Innes Fitzgerald is a promising runner there is no reason you should have heard of.
The British 16-year-old set a national record in a recent under-17 3,000-metre race. She finished fourth at a championship in Turin, Italy against racers three years older. In the small world of running, she’s a very minor phenomenon.
What Fitzgerald is more famous for is her unusual stand on the environment. Unusual in the sense that unlike everyone else in sport who’s always banging on about their stand, she has actually taken one.
The next world cross-country championships are in Australia. Fitzgerald has qualified, but she’s not going. She wrote a letter to British Athletics explaining why.
“I would never be comfortable flying in the knowledge that people could be losing their livelihoods, homes and loved ones as a result,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The least I can do is voice my solidarity with those on the front line of the climate breakdown.”
Fitzgerald has been walking her environmental talk for a while now. To get to that race in Turin from her home in Devon, she took a bus, then a train, then a bicycle. She says she will never fly. Her family lives on a carbon-neutral farm on a smallholding and grows their own food.
Is this a reasonable way to live? Not by my lights. If I had to farm, it’s not that I would starve. It’s that I would would be forced to kill my neighbours to get their food. That sounds awful.
As for flying, I like going places and I don’t like boats. So you see the impossible bind that I’m in.
I’ve made peace with the idea that the only way out of the climate crisis is an as-yet-undiscovered geo-engineering solution, a great war of all against all for whatever non-salt-lick piece of the planet remains, or some combo of the two. I’m leaning toward Option 3.
Like most of the rest of us, I am the problem. But at least I’m not out there pretending to care while I continue my habitat-annihilating lifestyle.
Sports loves pretending almost as much as it loves a popular cause, which makes environmentalism a snug fit. So snug that it’s begun choking off the oxygen to sports’ brain.
At the recent World Cup in Qatar, a great deal was made about carbon neutrality. If you’d time-warped in from the sixties, you’d have thought “carbon neutral” was a new way of saying “free prizes for everybody.” That’s the sort of enthusiasm with which the term was flung around.
On our first day at the Canadian team camp, we were asked to take only one plastic bottle of water from the freebie fridge.
“We’re trying to be carbon neutral,” we were told.
This was a room full of people about to head out to a green field in the middle of a desert, in the middle of a Petrostate, after having flown there from all over the world to watch other people who’d all flown there as well kick a ball around for a couple of weeks. But, you know, in an environmentally responsible way.
Every league in the world has a green PR arm. Under the banner NHL Green, pro hockey advertises its efforts like so: “We’re using innovative technologies to transform our business, and inspiring our communities and partners to lower emissions, conserve water, reduce waste and more.”
Are you inspiring the teams to hitchhike to the next road arena or are you still flying everyone there on a private jet? Are the games being lit by a hundred-thousand bio-degradable candles or are you still flood-lighting the rink? Is everyone drinking their $15 beer out of a communal trough or are you still putting everything in cups that will need to be chucked out in plastic bags?
Elsewhere, we are invited to ooh and aah at the fact that Adidas has begun to make “sustainable” hockey jerseys. Twenty-thousand people at every game may produce enough garbage to bury a city block, but – Hallelujah! – no longer will a scourge of sweaters blight our ecosystems.
If shamelessness were a power source, we might be getting somewhere. But it isn’t. It’s just another useless commodity our society has always produced in abundance.
A lot of things are not conducive to environmental good health. We probably ought not be smelting iron on an industrial scale anymore. But if people would prefer to live in apartment buildings rather than straw huts, that’s a compromise we’re going to have keep making. If you were running down the nice things we could live without if we were actually, seriously, actionably worried about the imminent tipping-over of our environment, international professional sports would be top of the list. But it’s not. Which tells me no one cares yet. Not really. Not enough to deny themselves any of the things they like.
Plastic bags at the grocery store are easy to give up. Trips to Disney World and watching the Leafs play at Madison Square Garden less so.
We know that. Sports knows that. Everyone knows it. So we all pretend together. Let’s put bio-degradable fuel in Formula One cars (that have to be flown all over the world). Let’s remove all plastic from the next Olympics (that consumes as much energy as a developing nation). Let’s get together and chant the holy words – sustainable, crisis, science – for a few hours each weekend, then do whatever the hell we like once we’ve left climate church.
That plan is working so far. Twenty years or so of environmental PR gibberish and not one major-league city has been lost to rising sea tides. Until proven otherwise, this say-one-thing-do-another plan sounds like it’s 100-per-cent effective.
But then an Innes Fitzgerald comes along to highlight the dazzling hypocrisy of it all. She won’t change anything. People like sports too much for that to happen. Plus, there’s the risk of mission creep. What if we succeed in getting rid of the L.A. Lakers’ private jet? Does that mean your cheap Sunwing flight to Cancun is next? Best not to take a chance.
Under those circumstances, it’s easy to ignore Fitzgerald.
But as long as she’s out there saying these things, the truth becomes dimly visible. That there is no movement and that nothing is meant to change.
The only thing that needs to be sustained is our impeccable belief that since something has been one way as long as we can remember, that must be proof that it will stay that way forever.