SPORT: Outdoor philosophy

summer2011-021-400x300When we came up with a blueprint for Transition Free Press we decided that it would follow the contours of a regular newspaper with news, features, reviews, opinion pages… and sport. In our back pages we have covered team sports-in-transition (including netball!)  as well as individual physical activities done in a community or environmental spirit – vegan and wild running, ecological diving and surfing, and of course cycling. Here philosopher and adventure cyclist Kate Rawles  explains why encountering the sea in a kayak inspires an immediate sense of connection with the planet.

I am in the glorious Arisaig Islands off the west coast of Scotland and have ‘parked’ my kayak in seaweed. Secured from the wind-drift, I watch the Arctic Terns travelling home from Antarctica. They are small, silver birds with graceful swallow-shaped tails and a screeching call at odds with their delicate frame. Flying up to 70,000 km in one year – by far the longest migrations of any bird – they will clock up the equivalent of three round trips to the moon in a lifetime!

Sights like this explain why sea kayaking has become a passion of mine. About 17 feet long, sea kayaks are both beautiful and immensely sea worthy. In their sealed holds you can pack camping gear and food enough for multi-week trips and their shallow draft and manoeuverability gives a competent kayaker access to islands and beaches that few other craft can reach. It is a low impact, quiet and wildlife-friendly sport.

Once I went to the Lofoten above the Arctic Circle in Norway but, like the Arctic terns, I always come back to west Scotland. However, despite the sheer beauty, diversity and intrigue to be found here, all is not well in the sea.

OP kayak 1 groupHumans mostly understand nature as a set of resources. All other living beings, from blue tits to blue whales, are valued only in relation to their usefulness to us. This anthropocentric outlook, the belief that humans are the most significant species on the planet, is undoubtedly a root cause of our interlocking environmental crises.

For many years, I was lucky to have these debates as part of my job as a philosophy lecturer. But discussing human-nature relations in ivory towers and overheated lecture theatres left my colleagues and I disconnected from the natural world we were trying to think about and without a mandate to act for environmentally positive social or political change.

Outdoor Philosophy is an attempted remedy; it is a discussion about human-nature relations conducted in the middle of other species and ecosystems. It aims to harness the power of this kind of experience – an invigorating sense of reconnection – to nurture, ignite and support people in their environmental work.

Sea kayaking tends to dissolve anthropocentrism, effortlessly. Despite their seaworthiness, it is nigh on impossible to sit in a small boat on even the laziest Atlantic swell and retain a bloated sense of human power and superiority.

In a small boat it’s impossible to retain a bloated sense of human power

Of course, when my sea kayaking trip comes to an end, I load my boat on to my van filled with fossil fuel and drive home, thereby adding to the greenhouse gases that are threatening the lives and wellbeing of the species I‘ve just been revelling in. But, in the end, perhaps that is the point – not to dwell in guilt and blame, but to stay in touch with the deep discomfort of reconnection, as well as its invigorating power. To re-see and revalue the sparrows on my terraced house front. To energise work that aims to reshape our economic, social and intellectual systems so we can co-exist as half-decent citizens of our extraordinary ecological communities.

Kate Rawles lectures and writes on ‘big picture’ environmental issues, sustainability and values. Her 2012 book The Carbon Cycle – Crossing the Great Divide used adventure cycling to communicate climate change. Her next book The Life Cycle will focus on biodiversity and a bike trip in the Andes planned for 2015. Find out more at

Images: Exploring the coastal wonders of Arisaig in the Scottish Highlands (Kate Rawles)

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