Alex Honnold on Public Lands and the Power of an Outdoor Industry Willing to Speak Out

"Given a choice I always move in a progressive direction; I mean you have to act on your principles. I think boycotting it is a pretty valuable way to show your position." Credit: Peter Bohler / Redux

Alex Honnold's epic free-solo ascents have given him a stardom that the climbing world has never before seen. While continuing to push the boundaries of the sport, Honnold has also made use of his celebrity off-the-wall, founding an environmental nonprofit called the Honnold Foundation in 2012, and becoming an outspoken environmentalist. Given the heightened political climate over global warming and public land policy, we talked to Honnold last week about the perils of being an opinionated athlete, the power of the outdoor industry's lobby, and the moral obligations all humans have to the environment. 

How powerful is the outdoor industry’s environmental lobby?
I think the industry has more strings than people realize — it’s a coalition that includes everybody from hippies to ATV riders. Everybody likes to exercise, so the outdoors is one of those rare places where everybody can come together regardless of party lines.

"Given a choice, I always move in a progressive direction; I mean you have to act on your principles. I think boycotting [Outdoor Retailer] is a pretty valuable way to show your position."

What next steps do you want the industry take?
I think it’s important to broaden the reach of the industry. For example, the Access Fund [a nonprofit devoted to increasing outdoor climbing access] has partnered with mountain biking groups in the past. Coalitions like that are becoming more common — some climbers attended the Save Red Rock hearing this morning, but there were also hikers and a lot of people who just appreciate Red Rock Canyon.

What’s your take on companies pulling out of Outdoor Retailer following Utah Gov. Gary Herbert calling for the rescinding of Bears Ears National Monument?
Given a choice, I always move in a progressive direction; I mean you have to act on your principles. I think boycotting it is a pretty valuable way to show your position.

Do you make an effort to work with brands that reflect your values?
I certainly try to. For instance, The North Face just pledged to donate an extra $100,000 to the Conservation Alliance annually for the next four years because of the current threat to our public lands.

What’s your take on using public lands for economic development?
In general, I think exploring for oil, gas, and minerals on federal land is shortsighted, but the reality is that our world uses those resources and they have to come from somewhere. It’s about finding a balance. There are places where it makes sense to pump, and then there are places that are pristine, ultra-difficult to work in, where there’s a very high risk of failure — like the Arctic.

Solar energy is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States right now, but many people don’t know much about it because it’s such a young field. In five or ten years, people will realize it’s a much more viable option than oil and gas.

What about Americans employed by the fossil fuel industry?
Politicians talk about protecting those workers, but the fossil fuel industry isn’t dying because of restrictive legislation — it’s disappearing because renewables are cheaper. Would you try and save the horse-drawn buggy? In 10 years, truckers will be out of work because of autonomous trucks. Maybe it’s the government’s place to retrain workers when whole industries go under like that.

"All humans have a moral obligation to support the ecosystems from which they draw life. Even if somebody lives in a city, they’re still supported by clean water and clear air."

How powerful are outdoor athletes in the conservation movement?
I think being in the outdoors will ultimately lead people to become environmentalists and care about the wild spaces around them. Outdoor athletes can encourage people to go into the outdoors and adventure. It’s unfortunate to only frame environmentalism as protecting outdoor recreation — that’s part of the bigger picture, but it’s honestly the least important part in a lot of ways.

Do outdoor athletes have a moral obligation to be conservationists?
They should probably be more aware of the environment since they’re outside all the time, but I don’t think they have more of an obligation than anyone else.

So everybody has a duty to be an environmentalist?
Yeah, all humans have a moral obligation to support the ecosystems from which they draw life. Even if somebody lives in a city, they’re still supported by clean water and clear air. It’s all provided by the environment. Many people don’t care about this kind of stuff; I think it’s fair to condemn anyone who doesn’t do the best they can.

Do people tell you that athletes shouldn’t comment on politics?
For sure, and it annoys me — I’m a tax-paying citizen and I care what the government does with that revenue. I’m certainly entitled to my opinion like everybody else. When I put my thoughts out there, I’m saying “This is what I care about,” not “My opinion should weigh more than anybody else’s.”

I think athletes are wary of posting about politics on social media because they get bludgeoned by people who are opposed to their viewpoint. There’s crazy hate online — just because someone is well known doesn’t mean they’re less sensitive.

Have you altered your life to reduce your environmental footprint?
I went vegetarian and changed my bank. I’ve also posted my share of petitions online and spoken about public land use. I try to stir the pot on my social media accounts, but sometimes being explicitly political isn’t the best way to change opinions. I think the key is to communicate subtly and effectively, otherwise I’ll alienate people, which doesn’t cause real change. Ranting doesn’t help anybody.

Starting the Honnold Foundation was the most overt way to do something positive — it’s based on the idea that if you raise people out of poverty, they’ll have the luxury of caring about the environment. Unless people have shelter and enough to eat, they’ll cut down the last tree in the forest if that’s what they need to boil their water. That’s just the way it is.

Are you worried about the future of the environmental movement in America?
I’m a strong optimist about the overall course of history because humanity seems to trend toward progressivism. In 100 years, the world will be powered entirely by renewable energy, regardless of what the current government does.