planet Earth, the Zero Carbon World Concert and the Amsterdam Zero Carbon Collective you can visit; www.rideplanetearth.org, www.zerocarbonconcert.org, and www.zerocarboncollective.com.