Of Sustainability

Sustainability is a nice filler word. It sounds good without sounding overtly posh, it can be moulded to mean almost anything, and, in the absence of a definition, it creates the impression of righteousness without any real commitment to anything at all. Like the childish act of repeating a single word ad nauseum to see it loose all meaning, sustainability, alongside climate change, has become one of the great vacuous cliches of our day. Yet, sustainability is a concept far too important to leave at that! It's time to claim it back, for unsustainable means the forming of an irreversible rift between past and future, while sustainability holds the promise of being in control of our collective destiny.

My interest in sustainability has a rather parochial origin and focus. I am not haunted by visions of retreating icecaps, or coastal erosion in distant lands, nor am I obsessing about renewable energy, or have a bee in my bonnet about recycling. I don't deny the importance of such 'global' concerns, but my reflections on the meaning of, and my growing sense of a desperate need for, sustainable behaviour, stem from my ventures into the Scottish 'outdoors', my increasing awareness of the impact that I, and my fellow 'outdoor enthusiasts', are having, and the realisation that we have long crossed a threshold beyond which our combined intrusion translates into permanent damage. I make no apology for the parochial focus of my thoughts -- it is important to dream big, but at times it is necessary to think small to start executing those big dreams.

Let's not beat around the bush -- in this relatively unspoiled land of ours, we, the nature lovers, are the leading candidate for the worst enemy of our beloved outdoors (even if the 'renewable' energy industry is doing its best to take the crown): human induced erosion (and the necessary interventions to stem it) is permanently changing the shape of our mountains, popular wild camping sites have become places of serious biological hazard, litter of all sort is common.

As more of us are heading 'out there', whatever the reason, our collective mark is getting bigger and uglier, and irreversible. The Ben Nevis of today, with its neatly paved path and cairns is not the Ben Nevis of Naismith or even W. H. Murray, and so their experience of it has been irretrievably lost to the past and we have become poorer for it. (If you think this is just sentimental rubbish, then go and read some of Murray's writings!) The big question is whether the experience we are able to claim for ourselves today is going to be available to those following in our footsteps (or, if you don't care about 'them', for ourselves, tomorrow).

In this context, I want to offer a very simple, pragmatic, and workable definition of sustainability:

An action or behaviour is sustainable if, and only if, everybody who comes to this place can engage in it and this place will continue to be fundamentally the same.

(In this definition this place means a small locus immediately around me, not the abstract 'outdoors', e.g., a meadow, a path, a hillside, a ridge, a belay stance, a summit.)

Let's unpack it a bit. Our impact on the surrounding environment is the function of four factors: the nature of our activity, the duration of the activity, the frequency with which the activity is repeated, and the characteristics of the environment itself -- walking down a grassy hillside in boots leaves much less of a trace than if I am wearing crampons; belaying at the same place for an hour, or pitching a tent for the night, is quite different from a single step on the way to somewhere; the trace left behind by a single hill runner might be unnoticeable, the trace left by 300 strong race field will be hard to miss regardless the location; a granite slab is much less effected by our feet than a peat bog).

Sustainable behaviour requires that I, as an individual, consider, and adjust my actions in response to, all four of those factors. And here lies the heart of the current problem -- in the recent decades we have been couched to think of the environment we are interacting with, and about ways to minimise the impact of our individual actions, but have not been sufficiently encouraged to perceive those individual actions as merely a fraction of a bigger, at times colossal, composite action. And unfortunately, in days of mass participation this changes everything.

The rise of the 'leave no trace' movement has, I think, left many with the false impression that it is in fact possible to have zero impact. As useful as the 'leave no trace' moniker is, this is a naive and dangerous misconception. We always make an impact. I recall watching the bustle of the many ant colonies in Linn of Quoich and being struck by how these tiny, near weightless, creatures are able to 'plough' wide and long highways on the forest floor as a mere side effect of their activity. We are not unlike an ant colony, hurrying along fermon marked paths; even walking on a granite slab leaves a mark, as I am sure every Munroist has observed (climbers need no reminder of the dreaded 'polish').

Which brings me to what I think is the key and most critical point in all this -- sustainability is only achievable if none of us insist on claiming more than our fair share. Fair share is that which everyone who comes to this place can engage in without fundamentally changing this place. Fair share is unavoidably a function of popularity -- a fair share at popular fragile locations might be nothing more than taking a view -- but without sticking to the fair share the whole idea of sustainability doesn't stand a chance. Just think about it, there is simply no justifiable basis on which we could allocate differing slices of acceptable damage to different individuals. (This, IMHO, is why we have not made any real progress on climate change.)

It is very tempting for us to want more than the fair share, and it is very easy to justify it to ourselves; the most obvious justification is by assuming that my action doesn't matter because the majority will only take their fair share, and perhaps less. But by taking more than a fair share I have lost the moral right to ask someone else to behave responsibly. I might feel angry with the fishermen and happy campers that triggered the new by-laws in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, but on what basis am I going to call their behaviour irresponsible?

It's been a while since my DMM Predators have been confined to the loft, but I recall quite clearly that itch in the mid and late autumn, waiting for the climbs to 'come in'. For those of us whose abilities keep us in the lower grades, the early season has always meant some turf climbing, which can be extremely damaging when the ground is not frozen solid -- but, we are the only party on this route, so no real harm done ...

The Cairngorms offer some great mountain biking opportunities, the Tour of the Cairngorms is one of the old Scottish classics. Bikes are not evil, and in general terms, as all my MTB friends will repeat like parrots, a person on a bike can have a comparable environmental impact to a person on foot (I have a more detailed discussion of MTB impact here). However, comparable is not identical; there is one fundamental difference -- the continuous nature of the tyre trace means bikes accelerate natural erosion trends considerably more than pedestrians (this can be empirically demonstrated, there is a Master thesis here for someone), and even a single bike can have a devastating impact in a location susceptible to erosion, particularly where there is only a thin topsoil layer. Enter the Cairngorm plateau: a very fragile ecosystem, where arctic flora fights for survival and at the same time keeps erosion in check, a location under considerable pressure from lot of people -- biking the Plateau is not fair, even if not many people are doing it.

Wild camping is fun, but it is not a zero impact activity by a long shot. Camping at locations already seriously damaged by over camping (Glen Etive, Glen Clunie) might require serious adjustments to normal routine (too much buried faeces there already!), or might need to be passed upon altogether. Wild camping at mountain summits is great because of the solitude, the sunset, the sunrise, as well as the midge-fending breeze, but wild camping on fragile, erosion prone, busy summits like Suilven is taking more than a fair share.

It would be unfair to ignore the runners. Running has the potential for low impact (soft soled shoes, no excess baggage, low body fat, fewer steps, no stupid poles poking the earth in the eye; you can see where my loyalty lies), but the acceleration/deceleration offsets that, particularly on descends. There are erosion scars on Dumyat above Stirling I can point at and say 'runners started this' ...

I believe that the fair share approach is fundamentally workable -- it is not asking campers to stop camping, climbers to stop climbing, bikers to stop biking, runners to stop running. There are plentiful opportunities in this land of ours for all of these things without taking more than a fair share. The alternative, I suspect is more paved paths, more by-laws, then more national laws and enforcement, as per the US national park model. I know which future I prefer.