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Kate Rawles
Written by Kate Rawles
Published on 1st November 2020
9 min read

Academic, writer and activist Kate Rawles has worked as an environmentalist in various capacities for over two decades. Particularly in recent years, adventure has become central to her practice. We had a long conversation with her about her work, and how adventure can support environmental activism.

What has driven your move away from academia and into freelance (and presumably more varied) work?

There are various strands to this! The first two started when I was working in the Philosophy department at Lancaster University, a couple of decades ago now. I was teaching subjects I think are really important – such as environmental ethics, which involves exploring big questions about the relationship between people and nature, why that relationship has become so dysfunctional in industrialised societies, and what constructive, positive human/nature relationships might entail. As Robert MacFarlane wrote, ‘there is no more urgent intellectual task facing the human species than to thoroughly re-imagine its relationship with nature.’ 

But two things really bothered me. First, I was trying to have these conversations in lecture theatres, indoors, with artificial heat and light and typically no other-than-humans present bar our own gut flora and fora. We were discussing nature in a context that was very removed from nature, and this inevitably made the discussions seem abstract. 

Second, my job as an academic was to train people to think well about these questions, but not to actually do anything for nature; not to become environmental champions, advocates or activists. This troubled me a lot. Eventually, I left Lancaster and went freelance for a while, setting up Outdoor Philosophy with the aim of trying to tackle both these things. Then I went back into the university system, working half-time at the University of Cumbria, but in an Outdoor Studies rather than a Philosophy department. That was great. 

But after ten years, during  which I was becoming ever more alarmed by the developing climate and ecological crises, I increasingly wanted to find ways to communicate the urgency and importance of these environmental challenges beyond the university; and to find ways of being more of an activist. Also, while I loved the teaching aspect of my work, I have to admit I was very bad at the admin side of things, and really didn’t fit well in an institution that was becoming ever more bureaucratic. And I wanted more time in the hills … So I left to do something I now think of as ‘Adventure Plus’ - using adventurous journeys to help raise awareness and inspire action on some of our most urgent environmental challenges.

What do you consider the main mechanisms through which adventure can lead to environmental action/change? Raising awareness is one, for example, but what about others?

Raising awareness is definitely one, yes. Many people love having adventures, but many also love hearing about them. I think that embedding an environmental change message in an adventure story – especially a true one - can help get that message to a wider and different set of people and, hopefully, make the message more engaging and compelling. I remember being struck by a line in a poem about the frustration that climate scientists must feel, ‘trying to scream with statistics.’ We need all sorts of different approaches to make the environmental message engaging, compelling, properly heard and, above all, action-inspiring. I think adventure can definitely play a role here.

Other mechanisms include the way in which actual adventures can offer the hugely important, and often rare, opportunity to step back from the values and assumptions embedded in ‘normal’ life, to look at them critically and to pursue alternatives. To question the model of quality of life that we’re all sold, quite literally – the model that tells us our happiness and success depend largely on having stuff and money, the consumerist model of quality of life. 

Of course, this depends a lot on how the adventure is structured and what kind of adventure it is. There are plenty of consumerist aspects to adventure – in capitalist cultures whose economies are dependent on growth and hence consumption. We are inevitably exhorted, relentlessly, to buy ever better, new shiny kit; to travel in high-carbon ways to ‘remote’ places; to bag commercialised experiences etc. But equally, there’s nothing like time in the hills to really put things into perspective, to open up that precious realisation that what really matters is very different. It’s much less to do with things and money, and much more to do with quality of time and experience, with connection with people and nature, with immersion in and connection with our ecological as well as our human communities. And those things, of course, are the key ingredients of a low-impact life, as well as a high-quality one. If we can then take those mountain/fireside insights back into ‘normal’ life, we can use them to help challenge the values embedded in the highly problematic economic and political structures that we’re all part of and trying to operate within.

Another thought here is that adventure is a powerful metaphor for the sort of changes we need to make, as a society. The transition to truly sustainable ways of living, working and meeting our needs is immense. It involves systemic economic and political change, not just green-tinged tweaks to our individual lifestyles or shopping habits. 

This transition has many characteristics in common with adventure. We’re not always entirely sure where we are going. We’re not entirely sure if we can get there. There are elements of risk and uncertainty. We need to work together to make a success of it and we need unexpected allies and allegiances ... If we think of this transition to sustainability as an adventure, (and let’s face it, it’s one we’re all on whether we’ve chosen it or not), it changes how the transition to sustainability feels. It brings out the best in us; a ‘positive, yes, we are up for this’ kind of attitude. And adventure has a certain magic to it. When you step out into that place of uncertainty, when you don’t quite know how it’s going to work but you take the step anyway, that changes you. And it changes the world around you...

Part of the motivation behind your adventures is to communicate environmental issues more compellingly. How do you know whether this communication is effective? 

Well, the honest answer is that I’m not sure any of us ever really know how effective or otherwise our communication and other environmental work is. Part of doing it well is to be convinced that you are doing it in the best way you know how – the way that you truly believe will be most effective, and that also makes you feel alive – while letting go of the need for proof. 

Having said that, you can sort of tell, in a talk, whether you are reaching the audience or not. And then, often, people will come and talk to you afterwards, and you learn a lot from that. In terms of writing, one of the most amazing things about a book is that, years after it’s gone out into the world (The Carbon Cycle: Crossing the Great Divide came out in 2012) you still occasionally get feedback from readers landing in your in-tray. Sometimes that feedback is that they have been changed by it, are doing something differently, have had their eyes opened in ways they now act on. That is deeply, deeply moving and gratifying when it happens, of course. Mostly though, there’s always an element of talking or writing into the dark ... 

More importantly, we’re all working as part of a bigger movement, and it’s clear that that movement is, at last, beginning to have some real traction. The conversation around climate change, for example, is wildly different from how it was ten years ago, in a hugely positive way – though there’s still a chasm between where we are and where we need to get to.

 

More generally do you have other ways of measuring the impact of your work?

I don’t have any formalised ways of doing this, no. It’s more like an ongoing dialogue with readers and audiences, in which I try to learn from their feedback in ways that will help my work become increasingly effective, and lead to more and better forms of change. In terms of the wider movement, though, one way of measuring impact is in terms of the rate and level of species extinctions, habitat loss, falling special population numbers, greenhouse gas emissions etc. By all of those measurements, while there’s more awareness for sure, we are nevertheless still heading, no, hurtling in the wrong direction. I’m in the camp that believes we’re cutting it awfully fine but that there is still time for change – if we act decisively, at scale, together and fast. An increasing number of environmentalists and activists are horribly scared that we’ve left it too late.

 

Particularly in The Life Cycle you were keen to explore biodiversity loss - something you feel gets less press than climate change but is arguably as important. Why, in a nutshell, is this so important?

In a nutshell (appropriate metaphor!) ...

To start, it’s worth grappling with the sheer scale of what we are talking about here. The latest WWF Living Planet Report tells us that we’ve lost 68% of our populations of wild animals since 1970. 68%! In less than my lifetime. A recent UN report said that one million species are now facing extinction. We are wiping out other species at such a terrifying rate it has been called ‘the sixth great extinction’ – caused for the first time in Earth’s history by a resident species – us. This is hugely important, for at least two main kinds of reasons. 

First, it will have, and is already having, an immensely negative impact on us. Basically, biodiversity gives us ecosystems and ecosystems give us so-called ‘ecosystem services’. I hate the language, but the point is that ecosystem services are pretty critical things, like fresh air, clean water, fertile soil - things we literally can’t live without. Take a specific example. When we think about solar power we often think of solar panels providing electricity.  But we are all solar-powered. 98% of life depends on the sun’s energy for food. The only beings who can access the sun’s energy directly, though, are plants and others with chlorophyll, like some seaweeds, which create carbohydrates through the process of photosynthesis. Everything else, bar a few ‘extremophiles’ that live in deep ocean vents and have figured out how to process sulphur (not good role models for humans) eats plants, or things that eat plants. Including us. And plants typically depend on pollinators, like bees and other insects. Populations of bees and insects, of course, are crashing … So that’s the first reason. Biodiversity is not a luxury. Biodiversity, nature, is our life-support system. It’s the web of life that we are part of and utterly depend on. That’s the ‘what nature does for us’ argument.

The second reason the loss of biodiversity is so important is that ‘nature’ is not just a set of resources, there for us to use. Nature is a community of other life forms, as entitled to be here as we are. It’s a community that we belong to, whose other members are entitled to respect and compassion. The North American hunter turned conservationist/philosopher Aldo Leopold cracked this back in the 50s when he wrote, ‘we abuse the land’ (by which he meant ecosystems, only that word hadn’t been invented yet) ‘when we treat it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.’ I think that’s as true now as it was then. And the message it contains in terms of the necessary direction of travel of our values, especially those embedded in societies we think of as ‘modern’ - i.e. Western industrialised societies which typically have a very exploitative relationship with and way of valuing nature and the other-than-human world - is now more urgent than ever.

A crucial challenge (especially in the individual-centric adventure world) is moving from individual to systemic change. What are some of the tactics people involved in adventure can use to help this?

What a great question. As above, by challenging the values and norms of consumerist society, and doing this very explicitly and consistently. By modelling a different understanding of what quality of life is, one that is both sustainable and really attractive. The more of us who critique mainstream growth economics and consumerist values and the more of us who simply step away from it and live differently, the more chance we have of changing this. By using the positive energy around ‘adventure’ to call for, to demand, different systems - for example, to demand economic systems that serve people and nature, rather than the other way around. By using our love for the landscapes and habitats we adventure in to inform and inspire our call for changes in land-management systems, in farming systems, in transport systems and so on – all of which currently have huge negative impacts on human and other-than-human communities. To join up the dots between our ‘ordinary’ outside-of-adventure lives and the impacts on the world we love to adventure in. 

Politicians can’t change things without our mandate. But if enough of us demand systemic change, eventually it will happen. Not without a fight with existing power structures and vested interests, of course - I don’t want to sound naïve here. But again, the personal transformation and clarity of purpose that adventure, that regular time immersed in nature and the hills can give, can really help steel us for this and keep us focused on why change is so urgently needed, and how much of a win/win it could be for people and nature if we achieved it. Crucial to systemic change is a widespread change in the general narrative about what makes us happy, what is important, what our core values are and how we prioritise them. Adventure can really contribute here, in my view - or at least, adventure that has escaped the ‘conquer and consume’ mode.

 

With this in mind, are there any calls to action you’d love your readers to take up?

In relation to biodiversity loss specifically, this is a weirdly difficult question to answer. I guess it’s because the answers depend very much on who you are and where you are and what your skills, talents and opportunities are. And because, whereas with climate change, there appears to be a simple answer – reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen natural ecosystems – in terms of biodiversity loss, the needed actions range from planting insect-attracting wildflower seeds to transforming global capitalism. Actually, they do in relation to climate change too, so perhaps it’s a good thing that the oversimplified response just isn’t available here.

For a start, knowing what’s going on in relation to biodiversity loss is obviously really important. Read the WWF Living Planet Report and watch David Attenborough’s Extinction programme if you haven’t already. Talk about the terrifying information they contain, to everyone you know. Join wildlife and conservation bodies. Lobby your MP – if you write and say you are really worried about biodiversity loss and ask them what they are going to do about it, they have to respond and it raises the profile of the issue across the political spectrum. Get your business or organisation or school or union or club or street to engage with this issue and to figure out how it/they can best take action. Join Extinction Rebellion, if you are a rebellious type. They have been hugely effective in raising the profile of the ecological and climate emergencies. Cut the carbons. Consume less, and better. Live differently and make a point of demonstrating what a low-impact, high-quality, adventurous life can look like. Invite others to join you. Move your money, if you have any, to an ethical bank with strong environmental and social policies. And yep, bring down global capitalism and replace it with something much, much saner, wiser, and more equitable. Then, after lunch…. 

Joanna Macey talks about activism as happening on three levels. There are the urgent actions focused on changes that need to happen right now, such as, preventing any more rainforest from being cut down. There are actions to bring about structural-level changes, such as changes to the food system so that beef is no longer produced in ways that are dependent on rainforests being cut down to grow soya for cattle feed. And then there are actions to bring about changes in worldviews and values, such as fostering a worldview that sees humans as part of nature and dependent on it, that celebrates this and values other species and natural ecosystems very much more highly than we typically do now. 

Unless we have all three types of actions, the problems we currently face will keep recurring, in Macey’s view. These types of actions happen over different timescales, but we need to work on them all concurrently. I find this a really helpful way of thinking about the kinds of actions that need to happen, and then about where I can best contribute. In terms of the latter, though, I think the best advice comes from Bill Plotkin, when he tells us to look for the intersection between something that we are passionate about doing (like riding your bike in the mountains) and something the world actually needs. That sweet spot will be where you are at your happiest, and most effective.

 

What’s next for you, at the nexus of environmentalism and adventure? 

I’m currently writing a book about The Life Cycle ‘Adventure Plus’ biodiversity bike ride. The ride involved following the spine of the Andes (more or less) the length of South America on a bamboo bike that I built myself. Writing the book is a much, much harder challenge than doing the ride and an adventure in its own right, albeit of a rather different kind …. 

Assuming I come out the end of this process in one piece(!) the aim is to get back on the road with Woody, the bamboo bike, and a stack of books, and give lots of talks about the huge importance of biodiversity and what we can all do to contribute to its recovery and regeneration; and to the transition to environmental sustainability more widely too, of course. The idea is to work with wildlife, conservation and environmental organisations to connect local audiences with actions they can take locally, as well as actions that will feed positively into the global challenges like climate change, and the need for systemic change, both very much interconnected with the global and local biodiversity-loss piece. I’ll probably start where I currently live in Cumbria, then cycle around Scotland, then the rest of the UK and, if that is working well, head for North America (by cargo ship or, better, sailing ship - not by plane.) 

After that, I’m in the early stages of hatching plans for a European ride that would explore various European mountain ranges and rewilding, and the extent to which the rewilding vision can help both restore biodiversity and offer a positive story about how human-nature relations can be recast, how they could be at their win/win best. It would be a real Outdoor Philosophy adventure and a definite move away from any last vestiges of the notion of adventure as a conquering, high-carbon quest. That notion of adventure is toast.