Skoll Foundation


Jeff Skoll Keynote 2008 Skoll World Forum: “Just Imagine”

March 27, 2008 by

Remarks by Jeff Skoll delivered March 27, 2008 at the Skoll World Forum at Saïd Business School, the University of Oxford.

I would like to say a special thank you once again to Stephan Chambers, Liz Nelson, Alex Nicholls and the entire Skoll Centre team for being such wonderful hosts again this year.

As Sally alluded, one of the great joys I have had this year is to work as a funder and Advisor with the Elders.  Frankly though, advising people like Mary Robinson, Archbishop Tutu or President Carter about global issues is a little like advising George Clooney on how to be a movie star.  Most of what I know I learned from observing them in the first place.But I think I finally found my unique contribution.  From what I understand, the Elders have about 987 years of total experience between them.  When you add in the 13 years of experience I have had since graduate school, it vaults them over the 1,000 year mark.    I’m really proud to play that role.

In all honesty, it is a humbling experience to support the incredible mission and vision of the Elders.

I’d like to start today by telling a story.

Next summer, a small town in the State of Montana will commemorate the 60th anniversary of a tragic fire that took the lives of 13 young men.

The reason the fire is famous outside Montana is because of what another young man did to survive the same tragedy – an innovation that has since saved thousands of lives.

Here’s how it came about:  the young men were all part of a team of smokejumpers, who parachuted in to battle a small forest fire in the mountains sparked by a lightning storm.  They made their stand along the north ridge of what is known as “Mann Gulch.”

In front of them was the fire.  Behind them was grassland, leading to a river, which was their escape route.

Things were going well.  But then, the wind shifted.

The fire jumped across the gulch and ignited the grass behind them, blocking their access to the river.

Their only escape was up a grass slope that rose at a nearly 80 degree angle.  So, they started running – fanning out across this slope.

As they picked up speed, so did the fire – gaining on them quickly. Within minutes, the fire was less than 200 yards away.

As it was about to engulf them, one smokejumper did something miraculous.  He took out a match, and lit a fire in the grass ahead of him.  It quickly spread uphill.  He then stepped into the newly burned area, and lay down.  Since burnt grass can’t be burned twice—when the inferno raging behind him caught up with him, it burned around him and passed him, before tragically overtaking the other 13.

That quick innovation saved his life.  From that day forward, the technique has been known as an escape fire. It has saved countless lives in similar fires since then.

When I first read this story, in a wonderful speech by a man named Don Berwick, it didn’t fully impact me.  But now, as I think about it in the context of climate change, and the scarcity of clean drinking water, and the population explosion expected in the next 50 years, and global pandemics like HIV/AIDS, and so on—it takes on new meaning.

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that all of these fires are burning around us and gaining on us, minute by minute—there are still some who believe they can build an escape fire.

And in the worst cases, not only do some deny the fires are advancing—they even deny that the fires exist.

But hope as some might, here’s the bad news:  there is no escape fire for climate change.  There is no escape fire for global pandemics.  And there is no escape fire for global degradation and environmental destruction.

As this forum has helped make clear, on the issues we’re all worried about—either all of us are safe, or none of us are safe.

We need all the energy and talent we have in this world today to find solutions.  Denying the problems, or trying to confuse them, is just a tragic misuse of energy and resources.

The one thing we don’t have on our side today is time.  As Winston Churchill said just prior to WWII, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients and delays is coming to its close.  In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.”

I was reminded of those consequences on a trip that I took last year to Africa and India.

There were two things in particular that struck me.

The first was that in Africa and India, much like everywhere else in the world, people were observing that their climate was changing.

One tribesman in the Maasai Mara described to us a hailstorm and a flood that killed his brother, something unheard of in his tribe’s ancestral memory.

In India, the poorest villagers expressed alarm at how some places were experiencing terrible floods when it was supposed to be dry and other places were experiencing terrible heat when it was supposed to be cool. And people were dying.

This isn’t an example of something that will happen in five or ten years, it’s happening now and affecting their lives today.  The clock is already ticking and it is only going to get worse.

The second thing that struck me had to do with water.

As many of you know, more than a billion people rely on water sources that are hard to get, unreliable or unsafe for their daily washing, cooking, drinking, and cleaning.

In countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, and Tanzania, the amount of water used per person each day is about the same as a person in a developed country uses to brush their teeth just once.  We’ve all seen the images of African women and girls working 4 to 16 hours per day just to bring water to their homes.  The social toll of this is enormous.

In India, by contrast, virtually every village, home, shelter or shack has its own small water pump.  However, each person has a smaller and smaller share of water every year. According to the Confederation of Indian Industry, per capita water availability has slid from 5,000 cubic meters a year in 1950 to less than 2,000 cubic meters today.

Almost a billion people in India today depend on the aquifer for their drinking water.  The problem is that the aquifer in India is down to about 300 feet today.  And at 400 feet, it becomes salt water.

So, in 10 to 20 years, if nothing is done to change this direction, there is a risk that all of these people that are pulling up potable water from the aquifer today will be pulling up salt water.  If we don’t get ahead of this, it’s going to be a huge humanitarian disaster.

And it’s not just India.

The United Nations has estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will not have enough water by 2025 if current trends are not reversed. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this past January, “the challenge of securing safe and plentiful water for all is one of the most daunting challenges faced by the world today.”

He understands this isn’t just about water, it’s also about war.  In the 20th Century, wars were fought over oil. In the 21stCentury, they will be fought over water.

The tragedy of Darfur began when the rains stopped and the droughts began, as farmers took up arms against herders.  Thus far, more than 200,000 people have lost their lives.  We may see a lot more Darfurs in the decades ahead.

This challenge isn’t limited to the developing world.  We are all at risk.

In the United States this past summer, the city of Atlanta had its reservoirs run dry, prompting the worst water emergency in decades.

The lake that supplies water to Las Vegas is now half-empty.

In the Western United States, even the most optimistic climate models for the second half of this century suggest that water supplies will be severely restricted.

One local official affectionately calls this scenario, “regional Armageddon.”

As we have heard repeatedly this week, water is not the only issue for which time is not on our side.  From the population boom ahead of us . . . to the rapid shift toward urbanization . . . to the spread of pandemics . . . to the tens of millions of young children who will never go to school . . . we have entered a period of consequences.

We have more wealth, more brainpower, and better technology than at any time in human history.  But we are still doing too little.  We haven’t found a good way to put our biggest resources to work against our biggest problems.

That’s why the people at this forum are so important.

As much as the urgency of these issues inspires anxiety, it is the people here today—and thousands like you—who inspire hope.

It is social entrepreneurs in every field and every part of the world, who are not running away from the fires advancing behind us, but who are instead turning to face the flames, each of you with your own bucket.

It is the courage and tenacity of the people with buckets who are also building the groundswell to convince others with fire hoses to turn and fight, too.

I think about people like Amitabha Sadangi and IDE India, who have used technology and market linkages to enable 850,000 small farmers to earn net profits of $400 per person per year—and contributed to a reduction of more than 1.3 million tons of carbon emissions annually.

I think about Vicky Colbert, who has found creative new ways to educate rural children through Escuela Nueva—which was established as a national policy in her native Columbia and implemented in 20,000 rural schools, before being expanded to reach five million children in 14 Latin American countries, as well as Uganda and the Philippines.

I think of Gary Cohen, and his organization—Health Care Without Harm—who have helped close more than 90 percent of the medical waste incinerators in the United States, and virtually eliminated mercury medical products from U.S. and European hospitals.

Or, I think about Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth.  All of a sudden, denying climate change became about as credible as being a member of the Flat Earth Society.

The science hadn’t changed.  But Al Gore—and millions of people who have taken up his call—have changed the way people see the issue by asking us to imagine a better world.

Together, let us all say to the world now:  just imagine.

Imagine a world where every African farmer is also an energy entrepreneur, selling electricity from their solar panels back to the grid;

Imagine a world where vaccines against malaria, polio and HIV/AIDS are distributed as widely and affordably as Coca-Cola.

Imagine a world where clean water and quality healthcare are readily available to everyone on earth.

Imagine a world where stories from Africa and Bangladesh are not driven by AIDS and infection rates, but by graduation and literacy rates.

Imagine a world where the Middle East is a model for people living in peace and harmony, where the hot topics of conversation are not oil and strife, but innovation and jobs.

Imagine a world that became better with every generation, a world where all people, regardless of geography, background or economic status, could enjoy and employ the full range of their talents and abilities.

That is the world all of us see.  That is the world social entrepreneurs are working to create today.  At the Skoll Foundation, we are privileged to face the fires with you and to imagine help you create the world we all would wish to see.

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