Should outdoor and mountaineering writers talk about politics?

First things first. This is not a political post, and you’ll see why later. It is, however, a post about shared, international values by someone who has travelled a lot in different countries.

Last month I received the following email from a reader (or ex-reader) that gave me food for thought.

1) I have enjoyed your writing immensely

2) if you opine on politics, you risk alienating ~50% of your audience

3) if you feel that John Lewis’ comments about Trump were fair (about his election being illegitimate), then I think your logic and reasoning are flawed. Also, it is a tremendous disservice to the voting public.

4) I have to conclude you consider yourself an elitist above the voting public.

5) So I have no respect for you, and will never read your material again. The lack of oxygen at high elevations has seriously affected your brain.

6) Goodbye.

He didn’t sign it (I assume it was from a man), but he was writing in response to a single tweet that I’d tweeted the previous evening that referenced a BBC news article. It’s not easy to convey all the nuances in 140 characters, and I’d clearly failed on that score. In addition to posting the link I made what I thought was a fairly innocuous, largely apolitical statement about diplomacy that was completely misinterpreted. It was a rare foray into politics, and I was taken aback to receive such an email about something that by the morning I’d forgotten I’d posted.

He was entitled to his opinion, and I admire his succinctness and style, but he was wrong on several counts. He had read far too much into my short sentence, and put words into my mouth that I would never have spoken myself (his point no.3 wasn’t the point I was making, and neither is it what I believe). As for alienating my audience, it’s worth reminding my American readers that I’m from the other side of the pond, and I write for people of many nationalities. The majority of my readers didn’t vote for either of the main presidential candidates, for the simple reason that they weren’t entitled to vote in the US election.

But addressing these two inaccuracies is not the purpose of this blog post. What was notable about this email, was that one of my readers, who had enjoyed my writing until then, had taken such offence at 12 words about the candidate he’d voted for, out of the many hundreds of thousands that I’ve written, that he vowed never to read another one (I don’t know whether he’s reading this, but if he is then welcome back!)

He certainly isn’t the first person to avoid my writing because I annoy them. I never set out to deliberately offend anyone, but I realise that sometimes I will say things that may upset some of my readers; it’s a price I’m prepared to pay, and this blog would be fairly bland if I wasn’t. I will even take active steps to discourage some people from reading me. For example, I write about mountains and mountaineering, and you might think I’d bend over backwards to encourage alpinists to read this blog, but in fact I’ve written an About page to deliberately put them off.

But in one important respect I agree with him. If you write about a subject that appeals to people of all political beliefs, then you should avoid talking about politics. As the above email demonstrates, party politics is a topic that people feel so strongly about that they can lose a sense of proportion. If you don’t need to, then avoid it. And hopefully I’ve done this fairly effectively. The fact that I’ve managed to write an opinion blog for many years without him suspecting my politics is evidence of this.

Sometimes, however, politics touches on the things you care about deeply enough to write about. What do you do in these instances – do you say nothing, avoid the subject, and write about less controversial things instead?

Danger: Deep Water. Sometimes it's best not to go there.
Danger: Deep Water. Sometimes it’s best not to go there.

The answer to this is quite simple if you step outside the divisive arena of party politics. Unfortunately modern democracy seems to have imposed labels on all of us: left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. You or me. Us or them. You must be one or the other, never a combination. This is extremely divisive, and life is much more complex than this. In the UK it has led to both of the two main political parties, Conservative and Labour, embracing the extreme wings, leaving a massive void in the middle waiting to be filled on behalf of the more moderate majority.

The simple answer, then, is instead of talking about politics, talk about issues.

I’m going to give a few examples, and I’m going to try and do so without mentioning the T word. If you’re reading this, then it’s likely you have a love of mountains and the outdoors – some of you perhaps from your armchair, but many of you because you live and breathe them whenever you can. It’s likely these are issues that you care about and affect you, however you vote. I don’t wish to offend anyone, but it’s probably inevitable that I will upset some of you. These are things that I care deeply enough to write about. You don’t have to read them, you certainly don’t have to agree with them, but it’s my choice to write them. So I will do so without apology.

Over Christmas and New Year, I encountered stark evidence of climate change when I climbed Kilimanjaro, and saw a glacier that had halved in size since I was last there. I have been to many places, all over the world, where glaciers are shrinking.

This affects me, because I enjoy glacier travel, and mountains are not as beautiful when they do not have snow on them. It also affects the communities that live beneath them, because glaciers lock away water high on mountainsides instead of draining it into the earth. When the sun melts the glaciers, the water is released as streams and rivers. The water can be harnessed for crops that feed communities. When the glaciers and the water are gone, the communities lose their livelihoods, and have to migrate elsewhere. This isn’t politics; it’s cause and effect.

Climate change is happening. You can sit in a tower somewhere in the developed world and persuade yourself that it isn’t, but you’ll not convince those communities who have to suffer the effects.

There is ample scientific evidence to demonstrate that climate change has been accelerated by human activity. One of these activities is the burning of fossil fuels. The evidence is sufficiently convincing that energy companies have been investing in renewable energy for years. They see it as the future. Some have even been closing down their oil and gas operations. To take a backward step by reinvesting in fossil fuels – for example, by giving the go-ahead for an oil pipeline to be built underneath a national park – will have consequences, not just for those living nearby, but for poor communities living the other side of the world.

In December 2015 an impressive 194 member countries of the United Nations made a commitment to 17 sustainable development goals, one of which was action on climate change. If one of the biggest-polluting countries were to pull out of that agreement, it would have consequences, not just for themselves, but for all of the member countries – not just for ourselves, but for future generations, our children and (as Monty Python might say) our children’s children’s children’s children.

Kilimanjaro's glaciers are shrinking, and the Furtwangler Glacier in its summit crater looks like it's about to creep over the edge
Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are shrinking, and the Furtwangler Glacier in its summit crater looks like it’s about to creep over the edge

So that’s climate change, how about public access to land? Mountaineers and hikers need publicly accessible land in order to enjoy the activities we are most passionate about. When I first started this blog, way back in 2011 while I was still finding my voice, I even wrote a political post when the UK government proposed to sell a quarter of a million acres of nationally owned forest into private ownership. Many public footpaths were threatened with closure. There was a big public outcry from people of all political persuasions, and in the end the sale never went ahead. These days I would never write a blog post that was so overtly political, but I still care just as deeply about the issue.

It’s notable that in the last few weeks The Alpinist magazine has not shied away from tackling this same issue of public access to land, even though it risks losing some of its readership on political grounds. They have highlighted the issue of 3.3 million acres of publicly owned land in ten US states, that have been proposed for sale into private ownership, putting in jeopardy public access to them.

Protests against the proposal have had an immediate effect. A politician withdrew one bill the day after he proposed it, posting on Twitter that “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands”. I’m making a massive generalisation here, I know, but I’m willing to wager a freeze-dried meal that people who use public land to shoot wildlife, and those who use it merely to watch wildlife, may vote for different political parties. But access to land and the great outdoors is an issue that unites them.

Outside magazine is a publication I’ve sometimes been critical of in this blog. In recent weeks they have also not shied away from tackling political issues. In fact they have been more openly political, addressing public lands, the environment, and the price of outdoor gear (which is often manufactured overseas, and will be affected by changes in import tax).

On the face of it, migration may not seem like an issue those of us who love the outdoors should unite behind or feel strongly about. But it is. Freedom to travel is under threat in a way that it hasn’t been before.

A friend of mine who is a trekking guide, tells me that he’s had difficulties entering the US for a while now. He leads treks all over Central Asia, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, all countries with a strong Muslim majority, some of which have links with terrorism. We have joked that his trekking company should be called Axis of Evil Tours, in a nod to another US president, but perhaps we shouldn’t joke about these things any more. Far from assisting terrorism and creating an insecure world, people like him help to build bridges between cultures, forging friendships, opening minds and promoting awareness and understanding.

However, with all those visas in his passport, he cannot pass the ESTA online entry requirement for the United States, and would need to take an interview to be given entry. He comes from Wales, a country better known for rugby and sheep than for international terrorism. Last week a former Norwegian prime minister was delayed for an hour at US immigration because he had an Iranian visa in his passport. That’s a former prime minister of a European country – one of America’s closest allies. If you are thinking of climbing Damavand in Iran, the highest volcano in Asia, it looks like you may have to accept you will have difficulties getting into the US. That may not be many of you, but if Pakistan goes on the banned list too, that’s going to be a few more people affected, including myself.

This poses an interesting dilemma for a European traveller, and the answer is not as simple as you might think. It is a far more pleasurable experience to fly from Europe to South America via Madrid, than to fly via the States and pass through US immigration. I’m keen to return to Denali, so I might be prepared to go through more restrictive security procedures to return there, but the mountains of Central Asia also have a strong allure, and I might be less inclined to submit to them in order to travel to other places in the US. And again, for the benefit of my American readers, this is not me making a threat; it is merely an example of what any tourist to the US will need to consider.

There are more powerful arguments for freedom of travel than this. Access to a particular mountain range is one thing, but one of the more rewarding aspects of international travel is exposure to other cultures. It’s rewarding because it’s enjoyable and it enriches your life, but it also broadens your mind and builds friendship between religions, nationalities and cultures.

Here are two contrasting examples. I’ve always found travelling in Pakistan culturally awkward, because rules of religion are rigidly adhered to, and there is a great deal of intolerance. But conversation isn’t difficult, at least not for an Englishman. I talk about cricket, and barriers immediately fall away as we discuss a shared passion. Without the freedom to travel that enables you to build an understanding between cultures, those barriers will come back up again. Fear and ignorance replace friendship and understanding.

My guide on Toubkal was a shining example of religion practised with tolerance. Those who work in tourism in Morocco are a credit to their country and to their religion, and help to build bridges between cultures.
My guide on Toubkal was a shining example of religion practised with tolerance. Those who work in tourism in Morocco are a credit to their country and to their religion, and help to build bridges between cultures.

Contrast this with Morocco, a country that practices a more tolerant form of Islam. I will never forget my young trekking guide, who was strongly religious. Five times a day he took out his prayer mat and prayed to Mecca. At the appointed time we took a break on a dusty trail, and he disappeared behind a rock to complete his prayers in solitude. As dictated by Islam, he did not drink alcohol, but on Christmas Day in Toubkal Refuge, a Christian Festival, he produced a bottle of wine for us to have with dinner (I’m not even a Christian, but I appreciated it anyway). He had been carrying it all the way in his backpack, and he wanted to surprise us.

At this point I realise I may lose some of you, but these are my beliefs, so I’m going to express them anyway. The US recently imposed a travel ban on all people from seven Muslim countries. A travel ban that is applied indiscriminately to people from Muslim countries – including those who have already been through rigorous security procedures and were not considered a threat – has the contrary effect of discriminating against people because they are Muslim, rather than because they pose a risk. Those of us who travel regularly among other cultures and are treated with kindness there, have a duty to stand up for people of all religions.

Nobody denies that a country has a right to protect itself from terrorist attacks, but this can be done in many more subtle ways. To do it in a manner that persecutes members of one religion over others, is not only morally questionable, but causes divisions, and adds another link in the chain that ultimately leads to a less secure world for everyone.

These are all practical arguments, but for many people arguments based on fairness and compassion are more important. In the last two weeks, human rights lawyers who have risked their lives helping the US fight terrorism in Iraq, interpreters who have worked with the US Army, and a 4-year-old child from Iran who was awaiting life-saving surgery, have all been denied access to the US because of an indiscriminate ban.

In Kenya, thousands of innocent people who have fled conflict in Somalia, losing their homes and families, have waited patiently in refugee camps. They have completed the vetting and all the necessary procedures, were considered safe for entry, and were given clearance to start a new life in the US. Those dreams were torn from them, based on false assumptions, and with no consideration or compassion for what they have been through.

Work separates me from my partner for months at a time. I miss her and it’s hard, but we have options. How much harder for those separated by conflict. I feel for them. Actions like this cause ripples that will come back one day.

These are some of the reasons I will continue to write about the things I care about. If you don’t want to read it, then that’s OK. But if you are a global traveller or love the outdoors, then don’t be afraid to speak up if you also care strongly about these things. Try not to be personal, or political; just address the issues that bother you. If you want to help other cultures, then consider supporting an international development charity.

And of course, you don’t have to do anything, either, if you don’t want to. You are entitled to remain silent. Just be aware that inaction also has consequences.

As ever, you are welcome to comment on this post, but given it’s contentious nature, on this occasion I would be grateful if you could read the commenting guidelines before posting anything. Be polite. Follow my example, try to address issues rather than party politics. Remember, it’s a blog about mountains, so keep the focus on issues relevant to hiking and mountaineering, and it’s probably best not to waste time writing the comment if you think there’s a chance I might delete it.

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20 thoughts on “Should outdoor and mountaineering writers talk about politics?

  • February 8, 2017 at 5:21 pm
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    Very thoughtful post with precisely crafted sentences. Yes, even when we try our best to avoid politics like the pest, sometimes we need to speak out. Thank you for doing so. I hope your stray reader returns.

  • February 8, 2017 at 5:25 pm
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    I applaud your careful, thoughtful approach. This is a very refreshing post and one I readily encourage. Many people wish to air their views but keeping them impersonal and focused on issues is essential. Argue about the issues don’t attack the arguer is a way I favour strongly. Well done, Mark. I look forward to further posts of interest.

  • February 8, 2017 at 5:27 pm
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    I enjoyed and agreed with your article. Thanks for speaking out!

  • February 8, 2017 at 5:27 pm
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    Enjoyed this post, Mark. I’ve read many similar (but less comprehensive) blogs and comments from outdoor people across the spectrum in the past fortnight. I never thought it would be so important to stand up for sensible decency in my lifetime (I’m 32), but it turns out that ~10 years after an economic blip even the most divisive and unhelpful of politics can take hold. Important to constantly challenge it. Cheers.

  • February 8, 2017 at 5:59 pm
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    I don’t agree, I think your views are of the left wing fairy variety. But I do enjoy your articles and really enjoyed your book so I will continue to enjoy….

    🙂

    Jon T

  • February 8, 2017 at 6:01 pm
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    I think you are entitled to your opinion and as you happen to have a forum to use it to give us your opinion
    I’d probably not fully read a totally political blog but would not be offended and no longer read your mountaineering stuff as I really like it. I think the reader in question should “get over himself” and scroll on by. His loss for missing the next indepth piece on Everest!

  • February 8, 2017 at 6:05 pm
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    This is great entertainment! I think your reader must have been American and he was really offended by your poor spelling: “taken such offence at 12 words” 🙂

    Mark, I’m proud to share your sash with the Scarlet P as I too have received similar “feedback” from “former” readers.

    I once wrote a short post about the United States archaic gun controls laws based on an era of muzzle loading, single shot muskets used by a bunch of farmers. I was told to “stay with climbing as you don’t know shit about guns or American rights” 🙂 As an American, I took offence to that!

    Anyway, you are in good company. I am sure you have seen that Patagonia “is withdrawing from Outdoor Retailer in Utah in response to @GovHerbert’s decision to rescind #ProtectBearsEars protection.” This is pure politics AND good outdoor policy.

    While your Tweet may not have been intended as your reader interpreted, I see nothing wrong with any writer on any subject occasionally taking a detour to express their views on something they view important. After all, it gives readers the opportunity to understand background, context and why the writer has the views they do.

    When I turned 60, I wrote a rather lengthy blog post on my life. A long time reader/adversary wrote me to say how much he enjoyed my piece, learned lot about me he didn’t know and then began to tell how how I was living my life wrong :).

    Keep up the good work Mark.

    Alan

  • February 8, 2017 at 6:16 pm
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    thanks for this post. us american outdoor enthusiasts are so scared about the future of our country’s wild places and frustrated/dismayed that so many issues that seemed like common sense have become politicized. “bipartisan” seems like an oxymoron nowadays and we have to try harder than ever to remind people about issues that everyone cares about. please keep fighting the good fight!

  • February 8, 2017 at 6:49 pm
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    As always, well said Mark. Unfortunately for us (Americans), we are often presented with horrible choices when we step into the voting booth. But vote we did, and I believe it was more of a vote against Hillary and the extreme left than for Donald and the extreme right. Fortunately, 4-8 years is a short window, not a lot can happen, and policies can be changed or completely reversed if necessary (as we have witnessed). In short, people need to calm their asses down. Keep doing what you’re doing Mark. Speak up for these important issues when you think it’s needed. Most thinking humans won’t spew hate back at you and I, for one, will continue to read and enjoy your stuff no matter which way your politics lean! Thanks. P.S. Great comments from the other contributors.

  • February 8, 2017 at 8:33 pm
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    Not sure if he was entirely serious but Jon T’s comment ‘I don’t agree, I think your views are of the left wing fairy variety’ is a good example of one of the problems we face and to which you alluded. Rather than engaging in intelligent debate people (even Presidents) simply apply (often derogatory) labels to those they disagree with. Keep up the good work Mark!

  • February 9, 2017 at 12:44 am
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    Only if you were the sole occupant of planet Earth could you avoid politics – and then there would be no-one to write for..

    Many examples mentioned are about what could be called simple humanity. There is a big difference between political actions which push highly subjective ideologies hard, or which aggressively attempt to promote the interests of one group at the expense of others, and the kind of politics which promotes universal principles which apply equally to all.

    We’re a social animal and as such we can’t have any individual success without creating successful, thriving groups. The fabric which holds us together is based on respect, trust, and the idea that all rules should apply equally to all. I don’t think you should ever hesitate to stand up for that, or for any specific issues which you feel are important.

    There are always dark forces plotting to get their hands on the levers of power, ready and willing to do everything which we allow them to get away with. Real democracy demands our participation. If we are too apathetic and never speak up we cannot hold our leaders to account.

  • February 9, 2017 at 1:12 am
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    QUOTE: “In December 2015 an impressive 194 member countries of the United Nations made a commitment to 17 sustainable development goals, one of which was action on climate change. If one of the biggest-polluting countries were to pull out of that agreement, it would have consequences, not just for themselves, but for all of the member countries – not just for ourselves, but for future generations, our children and (as Monty Python might say) our children’s children’s children’s children.”
    ——————————

    Rapid warming & increasing CO2 will cause the extinction of large numbers of species across the globe: probably at least 1/4 and possibly as much as 1/2 in the worst imaginable scenario with unmitigated emissions and the triggering of various climate feedbacks.

    I should say that our own species is not under threat of extinction. Not this time. Even if we were knocked all the way back to our original hunter-gathering trade, we can survive in almost any environment provided there is something to eat using only whatever technology we can make with foraged materials and our own hands.

    We’re really, really good at hunter-gathering. Sustainable industrial civilisation.. not so much.

    Anyway, barring unexpected catastrophes, you might expect a large mammal like homo sapiens to survive for maybe a million or a couple of million years or so before becoming extinct.

    (Bear with me, I’ll get to the point soon, I promise).

    There’s a very important paper, Kirchner & Weil 2000, which looked at mass extinctions in the fossil record. They found that it took many millions of years for biodiversity to recover after an extinction event – perhaps even into the tens of millions. In a mature ecosystem, there are complex webs of dependency between different species and these relationships take a very long time to co-evolve.

    So it’s not just our children’s children’s children’s children who will be affected by climate change. All of our ancestors for all of the rest of human history will be forced to live in a relatively denuded world stripped of much of the rich variety of life which we know today, and there’s not a damn thing they’ll be able to do about it.

    It’s unthinkable that we could allow this to happen.

  • February 9, 2017 at 9:35 am
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    Mark, you, as everybody else have a right to have your own opinion and to express it. A blog is your tool for that – sort of “public diary”.
    I am working with people belonging to different cultures, races, religions, social status,… When I was new in this line of the work, I received advice: “Never talk about Politic, Religion, and Football!”
    My personal take: I visited prominent tech site/blog other day and the whole front page was dedicated to politics! I just walked away.

  • February 9, 2017 at 12:04 pm
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    Thanks everyone for the overwhelmingly positive response. As one of you said, there are some great comments here.

    Most of all thanks for keeping it civilised. I was expecting some toxic responses based on other posts I’ve seen, and was ready with the delete key, but I’m happy to say that so far I’ve not had to delete a single comment (even the chap who called me a left wing fairy, which I took in the spirit of humour with which I believe it was intended).

  • February 9, 2017 at 7:09 pm
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    I find your opinions well worth reading Mark. You express them succinctly in a straightforward manner backed up with evidence and I agree with them.

  • February 14, 2017 at 8:28 pm
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    Years ago I was mountain climbing in the Himalayas with an Indian friend who was also training to become a priest in the hindu mandir where we lived. On the third or fourth day (I might say after some considerable “type-2” fun) we descended into a valley where a herder was settling his cattle. He was welcoming, interested in what my friend and myself had been doing, moustachioed, gregarious and happened to be muslim by religion. The hospitality could not have been more welcome, and my hindu and muslim friends instantly struck up a rapport. He’d even been up the mountain a bit. All this despite that the region (border of Kashmir) sees much animosity. A personal add-on to the great thoughts you’ve expressed. A shame you lost a reader, and your thoughtful response is a credit to you.

    In my country (and yours?), the UK, access to the hills for ordinary people would not have even been possible without concerted political action (look up the mass trespasses), so I do not think politics should be off the agenda at all.

    p.s. nice photos,
    Andy

  • February 27, 2017 at 8:35 am
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    I read a saying many years ago that has stuck with me: “You may not be interested in politics, but politics will always be interested in you.” Better to be heard before it’s too late.

  • March 6, 2017 at 10:45 am
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    It’s your Blog, write what you like, simple……..some will love it some might hate, they can move on!!

    I personally enjoy your writing, hate politics but you make some really valid points in this post.

    Keep up the good work!!

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