Manifesting Change | The Lauren MacCallum Interview
The UK Manager for Protect Our Winters talks activism, authenticity, and pushing past adversity
Above: Lauren MacCallum (PC: Hannah Bailey)
The Luminaries Series is about shining a light on some of the most inspirational people in our industry, documenting their rise in their given professions, and sharing some of their insights from along the way.
LLauren MacCallum is many things: an activist, a snowboarder, a presenter, an author, a mentor, and a public speaker, to name a few. Or, as my colleague more effectively put it in an interview with her last year: “She’s like Greta Thunberg on craic”.
She’s also the General Manager of Protect Our Winters UK, one of the national chapters of the climate charity founded by freeride snowboarder Jeremy Jones in 2007. By uniting outdoor adventure enthusiasts under a common cause, POW is educating, inspiring and mobilising these communities to address the climate crisis and accelerate the transition to a carbon-neutral society.
But Lauren’s path to where she is now wasn’t plain sailing. In her own words, there was a time when she was “massively politically ignorant” on local, national and global issues. Once on the road to advocating for progressive environmental policies, she remembers being “laughed out the room” when speaking out publicly or being “trolled on social media” for challenging the policies, industries and systems that continue to have catastrophic implications for the future of the planet.
“Protect Our Winters is harnessing the energy of people power to act as a catalyst for global change”
Even so, Lauren’s optimism, resilience and pro-active approach to tackling the problems faced by climate change should inspire anyone looking to make meaningful change and act. Globally, the outdoor industry is worth $800 billion. It is a serious force to be reckoned with. Protect Our Winters is harnessing the energy of people power to act as a catalyst for global change.
We caught up with Lauren to find out about her path to becoming a leading voice on climate change in the UK, the changes we can (and should) all start to make, and how to keep fighting the good fight, even in the face of adversity, setbacks, and the dreaded internet trolls…
Tell us about your job Lauren, what’s a typical day in the life of POW UK’s Manager?
Well, we’re a super small team, but we’re growing, so I have to wear lots of hats. I’m responsible for the strategy and operations of Protect Our Winters UK and that entails managing staff, working with our Board of Trustees on our strategy and operations plan, and fundraising.
I’m constantly reviewing our political stance on current affairs, how we’re campaigning, and what sort of situations are arising that we can shine a light on and add our voice to. Just being in the mix in that space and being one of the representatives of the outdoor community And, finally, working with our amazing volunteers, making sure that they’re happy, we’re getting the best out of them and continuing to onboard new volunteers.
So yeah, it’s a pretty all-encompassing role!
How did you get here?
I guess it was a gradual process, right? Nothing really happens by accident; I think you know that. Without getting all hippy about it, I firmly believe that if you put that energy out there – those opportunities, situations, whatever – they find you in a roundabout way.
But, more specifically, how did all of this come about to where I am with POW UK now? Well, most people who live in the UK are aware of the Scottish Referendum which happened in 2014 and asked a really important question to the Scottish public: Do you want Scotland to be an independent country?
At that time, I was massively politically ignorant. I could kind of tell you the difference between the Conservatives and Labour, and who the party leaders were, but that was about it. I probably couldn’t tell you any party’s policies.
And then I suddenly had this really important decision thrust upon me. And I guess one of the cool things about whether you agreed with the referendum or not – yes, no, don’t know, don’t care – is that it sparked really important discussions across the country.
“Issues surrounding land reform really captured my imagination and where my interest in activism was born”
Everywhere you went – the school gates, the pub, the T-bar up Cairngorms – everyone was talking about politics: what kind of country they wanted to live in, how we’d get there, and what tools we needed to execute either a Yes or No vision. I was kind of was grabbed by it and welcomed into the conversation by a couple key people within my community.
And through that I then got really into land reform – the distribution of land, who owns Scotland, what do we want to do with it, and how to benefit all of us. I guess that’s where I got started. Issues surrounding land reform really captured my imagination and where my interest in activism was born.
Then, I met Alex Yoder and Marie France Roy and the WRKSHP guys in the pub in Aviemore and we made the Patagonia movie Right to Roam.
We raised money for POW UK and when we did the premiers and I met Sandy Trust [Chair and Trustee for POW UK], and just got chatting and volunteered for a bit. Then POW got its first chunk of money and they asked me if I wanted to come on board as General Manager for two days a week. I had an interview with the trustees, I got the job, and I started the new role.
That was two years ago. Quite the whirlwind since then!
I remember just how much politics was at the centre of every discussion during the Scottish Referendum, in the same way that Covid has done over this past year. That notion that politics is something we can choose to ignore, it’s a dangerous way to think.
It’s true, if we don’t look after politics, politics will look after us. That mindset of “leave politics out of it” or “I don’t really do politics” can sometimes be wrapped up in privilege, and I think it spelt out the privileged position that I was in, not to be worrying about these things.
But I also find it inspiring. My friends around me have become experts in the things that have captured their imagination. So, whether that’s with finance, Ban The Bomb, or land reform, people can get really into their own niche areas of expertise. All of us can do it together, everyone can take off their own chunk that inspires them, learn about it, and report back. The environmental movement is much the same, really.
“If we don’t look after politics, politics will look after us”
We’d both consider Aviemore to be our home. It’s an amazing wild place and part of the UK’s largest National Park. Has living in such a wild, natural part of the world helped you connect more meaningfully with issues surrounding environmentalism.
For sure. I can see these changes firsthand, because I’m tuned in to my own natural landscape, and I can see the changes that are being held: Massive temperature fluctuations, really erratic weather patterns.
The Cairngorms has always been wild, it’s always been unpredictable, it’s always had that landscape and weather pattern. But I think that’s what makes it such an interesting place to study and observe because if you then add an extreme on top of an extreme you get this real amplified warning. And we’ve seen that already this season, we had 48-hour windows where the time fluctuated from -22°C to +7°C.
“The Cairngorms is a unique place and I think it breeds unique and resilient people, because it is powerful. I think it needs respected as being that”
That’s like a two-season shift in temps in two days.
Right? And obviously that also increases winter flooding and degrades the soil, there are loads of impacts from that.
But the other thing I think is interesting, is that Aviemore and the Cairngorms sort of produces and creates this really unique mindset. The Cairngorms is a unique place and I think it breeds unique and resilient people, because it is powerful. I think it needs respected as being that. And when you’re in these places respecting the power of the mountains. It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I started appreciating that.
Totally. Whenever I head north and first catch glimpse of the mountains, I always have such a strong sense of coming home which also comes with a feeling – or an obligation – to protect it. So, what does that mean for those who live in urban environments, or those with limited access to nature?
I think there’s a couple of things but to simplify it: I’m in tune with my home landscape, I’m rooted here. But people can also be connected to their natural landscape in urban areas and be in tune with the changes they’re seeing. Is it a heatwave, is it air pollution, what’s happening? Being more aware of the changes and talking about those changes with their friends, family, MP, or representative is important.
But, for me, it really comes down to access. I think what we’ve seen, especially since Covid, is that people who’ve never really accessed wilderness before are now coming to these more rural areas.
The education piece is really important, because you don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t embody what you’ve never experienced. So, starting from a young age, outdoor education is an absolute necessity, not a luxury. I think children from urban areas especially, should have the right to a decent and well-structured outdoor education. Because, like I say, you can’t embody what you’ve never experienced, and that first experience needs to be facilitated with an education.
But outside of that, I’m always going to come back to land reform and being able to access the outdoors. I was reading earlier that in England there’s no right of access to 92% of the country. The majority of accessible land is not in the urban areas, it’s in the Northwest and, obviously, a long way from where many live.
“You don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t embody what you’ve never experienced. So, starting from a young age, outdoor education is an absolute necessity, not a luxury”
But when people from the cities then visit, there’s an incredible statistic around the BAME community. In London, the BAME community’s four times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. In Suffolk, they’re seventeen times more likely. And in Dorset, they’re twenty-five times more likely to be stopped.
So, if you’re twenty-five times more likely to be stopped as a person of colour in Dorset and be harassed as a person of colour for accessing the outdoors, it’s no wonder that you wouldn’t want to visit these areas. So, breaking down these barriers, being aware that it’s not right, and creating system change is vital.
People from urban areas need to be able to experience the outdoors, but that can only be done if they have the right to access. And if 92% of the country is shut off to urban populations, well, there’s your problem. You can’t access it, you can’t embody it, you can’t experience it and therefore want to protect it.
That’s why diversity is so important and speaking about these issues are so important. But having leaders in that space as well so, when those kids get their world-class outdoor education, it’s facilitated by people who look like them, that speak their language, share their culture and are leaders in that space.
How can we make climate activism more inclusive? And why must me do that?
It’s vital that we make environmentalism more inclusive because the BAME community and indigenous communities are the most affected but have the least to do with it.
It goes back to colonialism. It goes back to how we have historically viewed the planet. It’s mother nature – it’s a feminine thing, seen as something that’s easy to crush. It’s talked about as something erratic, emotional, something to put in a box, to manage, to extract from. It’s interesting, if we framed the planet in more of a male way, would we still have this approach to it?
“It’s essential that the environmental movement is diverse because diversity gives us strength”
It’s essential that the environmental movement is diverse because diversity gives us strength. If we just sent all-male negotiating teams to COP, for example, it’s a narrow, invested interested. We need to have female representation, indigenous representation, BAME representation because that’s what makes up our population. Those teams are there to negotiate on our behalf, so how can you negotiate on our behalf if nobody looks like or represents who we are?
The world seems to feel increasingly polarized, where it’s almost impossible to reach any middle ground or consensus between the left and right. Is progressive, ambitious climate policy only in the hands of the left-wing right now?
It would do a massive disservice to the climate movement if we said that only liberal, left-leaning people could join in. That would be as exclusionary as the people that we’re calling out. It is the responsibility of everyone to care about their home, their communities and the planet that they live on and leave it in a better state than what they found it in.
I’ve never understood this, personally, because even you are the biggest champion of de-regulated free-market capitalism, you still need a healthy planet for that to happen. And coronavirus has just given us a very small taste of what’s to happen. It’s halted global economies; it’s stopped everything in its tracks. And this is just a tiny taste of what’s to come if we don’t manage this planet effectively.
“It’s the responsibility of everyone to care and it’s the job of both sides to keep everyone honest and to challenge each other”
It’s the responsibility of everyone to champion this. Jeremy [Jones] has done this in his Purple States – if you’re a more right-wing Republican who supports gun laws and is a hunter you might be seen as someone who’s not on the climate change bandwagon, but they still care for their environment.
It’s the same here in the UK, it’s the responsibility of everyone to care and it’s the job of both sides to keep everyone honest and to challenge each other. I don’t think this is an issue of whether or not climate change exists, it’s about how we should tackle it.
With Protect Winters you’re tapping into something that people might see as being more outside the political sphere. You’re tapping into passions, be it snowboarding skiing, surfing, climbing, and so on. And there’s a big variety of people with different views, backgrounds and beliefs who participate in them. Is that a big part of POW’s success?
So, as a charity, we’re bound by charitable law to be apolitical. So we support policies that any party could adopt. They could pick them up off the shelf and run with them. Whether they’re a right-wing party or a left-wing party, these are policies that can be put in place that will better our planet.
And again, diversity gives us strength. By having queer voices, black voices, young voices, old voices, it’s giving us multiple lenses to apply to a single problem – we’re coming at this from various different ways.
That is a good thing. That is a really, really good thing. It opens up people’s blind spots. If this was just some sort of big, left-wing vision then we would have massive blind spots of things that we don’t see, or don’t want to see.
That’s what’s awesome about our movement – we host all these voices. Yeah, we’re not going to agree all the time but, hopefully, we can do that in a way that’s reasonable and respectful.
“By having queer voices, black voices, young voices, old voices, it’s giving us multiple lenses to apply to a single problem – we’re coming at this from various different ways”
You’ve become a prominent figure within the UKs environmentalism movement. How have you made your voice heard?
I turned up to village hall debates and stuck my hand up and called out politicians. I’ve trolled oil companies on social media [laughs], I’ve written to my MP, I’ve taken calls with my MP [Member of Parliament] and MSP [Member of Scottish Parliament] to talk about my concerns. I’ve campaigned and made movies about it, and I’ve tried to tell compelling stories so that hopefully it strikes a chord with other people, so they want to care about those things, too.
I guess that’s all I’ve ever tried to do. I’ve never told anyone what they need to care about, or how to care about it and, hopefully, that might speak to someone in a way and inspire them to want to make change.
Has it been difficult? Have you faced hard setbacks?
[Laughs] Listen, I’ve been laughed out of the room – in rooms full of hundreds of people – for the changes I said I wanted to see and was crying in my car afterwards, I’ve been trolled on most social media channels, I’ve had some pretty spicy emails, I’ve had people tell me I’m an idiot, that I’m fucking annoying, I’ve kind of had it all. I’ve also been told that because someone found me attractive that I shouldn’t have an opinion on these things, and I should just not rock the boat too much.
So, do you know what? It’s not acceptable — I’m not saying any of it is — but creating change is hard. What we’re trying to do is challenge the way that people see the world. Everything is going to have to change – the way that we bank, the way we make our food, our transport systems, our public health systems, everything is going to have to change for us to live in this carbon-neutral or net-zero world.
“Creating change is hard. What we’re trying to do is challenge the way that people see the world”
I guess the job of activists is to hold up a mirror so that we can reflect what we see, and change what we don’t like. Sometimes people don’t like it. They don’t want to know. It’s an inconvenient truth. It’s too much to handle. And I don’t blame those people, because this is tough, it’s going to be tough.
We’re going to have to consciously uncouple ourselves from a broken system. And like any breakup, it’s painful. Anyone who’s gone through it knows just how shit it is. Your lifestyle changes, your bank account changes, you no longer have the car. It’s a painful process.
So, I think when someone like myself says this has to change, people can’t grasp that it’s over, in a sense. They might kind of lash out, it’s too painful to deal with. And that’s where POW comes in because if we can engage people through what they love, be it skiing, snowboarding, climbing, then it’s easier to talk about that breakup than to just go “Bam! Everything’s changing. You’re dumped, bye!”
So there’s my hot take. [Laughs]
That’s brilliant, such a good analogy. But I suppose, like breakups, it’s about being honest and looking at your own faults too. It’s okay to contradict yourself occasionally, you don’t have to be a perfect individual. But it often seems like progress gets shut down through ‘what about-ism’, or the idea that if a solution isn’t perfect then it often gets dismissed.
We’ve been taught and brainwashed into thinking we have to sort out this problem as individuals, and that framing these problems as belonging to individuals is the only way that we’ll get through this. And that is absolute bullshit.
Because what that does is take the heat of the fossil fuel, plastic, coal and other big, powerful industries. It frames issues that are a result of their behaviour as an individual problem. That manifests itself as recycling: “There’s a plastic crisis because you don’t recycle.” Well, actually, no – there’s a plastic crisis because we need to stop producing plastic!
“We must make those individual changes, but we then must organise ourselves and advocate for those bigger policy changes”
And we need to get away from this ‘what about-ism’. If someone says, “You flew to Geneva, you can’t do that.” Well, you can. You might have switched your money to an ethical bank – something that’s probably going to do more for the planet than you not flying or driving to the Alps.
You might have moved your pension. There’s something like £14 billion in Scotland, that is wrapped up in high risk, fossil fuel projects. The ones that are drilling in the arctic which is complete hypocrisy. Your pension is supposed to be about saving for the future, but there is going to be no future if you’re investing in these high-risk fossil fuel projects.
I’m not saying personal responsibility isn’t important, but it has to be a mixture of both. We must make those individual changes, but we then must organise ourselves and advocate for those bigger policy changes.
Calling people out on Twitter or Instagram, saying “what about this, what about that?” often takes the heat off the real issues. It’s doing the work of the fossil fuel lobby for them. There are other areas that we need to focus on and focus on very quickly. And our time is better spent focusing on them than arguing on social media about who did what and who’s the guiltiest.
What changes would you like to see within the snowsports industry?
I would like to see the snowsports industry change in a way that we can have mature conversations about the change that we want to see. That we recognise we have these complicated contradictions, recognise that we can’t be perfect, see that in each other, accept it and drive for better. Recognise that the perfect environmentalist doesn’t exist but focus our issues around the big systemic changes that need to be seen.
I would like to see the industry and the outdoor community organise themselves because we can be really effective in bringing our voice to the wider climate movement. If we can display to policymakers that there’s a really diverse voice behind this – outdoors communities, faith groups, agriculture, all these different aspects of life – the movement becomes broader and that gives us strength and insight, and I think that’s really important.
Yes, sustainability on products is a very important part, but it’s small. I would like to see more leadership from CEOs, from team managers, from the brands to educate their customers and community about this. They have the resource and the responsibility to do this.
I would like to see the conversation being lifted from “Hey, this is what we’re doing internally”, to “Hey, this is what we can do if we band together and advocate for this policy change”. I’d like to see that levelled up.
We [Protect Our Winters] want to work with the industry to help them solve these issues and impact the way we make changes.
The amount of change that we can generate could be amazing.
What advice would you give to the next generation looking to get involved in climate activism?
My advice for the younger generations, and, I guess through my own experiences, so especially to young women: you do you!
Find mentors who care about you and care about your dreams and your aspirations and who are safe people. Mentors have been so important and influential in my development. Not even my career development – just my development as a person.
I work with a couple of people who mentor me and it’s super important because they’ll call you out on bullshit – so long as they’re a safe person, you trust them, and they respect you, obviously. And they can help support you through some difficult times, difficult decisions, they and impart that wisdom and advice, and they can be really helpful to where you want to go.
One of my mentors at the moment has had a pretty successful career, but it’s nothing to do with climate change or POW. He’s a keen surfer and he’s managed staff teams of 200 people and turned over millions of pounds. But having that person to help me navigate this industry at time is super important.
“Genuine enthusiasm and genuine passion will always shine through. And you will get your break one day, someone will notice. Be patient”
I can remember when people would literally walk away from me in the pub when I wanted to talk about some of these bigger issues because it’s not cool, being a land reform nerd isn’t cool! [laughs] But I’ve never been that cool and I’m totally fine with that. I’ve had plenty of people be quite judgmental about me in ‘the scene’. But it’s a topic I care about, and as long as I’m doing that in a genuine way, then don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. If it’s cool to you, then it’s fucking cool.
Don’t worry about what all those ‘scene heads’ who are a bit long in the tooth say about you, or how they shit on your enthusiasm. Ignore them. I’m not saying don’t take any feedback, that’s where your mentors come in and provide that feedback.
But genuine enthusiasm and genuine passion will always shine through. And you will get your break one day, someone will notice. Be patient. And take care of yourself.
Thanks so much, Lauren. It’s great having a voice like yours in the industry when we need it the most.
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