Gordon Shepherd: Perspective
As one of the key players in the sustainability game, Gordon Shepherd is helping nurture the pivotal relationship between golf, the environment and all-important sport stakeholders. In this keynote commentary, GEO Board Member Shepherd reflects and takes stock on what the future holds for the game of golf in today’s hypersensitive environmental landscape.
Gordon Shepherd: Biography
Raised on the east coast of Scotland, surrounded by some of the world’s finest links courses, (including St Andrews), Gordon Shepherd was educated at Montrose Academy and University of Edinburgh and in 1965 began a career that led to his dedication to improving the natural environment and the lives of those who depend on it.
Gordon worked for nineteen years in policy and communications for a number of organizations, including the Overseas Development Adminstration and the British Prime Minister’s office at 10 Downing Street. In 1986, he joined WWF as Director of Information and Education, and led WWF International Policy for 20 years.
Golf’s State of Play
In 1972, the landmark report, Limits to Growth warned, “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached within the next 100 years.” But that with early intervention we could “establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.”
Two decades later, a further keynote study, Beyond the Limits highlighted that, “Use of many essential resources and generation of many kinds of pollutants have already surpassed rates that are physically sustainable,” leading to, “An uncontrolled decline in per capita food output, energy use and industrial production.”
Again, this study optimistically concluded that, “A sustainable society is still technically and economically possible,” but counselled that it would now require not only productivity and technology, but also, “Maturity, compassion and wisdom.”
“It is no longer a question of whether society must respond, but instead what actions to take and how quickly.”
These studies, combined with many others, show it is no longer a question of whether society must respond, but instead what actions to take and how quickly. We should also be asking, what can golf do to be part of this action, as an industry, as a community, and as individuals.
Over the forty years since the Limits to Growth report, the game of golf has grown exponentially, fuelled by increased leisure time in the developed world and thus golf tourism, and domestic growth in emerging economies. Further demand will likely be sparked by golf’s readmission to the Olympic Games for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The European Golf Association reports a 100% growth in global golf courses and a 350% increase in player participation over that time. The Golf Research Group confirms there are now 32,000 golf courses and some 60-million-plus practicing players worldwide.
These numbers are significant, but as Shepherd points out, “The main impacts on the planet’s resources are agriculture, forestry, fishing, urban development, industry, mining and transport.” Adding, “However, increasingly golf may struggle to be viewed as enough of a priority in a resource-strapped world, competing for resources in increasingly high-pressure circumstances.”
Societal considerations are important too, “Think about the perception in many parts of the world that golf is a niche sport for the privileged, and in some regions the sole preserve of the rich or foreign visitors whose contribution to regional prosperity can be marginal or, at worst, inequitable.”
So, how well does this lifelong environmentalist believe golf has been responding to challenges that would have been unimaginable 250 years ago when the game emerged from the links land of his native Scotland?
“Leaders across all aspects of the game need to openly and collectively embrace a broad concept of sustainable golf and inspire all of us...”
“It is clear that many in golf see opportunities to make it a game uniquely placed as sustainable and contributing to the society and communities where it is played,” says Shepherd. “However, much of that thinking seems pretty limited in its outlook, and questionable in terms of underlying sustainability principles. It certainly has not yet taken shape globally, nor would it clearly demonstrate that the industry as a whole views its future as contributing positively to sustainable communities at the local level and a driver for good at broader national and global levels.”
He continues, “Individual and collective initiatives appear to abound, but can be confusing and opaque,” explaining, “It is evident from sustainability efforts in forestry, fisheries, and the wildlife trade that transparency, public scrutiny, consistency and comparability are essential to long term success.”
“In this context golf is at a very early stage of development and in my view that development is neither strong enough nor rapid enough,” insists Shepherd, adding, “Yet the game is played often in beautiful and potentially biodiversity rich areas of the world, with onsite renewable energy options and links to communities that could all be the basis for a shift to substantive and ongoing sustainability.”
Golf’s stewardship of landscapes, its unique etiquette of discipline and respect, its sphere of influence including large numbers of players and spectators, and the jobs provided throughout a global industry put the game in a position to be a significant force for good. So how can these opportunities be harnessed in a way that respects cultures and communities whilst maximising its contribution to society and the environment?
“First of all, leaders across all aspects of the game need to openly and collectively embrace a broad concept of sustainable golf and inspire all of us who love the game to see it as part of a healthy society and a sustainable planet,” he says with a clear commitment bridging his two passions. “Many of the ideas and information necessary to steer action arising from such leadership do exist but they need much more support – financial and logistical – and scaling up”, he added.
“I believe GEO has broken a lot of relevant ground by defining a strong, clear and positive vision, underpinning all work with solid ‘one planet’ principles, creating space for broad stakeholder engagement, talking openly and objectively, and delivering accessible guidance and programmes that empower people to take sustainability, comprehensively, into their management and development decision making.”
“On this platform, people are engaging, changing practices, communicating more credibly, results are being shown, and a strong multi-partner communications platform is emerging.”
“The solutions are out there, and it’s encouraging to see some clear evidence that golf is not just responding, but being proactive.”
He concludes, “The solutions are out there, and it’s encouraging to see some clear evidence that golf is not just responding, but being proactive. More and more companies associated with golf are taking their Corporate Social Responsibilities very seriously, collaborating with and giving essential practical, moral and financial support to GEO’s work.”
As there is no ‘silver bullet’ or ‘quick fix,’ to the environmental challenges faced by an increasingly fragile global ecosystem, how does the GEO Board Member view the organisation’s contribution and effectiveness going forward?
“As I see it, GEO can help bring together individuals and organisations interested and involved in the game of golf - and its environmental consequences - to share a vision, find the science, secure the finance, and deliver the necessary package of solutions and support that
is essential in helping make golf a compelling and credible example of how environmental sustainability and millions of rounds of golf around the world are not just mutually exclusive but indeed very comfortable, even inseparable bedfellows. Golf has the opportunity to lead the way in creating an economically and socially profitable, sustainable, enjoyable, ethical and respected sport.”
“Golf has the opportunity to lead the way...”
In his closing statement Gordon Shepherd acknowledges, “The challenge facing golf and its environment is a significant one, crossing countries, continents and cultures. But with inspirational leadership allied to practical advice and support, there is no reason why golf, a game with a proud history and now a clear, visionary environmental future cannot provide a clarion call to its many stakeholders and become a beacon for best practice, today, tomorrow, next week, next year and forward, with authority and advocacy towards its second Millennium and beyond.”