Why sports stars are not friends of Sustainability

I really love watching sports. I love it primarily because of my fascination with what the human body is physically capable of. Athletes producing incredible performances inspire me to be more active myself. But unfortunately, beyond the human performance element and the spirit of sportsmanship (which is often absent today); most of the rest of the elements that make up professional sport don’t match up with my values. Huge amounts of money from corporate (fossil fuelled) sponsorship, sports washing from brutal regimes, rampant cheating etc. Even competition itself as it exists now is to me an unsustainable and deeply right wing concept. The idea that the elite of a sport take all the money, plaudits and fame while the vast majority get crumbs is just wrong. Professional sport can’t work in future unless numerous issues are addressed.

More sports in parks and less in stadiums

Whenever I see star athletes being interviewed, I always imagine them saying something like “yes, we lost this game, but there are more important things, like having a liveable future on this planet”; but it never happens. Why not?

The reason is simple. Professional sports are inextricably linked with capitalism, fossil fuels and excess consumption. So while you might occasionally see an athlete talk about climate change, they never achieve anything. They rely on corporate sponsors for their income in some form; and they wouldn’t appreciate it if their athletes throw capitalism under the bus. Chloe Kim recently posted on Instagram about declining natural snow; of course as part of a paid promotion with Nike. Her next post was a collaboration with Toyota showing a fossil SUV.

One aspect that’s particularly interesting is the fact that you almost never see big money sponsors from the green economy. Advertising and sponsorship is almost exclusively the domain of polluting industries. When was the last time you saw an advert for a cycling company in the mainstream media for example? I can think of one instance, and that was Vanmoof, who aren’t your typical bike brand. And even that was only a one-off. The only long term sponsorship I can think of is the deal Mercedes Formula E team has with Vestas (wind turbine manufacturer). Aside from Tesla, who choose not to advertise for other reasons; Vestas are among the only sustainability focused companies that are big enough to have the money to spare. This is at least admirable in the current economic system, but in order to have a sustainable future, we have no choice but to get big money out of sport.

Watch any sport and you’ll see advertising for every fossil fuel company, car manufacturer, drinks company (and their plastic bottles), and representation from pretty much every industry that’s doing harm to our planet and exacerbating inequalities around the world. Not only that, but specifically in minority sports, individual sponsorship of athletes is what keeps them going, which goes back to the situation Chloe Kim and many others are in. Don’t get me wrong though; there is no shortage of athletes who will take the fossil fuelled money and happily buy themselves a big house and several sports cars without a second thought (swimmer Adam Peaty comes to mind). Selfishness and inequality has become so accepted in society that no one gets held to account, and the people who do bring it up are the ones who face pushback. “How dare you criticise their 3 car garage? They earned it”, they’ll say.

But even for those people who do deeply care, they are forced to take the money in many cases, as they can’t continue to compete without it. If you’re living as a low level professional athlete, do you really want to go back to that meaningless, miserable desk job you hate that doesn’t contribute anything to society? Of course you don’t. So take the fossil fuel money and shut up.

This is why the only people you hear from about climate change are those who are either sponsored by companies who are greenwashing at master level, successful (and therefore rich) athletes later in their careers, or athletes from wealthy backgrounds who don’t require sponsorship. There was a Team GB sailor at Tokyo 2020 who was talking about the climate crisis in a TV interview, which I found surprising. But in general, people who get into sailing are often from well-off backgrounds, so that would make sense; although I don’t know for sure.

Another issue is that athletes are often very single-minded individuals. To be the best in the world requires them to not be well-rounded people. They live their sport all day, every day in many cases. Ask them about politics or climate change and they’ll most likely either draw a blank or say something incoherent and stupid.

Professional sport needs to be pared back to the bare essentials if it is to survive beyond the next few years. It has to be primarily about fun and friendly competition, and not at all about money. It has to reduce the number of events, travel on the ground wherever possible, slash consumption and athletes have to act like real role models. People often talk about athletes being role models today, which I find ridiculous in most cases. There are definitely the odd one or two true role model athletes out there; but they’re completely overshadowed by the vast majority who inspire the public to get rich and consume like there’s no tomorrow more than anything else.

Fitness and fun over competition and money

Many sports will cease to exist when the transition to a sustainable world takes place. Sports that are polluting, that aren’t accessible to everyone (elitist) or don’t offer any health benefit to society will need to go. Motorsport will be chief amongst them. The rest will focus more on the grassroots and less on the big stage. There will be a huge shift of focus towards health and leisure over competition and being the best. This would effectively flip our current status quo where the unfit, sedentary, obese general public watch elite athletes compete and set records for human performance.

It is truly absurd that at the same time, we are the unhealthiest we’ve ever been as a global population; while our athletes are the best and healthiest they’ve ever been. Even if you ignore pro sport’s sustainability problem and almost total reliance on capitalism; this change is desperately needed anyway. I can’t wait to see it happen.

The Earthshot Prize shoots for the Moon and misses

I don’t want to be too critical of the Earthshot Prize; it did do some things right. But at the end of the day, the focus was almost entirely placed on innovation and green growth as our way out of this disastrous situation, rather than the real solution of slashing consumption and shrinking the economy. The parts about restoring nature were generally great; in particular the project to restore coral reefs by engineering corals that can cope with the increasing ocean temperatures. But then you had a project about reversing deforestation in Costa Rica, and it was predicated on the idea that it would attract tourists and lead to economic growth. So they fix one problem in order to exacerbate another one. There was another project in the Masai Mara doing a similar thing; protecting animals by getting wealthy tourists to fly around the world and spend their money on useless knick-knacks.

I think the undeniably best thing about the series was the name. Earthshot is a great name for the scenario we’re in. It makes perfect sense to compare it to the Moonshot decade, because it’s exactly the scale of ambition we need. The parts of the documentary series talking about the problems are also good, but they got the solutions part almost totally wrong. Yes, we need some technological solutions, but fundamentally, it comes down almost entirely to living smaller and more local with less stuff and with better diets. Neither consumption nor population were mentioned a single time throughout the 5 part series or award ceremony. The fact that not a single youth activist was involved tells you all you need to know. The more I think about it, the more it feels like it was made for sceptical boomers. Perhaps the moon landing nod was even more intentional than I realised.

Then there’s the prize money itself. Rewarding innovations with a million pounds each over 10 years seems like the wrong approach. Obviously, I believe governments should be in charge of the money and saving our world shouldn’t come down to the generosity of private finance. But, if you’re going to go down this path, at least do it better than this. Firstly, a million pounds is not that much money; and if you really believe in green growth as the solution to the climate crisis, and that these innovations can be key to our survival, then I would imagine you’d throw a lot more money at it than they are. I’m pretty sure there are enough rich people in the world who “care” about the planet to the point where you could raise billions for the prize pot relatively easily. Giving away only a million each goes against the urgent message about rapidly scaling up these businesses to save humanity.

Ideas like a solar powered ironing trike are nice, but do we really need to iron our clothes at all? It is a nice story that the young girl in question was entrepreneurial but it’s too small to make a difference on a global scale at this late stage. Having said that, it should definitely be put into production. As long as people keep ironing clothes at least. The project that allows farmers to cleanly burn their crops in a machine rather than setting their fields on fire gave me a similar feeling. Why do we need to burn crops at all? I’m pretty sure it’s not necessary.

There were so many moments I took issue with. They showed the ski slope power station in Copenhagen. But didn’t talk about getting rid of waste in the first place rather than burning it to make energy. They talked about global dimming in terms of reducing rainfall in some areas; but nothing about how dimming has limited warming and getting rid of pollution would actually increase warming. They talked about electric cars and an overall growth of vehicles. No mention of cycling whatsoever other than the ironing trike. There was a segment about tyre and brake pollution from cars and buses. Again, no mention of the key role cycling could play in reducing it. They show Singapore’s touristy green areas but ignore the huge roads and growth based economy. There was no mention of Bhutan’s model of economic stability and protection of nature over profit and GDP. At least they mentioned indoor and vertical farming. That’s something we definitely need to scale up urgently.

The city of Milan winning the waste free world prize was by far the most bizarre award of the evening. All they’re doing is redistributing food to prevent waste. This is being done in various locations all over the world already. There’s nothing unique there that deserves money. Sanergy (creating fertiliser from human waste with insects) and Wota Box (fountain with filter which allows water to be reused many times) were clearly the better ideas. It’s hard to understand why they were snubbed.

At the end, Prince William talked about how Earthshot is for young people. Well, it isn’t because young people want an end to capitalism and an end to economic growth. This does neither of those two things and you’ve just ended up patronising them yet again. Just like with climate anxiety, the establishment have proven that they don’t get it. They just can’t get past this failed model of treating the symptoms rather than the cause of our problems. Whether it be anxiety or our climate crisis, the root causes are capitalism and economic growth. Until they accept that, the young will see all of this as insult after insult.

And the final insult is to give Earthshot 2022 to the kingdom of unrestrained corporate greed, the United States. The country that is going to drop all climate funding from Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. The only thing remaining is to see how far over 1.5c we are in 12 months time (by the 1750 baseline). Hopefully it doesn’t go ahead because they realise by then that green growth doesn’t work. Probably wishful thinking.

It will unfortunately happen again next year, but it really is debatable how long it will keep going. Prince William says it will award prizes every year for 10 years; but given how little time we have left to act drastically, what use will a prize be in 2030? Maybe they’ll need to take a page out of Bangladesh’s book and host the ceremony on a ship. Maybe one of the prize winners will be some kind of affordable houseboat. That would make sense by then. There will probably be huge demand.

As a final aside; as we were watching the episode of Earthshot Prize about clean air, near the end, I heard the neighbour’s petrol lawnmower so I had to rush around closing all the windows. You couldn’t have timed it better. But with any luck, he watched the award show and decided to buy a battery mower to boost our economy.

Doing Something about the Climate Crisis isn’t Better than Nothing

I’m not even sure this is true any more

Recently, people often tell me that I should accept any progress that is being made towards sustainability. But I always push back on that. The climate crisis is now so dire that only huge, immediate change can give us any real hope of a future we can look forward to.

We know that we have to get emissions to zero as soon as possible, capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and deploy solar radiation management techniques. That’s what the latest science is saying. Switching to EV ownership, or slowly electrifying bus fleets over decades aren’t things I’m going to support. They’re arguably worse than doing nothing. Because when you don’t understand and consider the whole problem, and just take various measures that aren’t part of a joined-up strategy, you take your focus off of what must be done, and waste precious time as well. Two things we absolutely can’t afford.

Obviously I don’t want to actually do nothing. But if we took the time to understand the full scale of what we’re facing, society would be far more likely to come to the collective realisation that the entire system has to change.

The more I think about this, the more I realise how much of a problem it is. It applies to almost everything. From trying to build bike lanes when in reality the only thing we have time for is banning cars; to net zero carbon targets where planting forests that could later burn is seen as a solution. The entire system we have right now is just trying to present guaranteed future failure as a solution we should get behind.

It’s time we started talking about real solutions. The big solutions. Banning cars, banning domestic flights, cycling, public transport etc. The types of things that can have an impact now, when we really need it. Not in 30 years when it will be too late.