Rosie Watson is currently running from the UK to Asia for The New Story Run, searching for stories of new ways of living, working and meeting our needs in a time of climate crisis. In this unflinching long read, she reflects on how we can use COVID-19 positively, to build a sustainable outdoor community.
The burn of the legs; the gasp of breath being yanked away by the storm; the elation of reaching the top of a long, Scottish winter climb; the ache of feet in a shimmering ocean; the stunning tininess of humanity.
We love the outdoors. We miss nature’s wonders achingly. We wouldn't destroy 'our playground'.
I’m currently running from the UK to Mongolia, on the New Story Run. Along the way, I’m meeting people who are tackling the climate and ecological crises, and telling their stories on my website and social media. Or at least I was, before being paused in Kosovo thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many of us, I’m pining for those moments outdoors. I’m just about at the stage of cautiously looking ahead to when I might be able to ‘restart’.
How do we, as a wider outdoor community, want to ‘restart’? Now is the perfect time to get planning, and to do that we have to look at the context we are in. This article examines some of the influences on our outdoor culture, and suggests how we change them, while still having loads of fun.
The climate crisis
We have been distracted by the shorter-term pandemic, but the long-term context is that we are in the critical ‘make or break’ stages of climate and ecological crises. Are we - our idols, brands, media, incredible stories, and culture - in touch with the seriousness of the situation? I don’t think so, but now is an essential opportunity to change.
These crises aren’t new news. Fossil fuel companies have known since the 80’s that their actions were causing these crises - using their own research - but spent billions trying to pretend otherwise. Other evidence had already linked fossil fuels and warming back in 1938. Now, the most respected science tells us we are on course for a ‘hothouse earth’. This means we are heading towards a threshold at which earth’s feedback loops could take over, pushing us into climate chaos in a way that is irreversible and out of our control.
“We don’t actually know when we will trigger tipping points in the climate system, or whether we have done so already. Examples include methane exploding out of melting permafrost, causing thousands of craters up to 50m across, and the possibility of the Amazon rainforest turning in the next few years from being a carbon sink to a net source of emissions. Anyone who doesn’t feel some alarm isn’t thinking straight.”
It’s clear that we need a huge amount of change, globally. On a scientific level, we need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels (we are currently at 1.2, but on route for 3 degrees or more). We need to cut our global emissions by at least 50% in the next 10 years, and be carbon neutral by 2050 at the latest. That means fast, dramatic change to everything in society, including our values, economics, how we work, travel, buy, climb, run, holiday, do expeditions - everything.
There is also the ecological crisis which is every bit as serious as the climate crisis. We are able to eat, breathe and live because of a balance held together by 'ecosystem services'. These are being degraded alongside a rapid loss of biodiversity, threatening our future of food supplies, disease and pest control, clean air, healthy soil and natural filtration of waste, among other things.
We have to change - fast - and the outdoor community could be a strong leader in this change. But before COVID-19 we were mostly lagging behind what the response needs to be (like many others), and doing our bit to ensure these crises continue to unfold. We now have a good opportunity to reform and restart in a new, healthier way, and lead the change - fast!
'We have to change - fast - and the outdoor community could be a strong leader in this change.'
Changing our culture: adventurers, explorers and athletes
Many of the inspirations in our community are people who make a living from doing adventures or expeditions, like Alastair Humphreys and Jenny Tough, and top sponsored athletes such as climber Hazel Findlay and runner/skier Emelie Forsberg.
We see these people as living the life of adventure - pushing boundaries, setting records, exploring and storytelling in breathtaking places across the world. They are, for many, the crème de la crème of inspiration. They are the ones we want to interview, put in magazines, watch at film festivals and listen to on stage. Social media amplifies this to a super-sized, addictive level.
Their lifestyles inspire us to act more the same way, whether we are conscious of it or not. Even if you don’t follow ‘high flying’ (literally!) adventurers or athletes - the people you are inspired by might follow them and be inspired by them. There is a trickle-down, or ripple effect, of influence. It shapes what we aspire to, and therefore shapes the whole outdoor culture.
Some of this inspiration is wonderful: they use their experiences to grow an appreciation of the great outdoors and enable others to challenge themselves. Sharing stories is magical, and one of the best ways to approach important issues and overcome boundaries. We should preserve that bit of our culture.
But, we need to face the fact that a lot of our outdoor culture is very destructive, and the athlete and adventurer lifestyle is a massive influencer in that. The flip side is that as soon as we start changing this, we’ll see widespread change throughout our community. That’s what we need to tackle now and restart in a new way post COVID-19.
Changing our culture: flights
The typical sponsored athlete or adventurer’s lifestyle - take climbing or mountain running as examples - is dominated by flying on many international trips per year.
The emissions impact of flying is huge, and often underestimated by as much as 50%. The gases are released at altitude, roughly doubling their warming impact, which some calculations don’t account for. An athlete running the Skyrunning series might fly to six international races and a few training camps per year. If they had a modest year and ‘only’ took four return flights from the UK - perhaps to Italy, New York, Greece and Australia - this would emit about five tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) through flights alone. These flight emissions are the same as the global average emissions per person for an entire year - for everything, not just travel. Five tonnes of emissions per person per year is also what Mike Berners-Lee suggests we should be aiming for in the UK (down from thirteen tonnes).
Lockdown measures have ground international travel to a halt, and people have been forced to appreciate their local patch. Coronavirus is currently set to cause the largest ever annual fall of emissions, and a large part of that is a drop in travel emissions. We need to rebuild an adventure world based on freedom and connection, but maintain a big part of that reduction in travel emissions.
What would it take to achieve something ‘fit for the climate crises’? Mike Berners-Lee tells me that the average person in the UK only flies once every 3 years, and that is “far too high” for a climate emergency. So why do we currently accept six international return flights in a year? We can’t go back to that.
It’s not that there aren’t any conversations happening about this. I’ve never heard anyone talk so much about offsetting flights than those in the outdoor community with massive carbon footprints. Alex Honnold and Hazel Findlay have both shared that they offset their flights on social media. The problem with someone doing this who has a lot of influence in the outdoor community (and beyond!) is that it spreads the idea that offsetting justifies air travel. This is a myth.
Mike Berners-Lee explained a key point, often missed: “Offsets are not a substitute for cutting emissions in the first place. Most offset options claim to save carbon by doing things that either can’t be verified or aren’t additional to what needs to happen without the flight anyway. Even tree planting doesn’t count because we need to plant all the trees we can in the world even with a big reduction in flying. One quick test of an offset is to see if it comes in at under $20 per tonne of emissions (if yes, it is nonsense).”
So, that busts that excuse. The other line I’ve heard is: maybe they are vegan/vegetarian, so cut huge amounts of emissions this way instead? It is true that changing your diet is one of the biggest wins in cutting your emissions. But as Mike Berners-Lee says, “Going vegan is a good idea, but we all need to dramatically cut meat and dairy compared to the current UK average anyway.” In other words, this needs to happen as well as reducing flights. It can’t be used to ‘cancel out’ big impacts elsewhere.
We don’t get anywhere by pinpointing and blaming individuals. The reason I am focusing on flights here is because this lifestyle is so common among our inspirations, that it influences everyone else's idea of what success looks like. It is one of the most critical influences on our culture - and that is what needs to be reformed now.
As Finlay Wild, top British mountain runner, says, “Fast-paced international lifestyles have been sold as aspirational, and the inalienable right of the successful - but at what cost?”
'Lockdown measures have ground international travel to a halt, and people have been forced to appreciate their local patch.'
Changing our culture: brands
The kit we use is another big impact - especially as it is niche, is often used only a few times per year, frequently relies on weird chemical processes and unethical labour and is made for the recreation of the ‘globally rich’. A lot of brands are struggling right now, but does that really mean we should keep buying? This is another area in need of an overhaul.
Almost all of the main athletes and adventurers are sponsored by brands. The bottom line of sponsoring is sales. Ambassadors are useful to brands as they make the products seem personable and trustworthy. Basically, everyone can distract themselves with inspiring stories while surreptitiously being sold to. Social media has intensified this with the regular #hashtagging and promo posts that most brands ask their ambassadors to do.
The result is that a culture now exists in which a brand sponsoring or sharing your social posts seems cool and something that gives your adventure kudos. You hashtag pics of your shoes and tag the brand, the brand shares it, you are told you’re part of the ‘brand community’, you get more followers, you feel a bit like your idols, and... more products are spewed out into the world.
What is the problem? We need clothes and things like tents to enjoy the great outdoors. Brands aren’t evil machines, they are made of well-meaning people. What’s more, a lot of brands and ambassadors give out the message to ‘buy what you need once’. You could argue that ambassadors help this happen as they can give real-life feedback.
The problem is that the whole advertising system is about creating artificial needs, and that is what brands rely on whether they admit it or not. When I worked in an outdoor shop, many customers came in to buy expensive things, saying “I always buy just what I need - good quality once, so I won’t need to buy again.” They would say this while clutching a shoe marketed as ‘made for training, not racing’ or for ‘medium-soft ground, otherwise you’d want this more cushioned one’. Or they might be buying a pair of £140 waterproof shoes for short dog walks in urban parks. This isn’t because they are idiots; it’s because that is what the advertising system does: convince you that you need something you don’t.
I’ve regularly heard athletes and adventurers admit that (for example) they really hated the sponsored shoes they wore and promoted during their record-breaking run, or carried two waterproofs across a continent: one for photos for their sponsor, the other for actually wearing. Don’t even get me started on Red Bull: surely no athlete would seriously count that as a key part of their nutrition?
At the end of the day the world already has a lot of already-made, very good outdoor kit filling dusty cupboards in many homes. If we collected it into a big pile and shared it out for use, mending and swapping around when needed, I'm sure we wouldn't need to produce a single new item for years. We have to ask the question: can a business that is actively, strongly encouraging you to buy new stuff all the time - through sales, promotions, social media, brand ambassador and seasonal products that are basically the same as last time but in different colours - actually claim to be sustainable?
Some brands do now have a repair scheme, a lifetime guarantee, recycled materials, ethical work practices and a sustainability report. But if the same brand’s website is also full of product pushing sales, kit bundles, Christmas lists, 'New Season, New Product!' posts, and their ambassadors are regularly promoting their new jackets on social media - this is still pushing an unsustainable consumerist model. The rest sounds nice and reassuring, but perhaps all it’s doing is soothing the conscience of both themselves and their customers. What if small improvements to a bad model actually just keep that same consumerism in place for longer, through a vaguely green veil of disguise?
What’s changing already?
Encouragingly, I’ve heard many once jet-setters suggest they would consider travelling more sustainably post-lockdown. Others in the community had already started to question their lifestyle.
In the running world, Finlay Wild has committed to only going to races he can get to without flying, saying he “still has several lifetimes worth to go at.” Damian Hall, Inov-8 sponsored ultra runner and Extinction Rebellion activist told me: “Last year I did five round trips to races – seven return flights in total, including a family holiday – and I just emotionally can’t do that again this year. It feels wrong.” Jim Mann, runner and founder of Trees Not Tees, said: “Like many people I have a demanding job, a family and then try to squeeze in training and competition. Time is at a premium and to not fly further increases this pressure, but [flying] is not ethically justified.”
Adventurers such as Alastair Humphreys are choosing and promoting more local adventures. Alastair has written about the eight stages he’s gone through in his approach to flying. “My current position on the conundrum of loving travel but wanting to minimise the harm I cause is that I have mostly given up flying,” he says. “I have learned to relish embracing the constraints that not flying imposes on choosing adventures.” In lockdown, he’s been running every street of his neighbourhood and found new nuggets of wilderness just miles away that he didn’t know existed.
In the climbing world, athletes such as Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell have been speaking about the urgency of the climate and ecological crises. Unfortunately though, the issue of travel is often skimmed over in the climbing world, or focused on offsetting. As we saw above, influential athletes talking about offsetting is at best unhelpful, and at worst outright detrimental as it gives the false impression to others that it can justify flying.
In terms of challenging the consumerism and the brand-sponsorship model, ultra-running record holder Dan Lawson and wife Charlotte recently started ReRun clothing, an online shop selling only second hand running clothes and shoes. The idea came when Dan ditched his brand sponsorship after “a realisation that I was just another cog in the marketing machine.” They are the perfect example of what we need more of in the ‘new normal’ we create post COVID-19.
Damian Hall rightly points out that “brands seem to be climbing on top of one another to appear to be the most environmentally aware at the moment.” However, with the potential exception of Patagonia (who are also the only brand I know of who don’t ask their athletes to do any form of sales posts), I don’t know of any brands who are seriously rethinking their bottom line and place in the world. A repair scheme or sustainability report is nice, but in almost all cases its an ‘add on’ to business as usual.
Brands will face unprecedented challenges as the climate crisis continues to unfold - consumerism will inevitably have to be replaced by a much healthier, circular culture, based on repair and reusing and only occasional 'buying new'. Those that use the COVID-19 pause to reflect on what it means to be a business in this context will have the best chance of surviving.
A new approach to storytelling
COVID-19 has driven the message home to appreciate the local, but more importantly, climate science is telling us clearly that flying for adventures or sport cannot be justified. Therefore, flying for adventures should not be communicated as a desirable behaviour within our culture, no matter how intrepid or boundary-pushing the trip was.
We need to change what we do and do not celebrate in our media. Challenges like ‘doing x in every continent’ is a classic example of what is often hailed as news and praiseworthy, but should no longer be. Neither should an expedition across the (melting) polar regions that requires helicoptering in and out and return flights. Even if it claims to ‘raise awareness’ about environmental issues, raising awareness is not taking action, and besides, you don’t need to fly to do either.
Media outlets should create new guidelines to ensure that high-emissions adventures are not sought out for stories, interviews and features. We need to change what we cover, which films we pick for outdoor festivals and how we organise events.
Some of this had hints of happening. Kendal Mountain Festival, for example, showed more films with an environmental focus in 2019. But this example still uses a model that relies on 16,000+ people travelling to one place for the weekend, with a percentage of those flying in from all over the world, and the headline stories, films, people and interviews are still dominated by high-emissions adventuring. For example, the 2020 tour films include a solo expedition in Greenland to celebrate a 50th birthday, a week-long ski trip in British Columbia (including helicopter drops), a french skydivers’ trip to Mexico and a climbing trip to Vietnam… all of course involving international flights.
We rightly wouldn’t choose a trophy hunter's talk and film about killing polar bears as a highlight of an adventure festival, would we? We also wouldn’t try to justify this based on the variety of other, non-polar bear killing films on show. But the impact of our adventures on the environment can be just as clear cut, morally, and often as or even more destructive. Currently, though, we choose not to face this truth.
We need to change the mainstream beyond having an occasional ‘green feature’, or a few more local stories around the edges. There would still be lots to inspire us and to celebrate. Slow travel, longer trips and more local exploring make for just as exciting stories and adventures.
'Challenges like ‘doing x in every continent’ is a classic example of what is often hailed as news and praiseworthy, but should no longer be.'
Creative event organisation
Pretty much all events have been cancelled for 2020. Event organisers can lead massive sustainable change by restarting in 2021 with a bit of creative thinking.
For example, instead of Skyrunning competitors flying to six world series events per year, each continent or land mass could hold a 2-3 week festival of races, in a location accessible by train by most competitors and spectators (and they could reward or support people to take this transport mode). The scope is still huge. My partner Mike got the train from Edinburgh to China (through Russia), walked up a 5,000m mountain then returned to Europe through ‘the Stans’, to start the New Story Ride. The latter train journey took 12 days of fun and cost just £350.
Brands working differently
Some ambassadors are expected by brands to do a certain number of annual big international races or trips - which again, have been cancelled. To support the change to travelling sustainably in our ‘new normal’, brands need to create a situation where they will not sponsor athletes/adventurers who rely on high-impact behaviours (flights) to do their trips and sports. This could be phased over the next one or two years, so brands can support their key athletes in making the change.
In terms of challenging consumerism, Patagonia doesn't ask any ambassadors to produce social content, but still supports people to do what they love. All brands could move towards this model, and away from the type of advertising that encourages people to buy things they don’t need. This includes sales ‘bundles’, regular clearance sales and new seasonal colours or tiny tweaks so products sell more.
We should be aiming for a world where all brands are at least 50% focused on repairing and making ‘new’ gear from bits of old gear. This is a big jump, but a necessary one. The products that do make the market will be simpler, better and be less specific. They will be advertised less - enough so that you can find something if you need it, but not in your face every time you open social media or a magazine if you don’t. Our idols and inspirations won’t be part of the marketing model, but will still be supported to do what they love. We’ll still see amazing photos of their (local) climbing trips, and hear their inspiring stories - but their clothes and gear will be more loved!
Jim Mann suggests that there will eventually be “a lot less stuff being made and more repairing. There will be a lot less space in the market, so there will be fewer brands.” It’s a scary time for brands now, but this is still minor in terms of the changes that will eventually be forced upon the consumerist system, either as we change our behaviours or climate catastrophe pushes into a form of climate-lockdown, leaving only sustainable or essential businesses standing.
Brands don’t exist in a vacuum. There also needs to be wider social and economic changes, like a transition to a shorter working week as the norm, and to long holidays being more acceptable with employers. This would make slower travel accessible to everyone, not just those supported by sponsors or unconventional lifestyles. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this would create a more sustainable society, for many reasons. The outdoor community should become a driving force to make this ‘new normal’ a reality.
Restarting something better
We have the opportunity to take empowering and creative action seriously as a community as we come out of this pandemic. We could also lead a much wider change in the world. The outdoor community defines in some way what ‘adventure’ means to those who wouldn’t consider themselves in that community. Those who have never considered going up a mountain, for example, have found themselves suddenly yearning for nature due to lockdown restrictions. As they (safely) come to dip their toes in, what kind of place do we want it to be?
Adventurer Alastair Humphreys suggested we need to “emphasise how important the natural world is not just for outdoor sports but for every single aspect of every organism's way of life, and to do that we need to think of adventures that are not trashing the place. This means, much, much less flying, and much less purchasing of non-essential equipment.”
But we really need to start having these difficult conversations of how to actually make this happen, and now is the time for that. We need to face the facts around what will get us to a better place, and what we are better off leaving behind. As I said above, coronavirus is currently set to cause the largest ever annual fall of emissions. This shows the scale of change we need to bring about - but based on freedom and fun, not lockdown and disconnection!
This article is intended to be a starting point of these difficult conversations. Please share ideas, comment and debate to help with this transformation - and then, of course, act to make it happen in this ideal window of time.
Kate Rawles, an adventure activist, suggests: “The old high-carbon, conquering mentality is dust. We need narratives of connection, of being part of nature and utterly dependent on it, and about how fabulous it is to belong to ecological communities as well as human social ones.”