The audience didn’t know it yet but Ellen MacArthur had just set a record time on the Top Gear track for their star in a Reasonably Priced Car feature. Back in the studio she was already being exalted in gushing terms by Jeremy Clarkson.
“You are a goddess” he proclaimed, “without people like you the human race would not have become what it is.”
Clarkson was referring to Ellen’s extraordinary achievements at sea: a long series of sailing triumphs culminating in a world record solo circumnavigation of the globe that resulted in her becoming the youngest Dame in British history. Records seem to be her thing.
But the “goddess” has now turned her attention away from sailing and is leading the human race in an entirely different capacity. This change in direction is documented in her new book, Full Circle.
In an age where every other autobiography seems contractually obliged to be titled “My Life” or “My Journey”, Full Circle is not just a pleasant change but a clever pun as well, referring both to her old circumnavigating exploits and to her new passion: sustainable engineering.
The nascent Ellen MacArthur Foundation claims “to inspire people to re-think, re-design and build a sustainable future”. Its founder and CEO, Ellen, now dedicates almost all her time to advocating a circular approach to production where things are made to last forever.
The minutiae of the “closed loop” method and “circular economy” are explained in greater depth on the foundation’s website than is possible in this limited article, but the central premise is that instead of depleting our finite resources to create products that ultimately end up in landfill – current recycling methods merely prolonging the inevitable – more intelligent designs can enable the product to be used for the same purpose over and over again. A car tyre should be a tyre forever; not a tyre, then a pencil case, then a piece of rubbery rubbish.
Delivering a talk at the Nuffield Theatre at Southampton University last month, Dame Ellen dismissed a claim that she was now an “eco-warrior”. Putting aside any stigma attached to the term, it’s actually not a bad way to describe her ambitious, green-thinking new career. It’s certainly a long way from being a sailor. So what induced the change?
A trip to South Georgia in 2006 gave the frantically busy sportswoman a chance to slow down a little and reflect on the planet around her. Whale oil was the life blood of the island and it was used for fuel, clothing and food but the supplies were rapidly drying out. Dame Ellen began to consider just how precious natural resources are and soon realised that the whale oil was a lot like the fossil fuels we take for granted today.
“It was as if I had turned over a stone and found something underneath” she enthusiastically tells the Nuffield audience. “And I had two choices: put the stone back and continue my life as it was, or examine what I’d just discovered.”
The stone was not put back. Dame Ellen started a fervent investigation into the environmental problems the world must tackle if it is to survive. By reading widely, listening to scientists and talking with industry leaders she built up a significant bank of knowledge. She soon realised that she was facing a task far greater than anything she had attempted before and that competitive sailing was no longer viable. In 2009 she publicly announced her retirement from the sport, though she continues her work with the Ellen MacArthur Trust which takes young people battling life-threatening illnesses sailing to entertain and empower them.
Remarkably, Dame Ellen shows little of the regret that most of us would feel if we abandoned our world class career at its peak. She goes as far to tell the audience that “sailing doesn’t matter.”
This isn’t a flippant remark that undermines everything she has achieved. By her own admission, the sport is her passion and has been all-consuming for 34 years. Overcoming the adversities of a slight frame and a childhood languishing in landlocked Derbyshire, she has put everything into becoming one of the most successful sportspeople of all time. But the prospect of helping to shape the environmental health of the planet supplanted all that.
“I had a good feeling inside” she writes in Full Circle, “that everything had happened in my life for a reason, and perhaps the sailing had been there to give me a voice.”
That voice can nowadays be heard in businesses, schools and universities across the country as she attempts to spread her message of long-term sustainability. The foundation is still in its early stages but undoubtedly we will hear more from her in the coming months and years.
On reflection, Dame Ellen MacArthur would make an ideal member of the University of Southampton. With our revered reputation in the fields of sailing, environmental studies and engineering there would be plenty here to interest her. She is a local as well – living in the home she built on the Isle of Wight. Perhaps when she’s finished breaking records and changing the world she might become a lecturer.