"a brilliant doc that shows us the power that individual activism can have."
the video suite
In mountain and adventure sport, conquests are often heralded. Even though it is an achievement worthy of celebration to be the first athlete to summit a route or complete an FKT (fastest known time) on a trail, this focus has subtly changed our relationship with the land we compete on — putting our focus on conquest over stewardship.
But the outdoors industry is starting to experience change from within. As shifts in the climate begin to be felt on the landscapes that adventure sports relies on, a new wave of athlete-activists is reshaping the attitudes and values of the whole outdoors community.
In 5 years of trail running, I have competed in races across multiple countries. I was surprised to discover that only one race has had a pre-requisite for entrance that focused on caring for the trails we were about to run — I had to complete a number of hours of trail maintenance to be eligible to race.
So why is it that mountain athletes, whose joy, sports, and even employment are deeply tied to a healthy environment, have never seemed to be the most active group campaigning for our planet? And why does the $800bn global outdoor industry place so little emphasis on protecting the natural environments they rely on?
But the way outdoor sports views land is finally adjusting. Our featured film, ‘Accidental Activism,’ shows how athletes are starting to become active participators in the climate movement. Women in particular are leading the way in reconceptualising nature not a space to be exploited for the sake of adventure, but instead one that needs to be protected as a means to continue participating in the sports we love.
Whilst some adventure sports pros have come to climate advocacy from their personal experiences of environmental degradation in their sports, others have come to sports from the advocacy side and used the platform that sports offers them to bring the spotlight to climate issues.
In 2016, Clare Gallagher broke onto the ultrarunning scene, winning the Leadville 100. Environmental advocacy had always been a part of her life but this newfound platform gave her the ability to push for a more meaningful conversation around how we view trails and mountains. Clare’s passion for the environment started before she broke onto the ultra running scene, when she went to Palau to study coral reef ecology in college. “I was living there when the world woke up to the fact the corals are dying. It made me want to dedicate my life to climate change mitigation.”
Her climate advocacy started with coral reefs but she has since shifted her platform’s focus to help inform and engage her own audience. She sought out ways to make climate action tangible to her particular audience. As most people who follow her are trail runners, so began speaking out about the issues that affect them: forest fires, air quality, and policy on public land.
By consistently speaking on issues that affect runners, Clare is hoping to mobilise a untapped voter base to push the climate agenda. In the U.S. alone over 8.5 million people identify as regular trail runners. If mobilised, this immensely large community could make a huge impact on climate policy. And that is precisely what is so great about having an advocate as active as Clare in our community. She doesn’t just talk about these issues — she is consistently doing the work.
She has stated that “the single most important thing we can do to protect what we care about is vote for the people that care about the environment. This means voting for political leaders who will prioritise climate policy and end subsidies for fossil fuel extraction. In order to truly mitigate and adapt to climate change we need systematic change within our laws and government. Beyond voting, we can also take the time to call or write to our elected officials and share our personal experiences.”
One of Clare’s largest wins to date, the 2019 Western States 100 miles endurance run, came days after spending two weeks on a mountaineering trip in Alaska advocating for saving the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve. The dogged persistence and strength of will that make Clare a world class endurance athlete are the same skills that make her an inspiring climate campaigner.
In 2019, Norwegian fossil fuel company Equinor proposed an oil drill site 230 miles out in the Great Australian Bight. The Bight is free from any offshore oil development and is home to a vast array of marine wildlife — 85% of the species that live in the Bight do not live anywhere else in the world. When Equinor’s own model showed the potential of an oil spill to cover the entire southern coast of Australia, it went viral, becoming an issue that united the whole nation.
31,000 people lodged formal submissions on Equinor’s environmental plan with the oil and gas industry regulator. Surfers joined in series of protest paddle-outs around the country. A global social media campaign then followed, forcing Equinor to shut down its social accounts. On the National Day of Action for the Bight, November 23rd, more than 10,000 people paddled out in what was the largest collective coastal environmental action Australia has ever seen. The protests came a week after the Australian Prime Minister promised to draft new laws that penalised anyone specifically protesting fossil fuel companies. But this did not stop the crowds from coming out in force to protest.
The protests forced Equinor to pull out. The official Equinor line went like this: “Following a holistic review of its exploration portfolio, Equinor has concluded that the project’s potential is not commercially competitive compared with other exploration opportunities in the company.”
Whilst the success of the protest was celebrated, many viewed Equinors reply with scepticism — were they simply avoiding the PR ignominy brought by the Bight protests and pursuing their many drilling projects in alternative locations with less organised protestors? Despite these concerns, the protests represent a significant win. Fight for the Bight drew a line in the sand and was proof that a large-scale surfing activist movement can affect policy on a large scale.
Beyond isolated examples like fight for the Bight, we need organisations that direct the activist agenda for the outdoor industry, offering clear actions and pathways to achieving climate justice. Protect Our Winters (POW) is an international organisation that aims to mobilise outdoor sports enthusiasts to protect the natural environments that allow them to do the sports they love.
Lauren MacCallum is the UK manager for Protect Our Winters and has been involved in the outdoor activist community for years. I asked her how POW join the dots for outdoor sports enthusiasts and turn them into activists?
“I think it’s being able to get people to tune into those observations a bit more, and understand those observations, and really be able to speak about them to people who hold positions of power. We recognise that by speaking to people through something that they love is a really, really effective way to create change. So if I came and said, “Hey, I’m going to give you all these facts and figures and climate science” you’re probably gonna feel pretty overwhelmed. But if I know that you’re into music or the outdoors, it is a really good way for us to talk about quite complex, multifaceted issues. And by doing we can make that conversation less intimidating and help make members of the outdoor community more confident. The more confidence they get, the more they feel that they can own or be a part of that solution, and talk about it to their representatives or local MSP or MP.”
The global outdoor industry is worth a staggering $800bn, yet sometimes its sustainability credentials contradict its reliance on nature. I asked, what are the main challenges in greening the outdoor industry and how are POW working to tackle them?
“I genuinely believe that people who sit in these companies want to do the right thing. And they just find that a lot of it is just overwhelming. Like, where do you start? How do you get this past your boss? How do you get past the shareholders? I have a marketing degree or a sales degree and now I’m expected to be doing all these different things? So, and I think a lot of it is just education.
And now we’ve kind of reached this boiling point and we need to change rapidly. So I think it’s about giving tools to people in those organisations, to do the right things. And that’s what we’ve done at Protect Our Winters, we’ve started the POW pledge, which is an eight step carbon reduction tool to help organisations set net zero goals by 2040 with interim goals in between. The top eight things that you can do goes from running a zero emission fleet to divesting your pension fund, divesting your bank and getting out of fossil fuels. We’ve put all that information into the POW pledge to democratise it as well. It wasn’t made for your Patagonia’s or your North Face’s, your big brands. It was made for those medium to small size businesses that that really support and prop up our industry. The coffee shops, the skate shops, the surf shops, and snow shops, like your ski schools, and all those really important businesses that make our community what it is.”
I was interested in how POW actions that have led to positive change. Lauren described, “There’s been a couple actually that I’m super proud of! The first ever one was called ‘Get Radical’. We were trying to pressurise the Scottish Government into setting net zero 2045 targets. We just jumped on it, and really just added our voice, the outdoor voice, to the wider climate movement, which was really awesome. We filled the inboxes of the first Minister and other MSPs with emails and petitions and just really just hounded them for close to 10 weeks, just constantly. And it worked. You know, it does work. I think sometimes signing that petition or sending that email seems absolutely pointless, but if done in the right way, it genuinely does bump up real issues into ministers inboxes.
If Kate Forbes is sitting there, who is my local MSP in the Scottish Government, and she’s getting emails from snowboarders of Aviemore, outdoor people and climbers and outdoor people of Aviemore, and then she’s getting emails from faith groups, churches, and then growers groups and agriculture, and then conservationists… Once you start seeing the diversity within the civil society who are getting in contact with her, then it becomes way more enticing to people in power, because they’re starting to see a lot more spread of the single issue. If we can join forces with the larger movement and add the outdoor voice and add the outdoor enthusiasm to that, then we can push some pretty big things through like a 2045 target.
The other one I’m quite proud of, is when we joined the Just and Green Recovery Scotland campaign, putting a lot of pressure on Nicola Sturgeon’s economic advisory group and Boris Johnson with Build Back Better down south. All we were asking for is good public services, and making sure that COVID bailouts had some sort of green metric attached to them. And that was that was really cool. I think there were over 101 organisations that signed up to that from big NGOs, like Oxfam, to smaller NGOs, community groups, to the wellbeing economy, to anti poverty alliances. For me, the Just and Green Recovery Campaign working is where you get the best results.”
And POW have been getting results. Over 120 organisations have signed up to the POW pledge so far and 20 of them have completed the full assessment of their environmental impact and set targets to reduce it. As activism continues to spread through the outdoor community, helping them rally around issues to pressure local and national government, outdoor activism turns into an exciting new frontier that’s ripe for adventure.
Doing business sustainably is absolutely crucial. If you own a business, take the Protect Our Winters Pledge to ensure your business adopts net zero goals, achieves divestment across its supply chains, and thinks green for the long term! And if you’re not an entrepreneur yourself, you can still make a big difference by proposing this Pledge to your employers or manager.
Do you have any expertise in HR or Operations? Perhaps you’re from California? Then volunteer to help Friends of the Inyo audit their employee handbook to improve transparency and accountability. Friends of the Inyo work to ensure the public lands of the Eastern Sierra exist in a healthy natural state for people and wildlife through preservation, stewardship, exploration, and education.
Protect our Winters UK are looking for volunteers to help them in three areas:
- making major updates to their website (they’re looking for someone with experience with front-end website development)
- financial planning (budgeting, planning, and systems set up and review)
- accounting systems setup (setting up accounting software)
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