Kate cycling in Cordillera Blanca, Peru, courtesy of Chris Loynes
Next month, author and activist Dr Kate Rawles will begin touring the UK as part of the Society’s Regional Theatres Programme, sharing stories from her journey cycling the length of South America on Woody, a bamboo bike she built herself with bamboo from the Eden Project in Cornwall.
We caught up with Kate to discuss what it’s been like using adventurous journeys to raise awareness and inspire action on our most urgent environmental challenges.
Tell us a bit about your background
I grew up mostly in Scotland, plus five years in Penzance – we moved a lot! I was an outdoorsy, animal-loving kid. I worked at a riding school in Aberdeen in my gap year and commuted by bike. I realised gradually that a bike is a magician – transforming a journey that would be boring and banal by bus or car into a mini-adventure and making adventures accessible to someone as unathletic and unfit as I was then.
I went to university in Aberdeen, Colorado and Glasgow, reading mostly philosophy but also doing a lot of hillwalking and cycling. I eventually gained a PhD in environmental ethics and taught at Lancaster University for about 10 years. I left to work freelance and set up Outdoor Philosophy, harnessing the power of (relatively) wild places to inspire and support more sustainable ways of living and working.
After another 10 years in the university system – this time part-time in the outdoor studies team at the University of Cumbria – I left to do The Life Cycle ride and pursue the idea of Adventure Plus, using adventurous journeys to help raise awareness and inspire action on our most urgent environmental challenges.
I currently live in Cumbria and am about to move to a small eco-community that I have helped to set up near Kendal. I’m a keen sea-kayaker, hillwalker and bookworm, as well as a cyclist with a particular love of cycling in mountains – hot sunny ones being my preference.
What inspired you to cycle the length of South America?
I wanted to find a way to combine my love of cycling in mountains with an attempt at giving something back to the world I love adventuring in. The result was a low-impact adventure, following the spine of the Andes and exploring biodiversity – what it is, what’s happening to it, why it matters and what can be done to protect it, in one of the most biodiverse continents on Earth. I rode The Life Cycle journey, from Colombia to Cape Horn, on a bamboo bike I built myself, using bamboo from the Eden Project in Cornwall.
You have been to some incredible places during your Adventure Plus trips. Are there any experiences which have stood out for you?
Meeting activists who are standing up for their land, communities and ecosystems, often against immensely powerful, extractive industries and at great personal risk.
The astonishing diversity of landscapes and habitats I’ve been fortunate to cycle through, from the classic, spiky white mountains of the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca to the astonishingly life-rich, diverse cloud- and rainforests to the Atacama Desert and the Bolivian salt flats.
Throughout your trips, you have witnessed firsthand the environmental challenges facing our planet. Are there any causes that are particularly close to your heart and have you made any changes in your day-to-day life to try and address them?
The loss of other species we share the planet with, currently happening at a potentially catastrophic rate, is every bit as urgent and serious an issue as climate change, though it still gets less attention. We are undermining our own life-support system and devastating ecological communities that we are part of and that are every bit as entitled to be here as we are.
In terms of changes to my day-to-day life, this is an ongoing challenge! I’ve long been vegetarian and I’m now trying to cut back on dairy. I’ve been on a self-imposed flight ration since 2006 – no more than one flight every three years – and try to use the train or cycle as much as possible rather than drive, though this can be challenging in a rural area. I’m about to move to a small eco-community and build a low-impact, sustainable house. We are lucky enough to have 12 acres there, and I’m learning how to manage and improve a wildflower meadow and have helped plant many hundreds of trees and new hedges.
I try to contribute to consumer culture as little as possible and to demonstrate and celebrate a quality of life based on relationships – with people and nature – and experiences, rather than possessions. I think it’s vital to think of ourselves not just as consumers in this context, but also as citizens, communicators and catalysts, and to think about how we can contribute to change at a systemic, as well as an individual, personal lifestyle, level.
What can audiences expect from your talk?
Hard truths, stunning scenery, compelling stories (I hope!), unexpected humour, and an ultimately optimistic message about what can be achieved if we work together.
Raising awareness about biodiversity loss is clearly something you are very passionate about, is there a take home message that you would like audiences to come away with?
Nature is not a luxury, it’s our life support system and a living community we are part of and utterly dependent on.
Our most urgent environmental issues – including biodiversity loss, climate change and plastic pollution – are all interconnected, so anything we can do on any front is (almost always) positive on all fronts. We can’t tweak or greenwash our way out of this though – radical changes are now needed to our economic and political systems, as well as our values and worldviews. The good news is that the solutions are already out there. We just need to implement them.
Book your seat now to hear more about Kate’s extraordinary journey:
30 May, Grantham Guildhall. Book now.
31 May, Stamford Arts Centre. Book now.
15 June, Turner Sims. Book now.
18 June, Exeter Phoenix. Book now.