Food Ethics Council member Kate Rawles is an outdoor philosopher who wants, above all, to contribute to the movements for an equitable and sustainable world.

As an environmental ethicist Kate is preoccupied with exploring world views, and asking big questions about how we humans understand our relationship with nature; whether we see ourselves as part of or outside of it; and whether nature is something for us to control for our own purposes or live alongside.

Those questions, she believes, are fundamental if society is going to ‘crack’ sustainability. In essence her mission is to shift the dominant stories we have about humanity and nature.

Kate taught environmental ethics in universities until 2014. But, she tells me, over the years she grew increasingly frustrated with the constraints of exploring these big questions in a university setting. She felt that asking people to connect with nature in an artificially heated and lit lecture theatre, with no other species present, made the concepts abstract and difficult to relate to.

Outdoor philosophy

And, fundamentally, she says, “as a university lecturer you don’t typically have a remit to turn your students into eco warriors, or go out and change things in the world. But on a personal level I began to realise that I’m more temperamentally suited to be an activist environmentalist than an academic.”

A keen kayaker and mountain biker, she increasingly became convinced that exploring our relationship with nature whilst immersed in the natural environment was far more productive.

“What I’m trying to do these days is take issues that I think are really important from academic discussions about our relationship with environmental issues and what really underpins them, and try to identify the root causes. That’s partly an intellectual conversation but I want to have those discussions in a much more engaged and explicitly activist way.”

That’s where the outdoor philosophy comes in. Kate hosts those ‘big question’ discussions outside. Of all the natural settings she’s hosted them in, she finds sea kayaking one of the most powerful – partly because participants find themselves in a completely different environment, immersed in the nature they’re talking about.

She often works with groups of environmentalists who are already working on these issues but in different ways. Their backgrounds are very varied, from professors of political philosophy to campaigners in charities. 

Kate explains that “most of us are in front of our computers for too long during the day. Taking people out into nature is both a brainstorm session on how we move forward, and an opportunity to reconnect when we’ve become disconnected with other species and natural systems. And, really importantly, it’s also a chance to create a network of people who are trying to answer these questions.”

Climate adventure

As well as running outdoor philosophy courses, Kate’s trying to bring these big questions about our relationship with nature to a wider audience. In 2006 she rode her bike from Texas to Alaska, following the spine of the Rocky Mountains, exploring North American attitudes to climate change. When she returned friends and colleagues asked her to give talks and slideshows about the journey.

Eventually Kate turned the account of her journey into a book, ‘The Carbon Cycle: crossing the great divide (2012). Her talks – using the adventure travel hook to open up a conversation about climate change – had proved popular, but she tells me that she wanted to reach a much wider audience, and she felt that a book would be the best way to achieve that aim.

Her latest travel odyssey, from which she has recently returned, was a North Atlantic sailing voyage exploring ocean plastic pollution. The voyage was an outdoor philosophy trip in the sense that it was a chance to step out of mainstream high consumption life and explore an issue in a relevant context. The crew examined the plastic content in the ocean by fishing for plastic every day.

“It was a very powerful experience, far more so than discussing it and reading about it safe on dry land.”

As you might imagine, the group of people that ended up on board the vessel were an eclectic mix. “The crew consisted of activists, a marine scientist, and some artists who were trying to build a machine that uses the sun’s energy to melt waste plastic to then turn it in to stuff.”

While the artists were fishing plastic items from the ocean, the scientist on board was investigating micro plastics; an aspect of marine plastic pollution that isn’t as well understood and doesn’t get much press.

Kate says that arguably micro plastics are every bit as important as the more widely known floating ‘islands’ of plastic debris.  Plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, and as they decrease in size, creatures are able to digest them. Once the plastic has broken down into micro particles, plankton– in theory – can eat it. As they are at the base of the food chain, and key in carbon cycles, it’s really important to know whether they are ingesting these micro plastics.

Changing the story

One of the most important philosophical points Kate hopes people take home from her courses is that on many levels the dominant story about nature and humanity needs to change.

“The story we’re told – that nature is vast and has infinite resources that we can take indefinitely, and that we can carry on using nature as a waste dump for ever – is simply not true.”

She admits that how you change the story is difficult. But she believes that the answer is partly to raise awareness of the issue by talking about it. That’s why she’s a member of the Food Ethics Council.

“Changing the story is related to a very big question for the Food Ethics Council – whether it is appropriate to treat a species purely as a food resource, and the way in which big intensive systems commodify animals and ecosystems, turning them into bits of factories that churn out food for us and not treating them as living beings. That’s a huge core issue for the Food Ethics Council and other people working in this area.”

The other part of the equation is that the main driver in the food system is profit rather than producing good food. Because the system is part of the dominant story that nature is an infinite resource, the values embedded in the system are not values that will preserve our ecosystems.

Revolution or renaissance

The burning question is how to change those values. Kate quotes the biologist and writer Colin Tudge who says that there are three main options: revolution, reform or renaissance. She thinks that revolution – complete and utter change of the system – would be very difficult and complicated to bring about.

“I’m not sure that reform, tweaking the system, would be enough, though. Colin’s  argument is that we should just get on and do it differently (renaissance) and we’re seeing more of that – more small scale farmers markets, community agriculture, renewed interest in permaculture, and a massive rise in allotments. All of those things are signs that people are stepping outside the system as far as they can and doing it in a different way.”

She admits that it’s only a small number of people who are engaging in this way, and she says that how you scale it up is a really important question.

“I do think that having these sorts of discussions is key. Most people are horrified by the realities of intensive agriculture when they know about it, but we’re not encouraged to look it in the eye.

“The bottom line for me is that while we are working in an economic system that absolutely requires resource based growth to survive, we’re not going to crack all of these things. As long as short term profit is the overriding driver then people will be forced to take short cuts in environmental sustainability, in animal welfare, in workers’ conditions, in quality of food, all of these things.”

But there is cause for optimism. She sees many people in many parts of the world who are fed up with the existing system for all sorts of reasons. She believes that globally more and more people are saying ‘we’ve had enough; let’s do it differently’.

Her view is that as challenges to the dominant story of unlimited growth (including the ‘Green Surge’) become more mainstream, the main political parties will have to start to acknowledge the problems with the status quo.

And with inspiring people like Kate nurturing networks of citizens who can help scale up alternatives to the growth paradigm there is an opportunity to rewrite the story of our relationship with nature.