The Outdoor Philosopher: Kate Rawles on Riding 'The Carbon Cycle'

Kate Rawles on her Mexico-to-Canada tour. Photo: Chris Loynes

Kate Rawles is an outdoor philosopher. That is a title she coined herself, and it is accurate in more than one way. She spends her professional life thinking about, talking about, and being in the outdoors, activities that culminated in the publication of The Carbon Cycle, her account of the three-month, 4,553-mile bike ride she undertook to better understand concepts and perception about climate change in the American West.

The Banff Center named The Carbon Cycle a finalist in the 2012 Banff Mountain Book Competition. Philip Connors' Fire Season took the prize, but the nomination helped bring Rawles' book to an audience outside her base in the United Kingdom. Adventure Ethics talked to Rawles, a lecturer in Outdoor Studies at the University of Cumbria, about outdoor philosophy, her ride, and the resulting book.

What is outdoor philosophy?
I spend a lot of time talking about human-nature relationships, but I was doing this inside lecture halls, and there were no other species in the room. The whole thing felt very abstract, so over time I started to take those classes outside more and more.

Outdoor philosophy means getting outside the classroom. I often take my classes sea kayaking and they have a very powerful engagement with a very different landscape. There is a motivation aspect, too. It's not just exploring the topic academically but encouraging students to act on behalf of the environment.

The Carbon Cycle is based on the conversations about climate change that you had with hundreds of people during the course of your Mexico-to-Canada bike ride. How did the book come into being?
I always loved cycling and mountains and I've done a number of trips over the years, but wanted to do a bigger trip. I wanted to use it as a way of communicating about climate change. I wanted to raise awareness rather than money. And I wanted to connect what is known, academically, about climate change with what is happening on the ground.

I wanted it to be adventurous enough to get people's attention. I used the bike ride almost like a Trojan horse, to get to people who would not necessarily pick up a book about climate change, and get them to talk about it with me.

The trip was 4,553 miles and I tried to follow the spine of the Rockies as much as possible, I crossed the Continental Divide about 20 times.

Describe the conversations you had throughout the trip.
The idea from the start was to talk to as many people as I could. Fox News at the time was hardly reporting on climate change and there were people who didn’t know what I meant—I was surprised by how many. This was in 2006, but I think most people in Europe had heard of it by then. In New Mexico, someone commented on how hot it was. I asked if they thought it had to do with climate change, and they said, "No, you won't see anything with climate change until you get further north!" But on the other end of the spectrum, there were people who were very knowledgeable.

I typically didn't start the conversation with climate change. Sometimes if I brought up climate change or global warming, they would veer off and change the subject. Not always, though. Sometimes I got really passionate responses. People in Wyoming warned me that I should be careful, because it was Dick Cheney's state and they said I should not talk about the oil industry.

I had also set up interviews, such as with the mayor of Albuquerque. I stopped at the Rocky Mountain Institute and a wind-powered brewery—New Belgium in Fort Collins, Colorado. I studied environmental ethics at Colorado State University, so that was a homecoming.

Have you kept in touch with anyone you met on the road?
I was cycling up a big long hill, and a big maroon car came and cruised right next to me. The driver rolled down the window and asked if I'd like a Gatorade. I was probably dehydrated but I said, "No, thanks." He asked again and I said, "No, really"—I was kind of annoyed. When I got to top of hill, on the side of the road there was a cold bottle of Gatorade. I drank it.

Three days later, I was leaving Rocky Mountain National Park and he drove past again, stopped and asked if I drank the Gatorade. "I knew you were dehydrated," he said. His name is Mike. He said he definitely thought climate change was a bunch of crock. I sent him the book, and I am going to wait for him to read it and then see what he thinks.

Could outdoor philosophy evolve into an actual field of study?
I think so. We're setting up a certificate program called Environmental Leadership in the Outdoor Industry. People who work in the outdoor field—for Outward Bound or similar groups—they don’t necessarily know the big picture. They know about footpath impacts [from overuse or poor design], but they might not have training in more global issues like climate change.

So the idea is to raise their awareness and then think of ways that they can raise awareness in their own client groups. It's also about teaching them how to reduce the environmental impact of what they do. That could mean using more efficient busses to transport groups, or doing trips in less remote areas.

Climate change is impacting glaciers and mountain environments, so they're on the front lines in some ways.
Yes, and you have a very strong foundation to build on because these people are already in love with these places. But they might not realize the links between travel, energy consumption, and the impact they're having on the places that they love. So I want to raise awareness in the outdoor business world. There is a major dilemma about flying, which is usually the biggest contributor to a large carbon footprint. As adventurers we often fly to get where we're going so I encourage the outdoor adventure world to look at it and discuss it. It's not about saying you should not fly but about saying we have a genuine dilemma here, and how do you use adventure to inspire positive action in others?

Climate change threatens mountain environments particularly. The key thing is there are loads we can still do to make it less bad. Anything we can do to reduce our energy consumption is worth doing.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

More Culture