A rich and highly relevant contribution to the emerging field of ecological sport studies

Daniel Svensson
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Brian Wilson & Brad Millington (red)
Sport and the Environment: Politics and Preferred Futures
223 pages, hardcover.
Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing 2020 (Research in the Sociology of Sport)
ISBN 978-1-78769-030-1

The research output in the field of sport and environment have increased dramatically over the last decade, from something pursued only by a few enthusiasts, to an integral part of both research and education in sport science and sport management. Now, Brian Wilson and Brad Millington contribute with a new anthology as part of Emerald Publishing’s Research in the Sociology of Sport book series: Sport and the Environment: Politics and Preferred Futures. The second part of the title is important as it indicates what sets this book apart from many earlier publications on the topic. I will return to that later on.

Many of the contributors have been active in the emerging field of sport and environment. Most of them are based in the United States and Canada, which may be good to bear in mind when reading the individual chapters and the topics they cover.

The book consist of eleven chapters. First up is an introductory chapter by editors Wilson and Millington, where they set the scene for the anthology by providing an overview of the sociology of sport, environmental politics and an in-depth discussion of their idea of preferred futures. Wilson and Millington argue that while more knowledge and information about environmental challenges is not enough, a key to change is also to imagine alternatives or preferred futures as the title of the book puts it. To use a quote from elite sports, it is perhaps about changing “from doubters to believers” as Liverpool FC manager Jürgen Klopp said in his first interview on the job (Jones 2020)?

The editors Wilson and Millington suggest that responses to sport-related environmental issues have been “surprisingly weak, hollow and half-hearted” (p. 2) which sound a bit like what in relation to climate change has been labelled “response denialism” (Hultman & Pulé 2018). Eco-modernist approaches, that emphasize technological innovation as the way toward sustainable development, have been highly influential in sport.  The editors raise the question of how likely it is that industry adapts its practices to be more environmentally friendly when the main goal of industries is profit (p. 13). This is transferrable to (elite) sports as well, and you could add performance as another main goal which has hitherto been prioritized over environmental concerns.

An important part of the aim of this anthology is therefore to investigate “how knowledge about sport-related environmental problems might be complemented by attempts to ’imagine’ what a better future could look like, and the steps we might take to get there” (p. 3). They draw on, among others, the work of American sociologist Erik Olin Wright and his work on real utopias (Wright 2010).

The editors then hand over to Rob Millington, Simon C. Darnell and Tavis Smith and their chapter on sport, international development and sustainable futures. Specifically, chapter two is focused on how environmental sustainability have been taken up by those working within the sport for development and peace (SPD) sector. One important take-away from this chapter is the role of a “New Climatic Regime” in sports, building on the work of Bruno Latour and arguing for the impossibility of separating sport events from the environment.

Chapter three (by Nicolien van Luijk, Audrey R. Giles & Lyndsay M. C. Hayhurst) looks closer at the Sport for Peace and Development (SPD) sector and its relation to indigenous communities and extractive industries. Extractive industries sometimes support sport development programs active in indigenous communities, and they then tend to leave environmental sustainability out of those SPD programs. A more cynical reader would perhaps come to think of the word sport-washing to describe such practices, but clearly there are concerns over how sport is used for different purposes in relation to sustainability and land use.

In chapter four, Bruce Erickson critically examines the so-called “witness tours” in the North American Arctic. While the motif behind these tours is to raise awareness of environmental degradation and climate change, Erickson argues that they tend to reproduce a colonial perspective that frames the Arctic as wilderness and obscures the history of those who have lived (and played sports) there.

Chapter five (Moss E. Norman, Michael Hart & Gerald Mason) works with a community-based research design that include representatives form the Fisher River Cree Nation, and they argue for the importance of indigenous embodied knowledge from working in and moving across the landscape for generations, in ways that are more sustainable than the dominant practices in Western societies. This perspective is underdeveloped in sport research, and it opens up for connections between sport, heritage and mobility. Such connections have been discussed through the concept of movement heritage (Svensson, Sörlin & Wormbs 2016).

The sixth chapter is written by Kass Gibson, who focuses on the roles of animals in sport and how this connects to environmental issues. Gibson argues that while animals have received more attention in sport research lately, there is still a lack of understanding of how animal welfare and environmental concerns relate and how a more sustainable approach to both could be mutually re-enforcing.

This is interesting as it goes against the indoorisation that has meant that outdoor sports like skiing, surfing (see Wheaton’s chapter), climbing and bandy has gradually moved from outdoor environments and arenas to indoor facilities.

Chapter seven (Kyle S. Bunds, Christopher M. McLeod & Joshua I. Newman) brings political ecology into the mix and highlight its potential in relation to environmentally sustainable sports stadia. Through the case of Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, the balancing of economic, social and environmental considerations is analyzed. As it turns out, environmental concerns were often overshadowed by economy. In a preferred future for sport stadia, the authors call for a questioning of the link between stadia construction and economic growth.

Chapter eight (by Kyoung-yim Kim) examines knowledge transfer in relation to sustainable construction of sport venues and uses the sledding tracks in Nagano 1998 and PyeongChang 2018 as examples. Kim argues that the lack of integration of the expertise of environmental policy experts and sledding track experts, along with political considerations, has halted the sustainability progress and led to a re-invention of the wheel. This ties into an issue hinted at throughout the book, namely that the appearance of being sustainable may be more than enough from an economic or PR perspective.

Chapter nine is written by Belinda Wheaton, who provides an in-depth analysis of how surfing has dealt with environmental issues over the last decade. Looking into both surfboard materials and artificial waves, Wheaton argues that while many within surfing are committed to environmental concerns, the responses so far has been characterized by eco-modernism.

In chapter ten, Liv Yoon together with editor Brian Wilson examine the role of journalism in relation to sport, and articulate a preferred future where “environmental sports journalism” is a model for how to cover sport events. Their case study is the destruction of an ancient forest to develop the ski area in the PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea, but the potential of a more critical and environment-focused sport journalism seems broadly applicable.

The eleventh and final chapter is written by none other than Brian P. McCullough and Timothy B. Kellison, who edited one of the major books on the topic of sport and environment a couple of years ago (McCullough & Kellison 2018). Here, they expand on the concept of sport ecology and its potential both within academia and in working with the sport industry, not least in relation to climate change.

Together, each chapter contributes to a rich and highly relevant anthology (even though I was slightly surprised that the chapter on surfing had no apparent involvement from Brian Wilson, despite his name). Most examples and cases studied are from North America, and it would have been interesting to compare with a few more cases from other geographical and political contexts. How is the potential for environmental sustainability in sport is pursued elsewhere? Maybe there are even some real utopias out there?

While all chapters more or less engage with the ideas of preferred futures and real utopias, I found the idea of contextualized golf from the introductory chapter particularly interesting. Wilson and Millington point toward a future where sports are played in their environmentally suitable contexts. Their example is golf, a sport which would then be pursued in geographical areas where water and land are not scarce, but not played in dry places where unsustainable quantities of water and chemicals are needed to maintain a golf course. However, the concept could be expanded to include other sports. For winter sports, this could imply that skiing is done only in areas with natural snow and/or with enough cold days and water to sustain artificial snow production.

This is interesting as it goes against the indoorisation that has meant that outdoor sports like skiing, surfing (see Wheaton’s chapter), climbing and bandy has gradually moved from outdoor environments and arenas to indoor facilities. Is contextual sport a countermovement to the ongoing indoorisation and sportification? Or could these logics merge in new and fruitful ways for the purpose of sustainable sport and outdoor life? I would have enjoyed more in-depth discussions of how preferred futures in sport relate to the logics of performance and professionalization. Is there, for example, any intrinsic contradiction between sport and sustainability? If so, does this look the same across the field or are some sports more compatible with preferred futures than others? While this anthology does not always answer such questions, it certainly gives rise to them. It gives the reader a good base to build on for engaging in an active discussion of how sports could be managed in relation to overarching societal goals of sustainable development. In addition, it highlights how having (or not having) such discussions is always political, no matter how apolitical or post-political some sport organizations claim to be.

Sport organizations, clubs, athletes and exercisers are in a sense well-equipped for imagining and working towards preferred futures. That is in essence what we do when we strive toward a goal, when we lay out a plan and execute it despite all the obstacles we run into, when we go that extra mile to cut a few seconds in a race or to score a goal in stoppage time. Striving for preferred futures is at the core of sports and this book is a welcome reminder of how that logic could be part of tackling the major political issues of our time.

Copyright © Daniel Svensson 2021


Hultman, Martin & Pulé, Paul M. (2018). Ecological masculinities: theoretical foundations and practical guidance. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Jones, Neil (2020). “From doubters to believers to achievers – How Klopp built Liverpool’s title-winning machine”. Goal.com. Published June 26, 2020. Retrieved November 23, 2020. <https://www.goal.com/en-gb/news/from-doubters-to-believers-to-achievers-how-klopp-built/1q07oqwn3iilz1ipax1jrqk7qu>.
McCullough, Brian P. & Kellison, Timothy B. (eds.) (2018). Routledge Handbook of Sport and the Environment. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Svensson, Daniel, Sörlin, Sverker & Wormbs, Nina (2016). “The movement heritage – scale, place, and pathscapes in Anthropocene tourism”. In: Tourism and the Anthropocene, eds. Martin Gren & Edward Huijbens, pp. 131-151. London: Routledge.
Wright, Erik Olin (2010). Envisioning real utopias. London: Verso.

Table of Content

Chapter 1: Introducing a Sociological Approach to Sport, Environmental Politics, and Preferred Futures
Brian Wilson, and Brad Millington;

Chapter 2. Sport, International Development And Sustainable Futures: History, Policy, And Potential
Rob Millington, Simon Darnell, and Tavis Smith

Chapter 3. Extractive Industries; Sport For Development: How Is Right To Play Promoting Environmental Sustainability In Indigenous Communities In Canada?
Nicolien van Luijk, Audrey Giles, and Lyndsay Hayhurst

Chapter 4. Witness, Adventure And Competing Discourses Of The North
Bruce Erickson

Chapter 5. Restor(y)ing Place: Indigenous Land-Based Physical Cultural Practices As Restorative Process In Fisher River Cree Nation (Ochekwi Sipi)
Moss Norman, Michael Hart, and Gerald Mason;

Chapter 6. Animals, Sport, And The Environment
Kass Gibson;

Chapter 7. Political Ecologies And Environmental Considerations In Stadium Development
Kyle S. Bunds, Chris Mcleod, and Joshua I. Newman;

Chapter 8. Mobility Of Sustainability Policy: Sledding Tracks In The Nagano And Pyeongchang Olympics
Kyoung-yim Kim

Chapter 9. Surfing And Environmental Sustainability
Belinda Wheaton

Chapter 10. Reflections On An Attempt To Do Environmental Sports Journalism: The Behind-The-Scenes Story Of The Documentary Mount Gariwang: An Olympic Casualty
Liv Yoon and Brian Wilson;

Chapter 11. Making Our Footprint: Constraints In The Legitimization Of Sport Ecology In Practice And The Academy
Brian P. McCullough and Timothy Kellison

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