NOW talks to Kate Rawles, an environmentalist and writer who uses adventure to help raise awareness and inspire action on our major environmental challenges. She has recently completed The Life Cycle, riding a bamboo bicycle from Colombia to Cape Horn and exploring biodiversity. Find out more here
Kate Rawles is a former University lecturer in environmental ethics at Lancaster and Outdoor Studies at Cumbria. Now an environmentalist and writer, Kate Rawles uses adventure to help raise awareness and inspire action on our major environmental challenges. She is currently on The Life Cycle, riding a bamboo bicycle from Colombia to Cape Horn, following the spine of the Andes and exploring biodiversity: what it is, why it matters, what’s happening to it and what can be done to protect it.
Kate’s previous book, The Carbon Cycle, was based on a ride from Texas to Alaska exploring climate change, and was shortlisted for the Banff Mountain Festival Adventure Travel Awards, 2012. You can find out more here about all her work.
If you had one hour in a room with all the world’s leaders this year – what would you ask them?
What sort of bravery, creativity, innovation and brilliance is needed on the part of world leaders to prioritise protecting our earth’s life support systems (like the climate and biodiversity) over damaging economic growth – and how do you plan to show it?
All the environmental crisis we face have a huge toll on humanity – on poverty, security, public health and disaster preparedness. The interconnected nature of our eco systems and climate means that no country or community can be immune to any of these threats. How can we best harness human power and creativity to come up with solutions for all of our sakes?
First we have to wake up. We need a widespread realisation that nature is not a luxury, but vital to our basic needs; that ‘development’ can’t be at the expense of the environment – of climate and ecosystems – and that there are multiple wins. We could have a decent quality of human life for all (albeit not based on the current highly materialistic, consumerist model of what quality of life means), while protecting the earth’s life support systems, and co-existing with the millions of other species with whom we share the planet. What could be a more inspirational goal than that? If this doesn’t excite human creativity and ambition, what will?
There are examples of the negative environmental and social impact of corporate greed all around us. Some companies are starting to realise that addressing sustainability issues can actively spur economic activity and growth – how would you galvanise more companies to act responsibly?
Firstly, experiential education. I would very much like to see a cross-section of staff – from the CEOs to the maintenance workers – from companies who create negative environmental and social impacts taken to witness these impacts, to hear from the people whose lives they have damaged and to realise that not all growth is good.
Secondly, feedback. If everyone who travels lets these companies know they are not prepared to use their services until they change – but that they will use them even more if they do – change would come pretty fast.
Do you think it’s important for ‘eco’ companies to prove they are sustainable, rather than just say they are?
Absolutely yes. For the sake of the companies themselves as well as for people and planet. I have met more and more travellers who are cynical about the claims of ‘eco’ companies and not interested in using their services for this reason. And yet genuinely sustainable travel companies are urgently needed.
What in your opinion is the most pressing sustainability issue facing the travel industry today?
Flying. Flights are usually the biggest single contributor to a ‘Western’ individual’s personal carbon footprint; and yet a huge percentage of travellers fly without a second thought. Given the immense impacts already and to come of climate change on people and planet, this has to change; the travel industry has to have the guts to confront this issue with honesty and openness.
Do travellers care about sustainability?
I think that more and more travellers do care. But too many don’t – often because they simply don’t know about the negative impacts of travel. I’d like to see much, much more honest discussion about this across the travel industry, and I’d like to see the travel industry playing a far greater role in raising awareness and inspiring action – in the education of its clients – than it currently does. This is a win/win in the end. By definition, if travel doesn’t become sustainable, it won’t last.
‘If everyone who travels lets travel companies know they are not prepared to use their services until they change – but that they will use them even more if they do – change would come pretty fast’
Can you share a favourite place to stay, or a useful product or service to use on the road, that you feel is doing something genuinely sustainable for people and planet?
A bicycle! Arguably the most efficient way of moving humans around ever invented. I once read that a cyclist can do ten miles per peanut! Not only is it very low impact (depending on what you eat – a highly meat based diet can cancel out a lot of the carbon wins), but a bike is a magician, transforming your experience of landscapes, turning the most mundane trips into mini-adventures and opening you to all sorts of positive interactions with people and places in a way that simply doesn’t happen if you travel by car/bus/train.
What do you do in your daily life and when you are travelling in the name of sustainability?
As much as possible! In my daily life, I’m vegetarian, I eat local produce where I can (and my partner grows a fair amount on our allotment), I use ‘green’ energy, I use public transport/the bike as much as possible, I’ve cut down on consumption generally and I’ve been on a self-imposed flight ‘ration’ of no more than once per year since 2006. I give lots of talks about sustainability and environmental issues, using adventure as a way of making these interesting (I hope!).
Above all, I try to model a way of life that is low on impact and high on happiness. No-one is inspired by a miserable environmentalist. On my current journey from Colombia to Cape Horn I crossed the Atlantic by cargo ship and I’m riding a bamboo bicycle that I built myself from bamboo that came from the Eden Project in Cornwall – the UK’s first home-grown bicycle!