Eco Delusions [27]

Let’s Not Fool Ourselves – Or Why Sea Kayaking is Not an ‘Environmentally Friendly’ Activity

By Nick Gill

The is a common perception amongst practitioners of outdoor activities such as sea kayaking and bushwalking that in practising these pursuits, they are taking part in ‘environmentally friendly’ activities. From my observations this arises from a number of sources.

Firstly, in a comparative sense, the physical impact of outdoor activities is seen to be less. For example, a sea kayaker glides by silently under human propulsion, while a motor boat roars past, consuming fuel and emitting a good deal of noise and disturbing wildlife.

Similarly, we might compare a bushwalkers’ campsite with a resort. Secondly, sea kayakers and their ilk are seen to get in touch with nature through their activities. The proximity of pristine and essential nature and the paddler’s appreciation of it seem to bestow a level of moral superiority over those who are unable to gain the same level of proximity to essential nature. By experiencing nature in its unadulterated form outdoor types lay claim to being able to speak with authority and priority about environmental issues. In some ways such claims are similar to the moral righteousness and unassailable correctness claimed by the environmental movement.

Thirdly, some may be seduced by the support for environmental organisations offered by some equipment manufacturers and retailers if you buy this or that product. In short, the strong link that is made between wild nature (as contained in and represented by, wilderness, national parks, rugged headlands and unspoilt beaches) and outdoor activities acts to bestow upon these activities and their practitioners the status of being environmentally friendly and enlightened.

This link may be strengthened and further legitimated by developing codes of behaviour with respect to wildlife and camping practices. From the association of outdoor activities and nature follows the development of the concept and practice of eco-tourism, a concept that is almost as misused as ecologically sustainable development in disguising our continued wholesale transformation of nature into goods and services. The association of outdoor activities and the environment is one that arises from a specific, and dominant, idea of nature as wild and separate from human activity, rather than a conception of nature, and transformations of nature, that resides in daily human activities. To my mind this association is one that obscures the true impact of sea kayaking (and other outdoor activities) upon the environment.

One way to lift the fog over the impact of sea kayaking is to consider the parameters we are setting when we say that sea kayaking is environmentally friendly. When we say this we are in fact setting parameters for the impact of sea kayaking in both time and space. In the process we impose a restrictive definition of ‘the environment’. The notion of ‘environment’ that we impose is one that is consistent with the idea of a nature as wild and separate from human affairs.

In my view the idea that sea kayaking is environmentally friendly can only be based upon an assumption that its impacts are limited to the time in which one is paddling, and the space(s) through which one paddles or camps in. Sea kayaking can be thought of environmentally friendly in this scenario in the sense that a group of sea kayakers are going to have less impact than a group of motor boats, or a coastal holiday development that requires roads etc.

This is not to say that sea kayakers don’t have a physical impact, and our growing numbers mean that we should not assume that we will necessarily be a welcome addition to the list of user groups in national parks. Furthermore, the critique of the ‘environmentally friendly’ nature of sea kayaking might be extended to include the view that it simply an example of nature consumption by a leisured urban population. In this view nature remains a commodity for our consumption, without any fundamental change in the relationship between nature and society.

However, I would prefer to extend the discussion of temporal and spatial parameters by referring to a ‘cradle to grave’ analysis of sea kayaking.

If the time and space parameters of the impact of sea kayaking are expanded to beyond the actual paddling experience, the ‘environmentally friendly’ nature of the activity becomes less obvious. For sea kayaking to occur in the manner that most of us practise it considerable levels of material and energy consumption must occur.

The kayaks must be manufactured, the materials from which they are made obtained. These activities have an impact somewhere and possibly on someone less fortunate than ourselves and less able to distance themselves from industrial locations.

To paddle we drive great distances, the distribution of kayaking gear, kayaks and clothing depends upon roads and energy thirsty transport systems. To be sure we might argue that we support reorganisation of the transport system, but what are you doing to make this happen?

Not only do we buy kayaks, but we also buy a lot of gear. When we buy gear we enter into the world of mass consumerism that so many have argued is the cause of many environmental (and social) ills.

It does not matter that we have purchased an item to undertake an activity that is relatively low impact in certain spaces (eg campsites compared to resorts), a purchase is a purchase and implies the transformation of nature into the product somewhere. Participation in outdoor pursuits and the accompanying consumption is no different from consumption for any activity.

All of the above activities involve the extraction, transformation and consumption of nature (you may prefer the term ‘resources’) from somewhere. All of the above activities involve nature in our daily lives. In the act of consuming we bring nature into our lives. Nature is no longer somewhere else, a remote, wild place to which we can escape. Nature wild and transformed is all around us. That we choose to accept wild nature as THE nature is a cultural tradition in the west that has no particular basis in an essential reality. The association of outdoor products or activities with nature is no more than a product of a limited conception of nature. In our consumer oriented society, the economy of which is structured around continued and growing consumption, such associations are more than just symbolic. They are far from benign, constituting part of a process by which consumption is maintained in the face of the challenge of environmentalism.

I write the above, not to bag sea kayaking, or the spending habits of individuals (I am not in a position to be sanctimonious), but to try and sharpen our thinking about the relationship of kayaking to the environment. The inspiration for these thoughts came from a discussion at the Jervis Bay skills weekend in April. It is evident that the NSW parks service is getting concerned about the activities of sea kayakers on the south coast and we were discussing this issue. Sentiments as to the ‘eco-friendliness’ of sea kayaking were expressed, and these got me thinking. It seemed to be assumed that sea kayaking was an inherently good thing as far as the environment and national parks went and to some extent these assumptions are valid. The thoughts above are my initial way of thinking about these sentiments. As for the more the more practical aspects of how we should deal with the national parks and wildlife service and their concerns, we should begin by recognising a few issues.

Firstly, we should recognise that we are but one user group whose demands upon a limited resource must be managed. The presence of sea kayakers will influence the experience of other park users and will have impacts upon campsites. We cannot assume that we will be welcomed by park managers, although there are some simple things we can do to help this happen (eg at Nadgee Beach last December we cleaned up rubbish left behind by others and had the opportunity to tell the park ranger).

Secondly, we should note that park managers are usually bound by management plans and policy, and that the way to change these is not to get mad with the individual park managers but is to understand the processes of park management and policy development.

Thirdly, we should make the effort to inform ourselves about fees and so on in parks, and pay them. Fees for Nadgee Nature Reserve for example, are minimal, especially when shared amongst a group, and you will be appreciated by the rangers if you pay them. A significant public relations win for you and for sea kayaking at little cost.

Fourthly, we should make some effort to educate the parks and wildlife service about the particular needs of sea kayakers and how they differ from, for example, bushwalkers. An example of this might be the need for flexibility in our paddling schedules and use of campsites depending upon weather/surf conditions.

Fifthly, in many areas park user groups actively assist in management tasks, such as track maintenance, research and rubbish removal. The club may want to consider such as association with the parks and wildlife service.

Finally, I think we should avoid at all costs the argument that the parks are ‘ours’ and that we should not be unnecessarily constrained in our use of them. South coast four wheel drive clubs could mount the same argument in favour of reopening the old tracks in Nadgee Nature Reserve and other parks. National parks are not ‘ours’, they are collectively owned by society to fulfil a variety of purposes. If every user group took the attitude that parks are ‘theirs’, it would be a recipe for park management disaster. National parks play a wide range of roles from social and symbolic roles to economic and conservation roles. Recreational use is but one of a number of roles for parks. If we want to be able to count ourselves as friends of parks we need to recognise this and act reasonably. To do otherwise is to position ourselves dangerously close to the emerging recreationalists’ rights groups (predominantly four wheel drivers, motorcyclists, anglers, horseriders etc), who use the rhetoric of ‘our public lands and parks’ and ‘tradition’ to keep the use and management of public lands, including parks, firmly mired in the past.


Nick Gill is a former campaigner with the Wilderness Society, has worked on park management issues, is currently a postgraduate student in geography and a reluctant non-kayaker, has a good (and growing) collection of gear for various outdoor activities, and makes no claims for consistency, but enjoys indulging in ideas and multiple identities.

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