Editors | Jan/Feb 2009 issue
The physiologically-designed, Birkenstockish rubber sandals and home-knit-looking socks on Martin Vosseler’s feet have obviously seen a fair amount of travel. As has the red out-door jacket and the bulging backpack slung over his shoulder when meet up at Dusseldorf (uuu-umlaut) railway station. Together they make for an incongruous look: greenie garb combined with high-tech apparel.
Incongruity, however, is the hallmark of the 59-year-old’s life: he is army captain turned pacifist, physician and Greek and Latin scholar turned eco-campaigner, slowpoke kid turned marathon hiker. As co-founder of environmental protection organizations such as the International Energy Forum sun21, the soft-spoken Swiss joins forces with other, like-minded people. But he is equally prepared to set out on solo missions like the 2003 pilgrimage with the motto “There is enough Sun for All of Us” from his hometown of Basel to Jerusalem. Yet there is one thing that has remained the same throughout Martin Vosseler’s existence: his “love for the marvellous world we are allowed to live in” and the “belief that the it needs to be protected”.
To promote his favorite cause—the 100 pct use of renewable energy–Vosseler spent most of last year on a 3,600-mile, 8-months coast-to-coast hike across the US—all the way from Los Angeles to Boston. In blistering heat and biting cold, on lonely roads and crowded thoroughfares, his slight, almost thin figure could be seen trekking along patiently, pulling his 45-pound duffel bag and tent behind him on a travois constructed of two wheel-equipped sticks. For anyone who asked—be they passers-by or journalists–Vosseler had this message: “This walk is to be a prayer with body and soul—a prayer for awareness, ideas, courage, imagination and actions which can make the energy change happen in time.”
Vosseler is quite used to singular journeys. In 2007, he and four other solar power advocates, intent on proving that this energy source is not only useful on terra firma but on the high seas as well, crossed the Atlantic in a catamaran driven solely via photovoltaic modules. Weathering storms and mighty waves, the 14-meter boat, “sun21”, and its crew managed to reach its destination, the port of Le Marin on Martinique in the Caribbean, only 29 days after leaving Las Palmas on Gran Canaria—a new record gaining the project entry into the Guinness Book of Records. To the gentle Swiss doctor, the trip on the “ingenuously outfitted vessel”—with a staggering efficiency of 80 pct to 90 pct, its twin engines far outstrip traditional, gasoline-fuelled motors that barely reach the 20 pct mark–“symbolized aspects of today’s energy change. It was about departure, about leaving everything [old] behind”.
From early youth, Vosseler, the son of a geographer and nurse, has “had that great love of nature—the woods, the mountains, the streams. A shy and timid child, it was where I felt most at ease.” Appalled by the destruction of the countryside near his hometown, he became active as an environmentalist in 1975. A few years later, while working as a doctor in Boston, he also joined the “International Physicians against Nuclear War” and, once back in Basel, founded a Swiss chapter. This, he reminiscences, later lead to his involvement with energy change, the move away from fossile fuels and nuclear energy” and his commitment to NGOs like sun21.
It’s his unfailing optimism, his love of people, and his faith in the “divine power that has created this planet” which have given the gentle, bespectacled Vosseler, who likes to write children’s books and play the violin in his spare time, the seemingly boundless energy for all these and other activities. A great deal of personal courage, too, have assisted the calm, grey-haired man with the impish smile. Convinced that he had to quit his service as an officer in the military, for instance, he decided on conscientious objection in 1990, even though that step was punished by 30 days of detention.
Neither does Vosseler mind the inconvenience arising from his conviction that unnecessary air and car travel is harmful to the earth’s fragile eco-system and should therefore be avoided when possible. Instead of taking the plane to go to the US last year, he thus boarded a US-bound freighter from Europe. And not surprisingly, he is also a vegetarian. “The actions of one single person may have such great effects”, he argues. “If more people realized this, we could get closer to the miracles which are possible.”
Although he really hasn’t had much time to settle back in again after the return from the “sunwalk”, Vosseler is already planning his next quest—setting up solar and wind energy facilities on Dominica in the Caribbean. Together with Swiss and EU authorities, he says, sun21 and other NGOs “want to make the local Callinago tribe independent of fossile fuels. Hopefully, that will be achieved in between two to three years.” The remaining 3,000 members of that ancient Amerindian people, which survived the ravages of Colonialism by withdrawing to a remote, mountainous area in the east of the island, are the only native Caribs left. At present, the Callinago have to procure the electricity for their 3,700-acre reserve from Dominica’s only power plant. That’s not only expensive, but also environmentally critical since the plant runs on oil, Vosseler, who had encountered the community during the Solar Boat journey, argues.
And something equally ambitious and unusual is sure to follow this project. “We have heated up the atmosphere,” warns Vosseler on his website. “We have poisoned the biosphere with dangerous chemicals and radioactivity. We have polluted the rivers, the lakes and the sea. We have exploited the soil and made it infertile.” Yet, an eternal optimist, he believes, too, that “we are also able to return to the natural life cycles, we can also create life conditions that enable the planet to be healed. All solutions are ready. We just have to implement them: Together, Together with the sun. Now.”