Ben Willis
Written by Ben Willis
Published on 23rd October 2018
10 min read

Nearly 150 adventurers, change makers and outdoor enthusiasts came together earlier this month to discuss and debate how the adventure community can be catalysts for making this amazing planet a better place to live

The day kicked off with a morning paddleboard on the River Thames. In keeping with the spirit of Adventure Uncovered, as well as being a chance to enjoy the great outdoors, the occasion had a purpose: to pull as much single-use plastic (SUP) items out of the river as possible. The event was led by SUP specialists Linzi Hawkin, Michelle Ellison, Dhruv Boruah and Active 360.

Tweeting about the event, Paul Hyman later noted: “It was a great session in the Thames and sadly we picked up a lot of plastic trash.” Food for thought and a sobering reminder of the task facing us all in cleaning up the mess we’re making of the planet.

At the main event later on, National Geographic Explorer and chairperson Ella Al-Shamahi opened proceedings, handing over the baton to keynote speaker Emily Penn, a skipper and ocean advocate at the helm of positive change.

Emily described her experiences of witnessing how the triple threats of climate change, pollution and overfishing have brought the world’s oceans to a critical point never seen before in the history of humankind. Although there is no ‘silver bullet’ for solving these huge problems, Emily spoke passionately about how each one of us can make an impact by unleashing our superpowers and how diverse skills from every angle will be required to solve problems such as plastic pollution, to name just one.

'The question I always ask is how can you make an impact? What’s your superpower and how can these diverse skills from every angle create real impact? There is no silver bullet, we need an army of people to solve the plastic issue.'

From the bottom up

This message, of change coming from the bottom up, was echoed in a thought-provoking and candid session on grassroots movements for positive change. The panellists, drawn from a wide array of backgrounds, illustrated through their fascinating stories the many ways in which participation in adventure can smash stigmas and challenge traditional societal norms.

Panel chair Chris Shirley related his experiences of war-torn Afghanistan, where young athletes are using adventure sport as a means of transcending the often grim realities of their day-to-day lives. The young generation, put simply, are tired of war and want peace, Chris said; adventure offers a distraction from conflict and also a possible path towards healing the scars of warfare.

Misba Khan, a member of The Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition 2018 led by Felicity Aston, told the inspirational story of the trek and how the team overcame stereotypes relating to gender, ethnicity and age to achieve their goal. In her own case, Misba said taking part in the expedition challenged stigma within the British Muslim community of her upbringing, where women who can read a map, put up a tent and hike across the North Pole were previously unheard of.

Meanwhile, Claude Umuhire of The Running Charity, drew on personal experience of homelessness and how running helped him escape the streets. Through his work with youngsters in similarly tough situations, Claude spoke of the importance of making adventure accessible to young people and how grassroots movements help them reimagine what their limits are. “I think in order for people to try something daring like deciding to go and have an adventure with all the barriers society build, we need to be inspired,” Claude said.

Film and photography

An all-female film panel led by filmmaker Ellie Mackay kicked off after the break, sharing with the audience their experiences of adventure filmmaking.

Ellie asked the other two panellists, Laura Mahler and Eleanor Church, how adventure filmmakers can overcome the challenge of making films that combine exciting adventure storytelling with a powerful social message, without turning off audiences that might only be interested in one or other of these two elements.

Ultimately, they concluded that adventure filmmaking seeking to convey a serious message can no longer just resort to shock tactics. In an age when viewers are becoming increasingly immune to depictions of catastrophe, activist documentary making must now convey optimism and a sense of possibility in our ability to make change, with hope and love having as important a place as stories of doom and gloom.

Ashley Cooper continued the creative sessions, powering through a photographic presentation of the last 13 years of changing climates around the world. The audience were left gasping for air at the stark reminder of the devastation humans have caused our wonderful planet. From cloud seeding in China, climate migration from small villages towns and cities, tar sands, water scarcity, empty reservoirs… Ashley covered it all, highlighting the fact that “those least responsible for climate change are the most impacted by it”.

Ashley Cooper, Global Warming Images

Sustainability

After another break, returning Adventure Live maverick Andy Middleton from TYF Adventure led a quick-fire, hardtalk panel with representatives from outdoor brands Finisterre, Jago Jackets and Deakin & Blue, discussing how they are incorporating sustainable initiatives and principles into their supply chains. Whilst there is clearly an ecological and business model conflict at play, these brands are leading the way and trying their best to marry the two.

“We never just accept the status quo. We always strive to make it better,” said Oliver Culcheth of Finisterre, highlighting how a staggering half a million kilos of neoprene go into UK landfill a year.

Meanwhile, Alex Orr, founder of Jago Jackets, spoke of the concept of sustainability through longevity, describing how his company’s jackets are designed to last a lifetime: “One jacket… to last you a lifetime, wherever it takes, using nature to save nature.”

Future of adventure

The penultimate session on the ‘future of adventure’ and the trends that lie around the corner saw some lively debate across the topics of race, gender and social media.

Particularly heated was the discussion of the role of technology and social media in adventure. Panel chair Fearghal O’Nuallain, asked Bex Band, founder of women’s adventure group, Love Her Wild, whether technology – particular social media – in adventure was a positive force or not.

Bex argued passionately that it was, highlighting how social media had helped her build a career in adventure and following of 5,000 women: “Anyone can go on an adventure and say I’m going to leave my phone behind, and that’s fine. But I get a lot more from adventure by being able to share that and knowing I have the power to influence other people to make changes in their life. It’s very trendy in the adventure world to say social media is a really bad thing. But if you want to reach people you’ve got to have social media these days.

But others pointed out that despite their benefits, social media technologies in adventure can have drawbacks. Adventurer Shilpika Gautam argued that too often social media platforms “entrench stereotypes” rather than presenting any truly “radical narratives”.

Paleoanthropologist and National Geographic explorer Ella Al-Shamahi said social media had been “abused” by adventurers with “massive egos” trying to build their personal brands and misusing the public profile that social media platforms give them. It had even got to the point, she said, where the adventure community needed to start “calling out” individuals misusing their social media channels, for example when they make false claims on ‘first’ achievements in adventure.

Cyclist and author Julian Sayarer meanwhile highlighted the impact of another aspect of the tech/social media sphere on adventure. “If you look at advertising revenue to media organisations, what once would have got into a local newspaper or even a national broadsheet is now going to Google or Facebook, which in turn impoverishes a publication that once would have supported a modest local charity bike ride or an adventure up Snowdon – all of the micro stuff we’re talking about now in enthused terms. A lot of the money that would have sustained that local agenda has gone to these large corporations.

The world is in ‘extra time’

In the final keynote session, plastic pollution activist Dhruv Boruah shared his love for the beautiful game, closing the event with an environmental metaphor that positioned the world in ‘extra time’.

Referring to England’s World Cup game against Colombia that went to extra time, “that’s exactly where we are right now”, he said. “With all the causes of climate change – let’s not call it climate change anymore: climate breakdown – plastic pollution, human inclusion, wars… we are in extra time, we’ve lost it. We’ve only got 10 minutes to go and then we’re in the penalty section.”

Dhruv said now is the time to act. “We’re not in penalties yet, but we can get there very soon, and it’s time to rescue the whole situation in the 10 minutes we have right now. There’s huge public awareness, we have the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) there’s $12 trillion to be made solving these SDGs – that’s a lot of money”

Dhruv said the key to solving the problem was innovation. “We have to come up with for-profit business solutions that can encourage real change without compromising on convenience or profit. And only then will we be able to stem this tide and rescue this game.”

If not, he said the consequence would be penalties. “And I don’t think we would like to play penalties against Mother Nature.”

Adventure Uncovered’s next event is the inaugural Adventure Uncovered Film Festival, a celebration of powerful, purpose-driven adventure films that matter, on the 29th & 30th November in London.

Photos: Alison Clarke
Videos: Russell Barnett