A few years ago, Kate Rawles, a 54-year-old British writer, cyclist and former university lecturer in environmental philosophy, built her own two-wheeled machine out of bamboo to cycle nearly 13,000km through the Andes, largely on her own.
The point of this feat wasn’t to highlight the long-lasting powers of panda food, but to underline the importance of biodiversity and find the best policies and practices to tackle the various environmental crises facing the world.
Although climate change is the environmental issue that has, in recent years, garnered most attention from politicians and the media, research shows the world is entering the danger zone on many environmental fronts, Rawles writes in her new book, The Life Cycle.
The book is part travelogue, part discussion about the state of our natural Earth and the ways in which humanity needs to change course for its own sake and for the future of biodiversity given the growing impacts of climate change and the sixth mass extinction.
One of the triggers for Rawles’ South American adventure was work by the Swedish environmental scientist Johan Rockström and his team at Stockholm University. They show the stability of life on Earth exists thanks to a series of interlocking, self-regulating natural systems, which they present as a circle divided into 10 environmental issues. Each part, they say, desperately needs attention. Rawles is particularly struck that “the segment that was further out into the red zone than any others, further even than climate change, was biodiversity loss”.
These are serious points and this is a serious book, but Rawles is good company
Unable to shake this image from her head, Rawles sets out to see for herself whether and why biodiversity needs more attention. For her trip to make sense, she must keep her emissions to a minimum. She travels from Calais to Colombia on a cargo ship, rather than by plane, and descends the length of South America mainly by peddle power on “Woody”, which she describes as the UK’s first “home-grown bicycle”. The bamboo for the machine’s frame was grown in a sustainable botanical garden in England and its joints are made from hemp soaked in a vegetable-based glue instead of fiberglass.
Rawles’ trip is punishing – physically and mentally. As a cyclist in Brussels, I am in awe of Rawles’ bravery (or slight madness) in pedalling in and out of cities such as Cartagena in Colombia with its “demonic” buses; or Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where she finds herself on a busy road, with no hard shoulder. “It was also uphill… I was cut close, constantly, by every kind of vehicle.”
The four days she spends crossing the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve in south-western Bolivia nearly break Rawles. It takes her two hours to cover the first 2.4km – “a slowness record, pushing up a never-ending hill”, followed by days of deep sand, gravel, rough rock and headwinds. At one point, she throws down the bike and howls. “The howls turned to violent sobs, then yells,” she writes.
Given such trials, it’s hard to believe Rawles’ claim that writing the book was a far greater test than riding the Andes. But she is doubtless telling the truth – she set off on her 13-month adventure at the start of 2017 and The Life Cycle was only published in June of this year.
Rawles includes an epilogue to bring her book scientifically and politically bang up-to-date, but what she observed six years ago remains just as relevant today. In general, the state of nature and environmental pollution has worsened in those intervening years, even if policies, at least in Europe, have ratcheted up a notch with the Green Deal, a package of policy initiatives aimed at getting the bloc to climate neutrality by 2050.
Rawles visits environmental projects in the countries she passes through – Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina – and meets with politicians and conservationists devoting their lives to protecting species and ecosystems, or fighting to stop projects that will negatively impact nature, people, or both; sometimes putting their lives in danger in the process.
One of my favourite moments is Rawles’ visit to a school in Santa Marta, Colombia, whose entire curriculum is based on turtles and the plastic that threatens their very existence: turtle-based creative writing, turtle maths and turtle biology at the local aquarium. “The ripples included pester power; the children would go home and nag their parents into not dropping litter; into using less plastic,” writes Rawles.
Rawles’ travels are as much an intellectual journey as they are a physical voyage. Her discussions en route and her reading are all part of her attempt to try to better understand what we – the public, policymakers, businesses – can do differently to stop destroying nature and harming the climate and communities.
Among the books that inform her thinking are UK economist Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, about making the economy work for people and the planet; and Joe Kane’s Savages, about his time helping the Huaorani people in the Ecuadorian rainforest make their views heard as oil industries competed to drill on their land in the early 1990s.
The UK and the European Union have signed countless agreements aimed at avoiding exploitation and pollution, even outside their borders, with the most powerful example being the EU’s recent anti-deforestation law which should stop the imports of certain products linked to the chopping down of forests. But Rawles suggests there is still a long way to go.
Biodiversity loss and other pressing environmental issues can only be properly tackled through a radical change of system, not just policies that green the status quo, she insists.
Rawles says that landowners must stop perpetuating what the academic and activist Malcom Ferdinand calls “a colonial habitat … the mentality of appropriation and hierarchy” based on extracting whatever we (generally in the west) want, with little regard to environmental or societal impacts.
Policies in the EU and in other jurisdictions must not simply replace one problem with another, Rawles suggests, singling out the example of electric vehicles and the minerals their batteries require. She argues for more attention to be focused on pushing alternatives like public transport to avoid cleaner cars being produced at the expense of biodiversity and people in less well-off nations.
“Links between commodities consumed in the UK and Europe and industries operating in South America with devastating consequences can readily be made in relation to gold, lead, oil and of course copper and lithium,” she writes.
These are serious points and this is a serious book, but Rawles is good company. She peppers even the darkest days and subjects with gentle humour and a dose of realistic optimism, perhaps helped by the restoring whiskies, beers and pisco sours she enjoys after a hard day in the saddle.
On her physical and intellectual journeys, Rawles says she found “three clues” that she came to see as guiding lights for individual and global change. First, the idea of buen vivir, understood as “living well as a human on Earth … less focused on financial wealth and material possessions and more on positive and peaceful relations between people and each other, and people and the rest of nature”.
Secondly, the theories advocated in doughnut economics. And thirdly, the environmental ethics of US ecologist Aldo Leopold, which encourage people to think of themselves as “fellow citizens of an ecological community on much the same terms as any other being, rather than as the managers of nature understood solely as a sort of warehouse of resources”.
With such ideas in mind, it is a failure of imagination to believe there is no alternative to business-as-usual, Rawles concludes. She sees many reasons for hope but, she underlines, “this is undoubtedly, a fight” and one that must be fought quickly and efficiently if nature is to be brought back from the brink of collapse.
We can all contribute to this fight by “having less, appreciating more, celebrating often,” she advises.