Golf and the climate crisis: UBC professor Brian Wilson is examining sport and the environment through an unexpected lens

The game of golf is one of leisure, with great green expanses where athletes train, friends bond and families have a day out together in the sun, all followed by a beer at the ‘19th hole.’

But these carefully landscaped environments in the middle of our cities are more than just recreation spaces. They are also places that have an impact on the world around them. UBC kinesiology professor Dr. Brian Wilson has devoted much of his work to examining how sport interacts with social and environmental issues.

“I’m interested in the ways sport can be enabling for people, like forms of activism related to sport, and the ways that sport can be problematic and constraining for people,” he said.

Underneath the green

The walls in Wilson’s office are plastered with a painting of Muhammad Ali and a photo of the famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, but his research has also led him down a different path: examining the golf industry. He’s a lover of the sport, but it also seldom comes up in conversations about environmental concerns.

“The use of chemicals, water usage and also, in the building of golf courses, the impacts of construction and people moving about on ecosystems — that’s what led me to wonder, ‘Huh, I wonder about the history of the golf industry’s response to environmental issues,’” said Wilson.

His work includes investigating the origin of our perceptions about what a golf course should look like.

The phrase ‘Augusta National Syndrome’ was coined in the 1950s and 1960s when fans across the world watched the Masters Tournament at the beautiful Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, USA on their televisions. The proliferation of colour TV is what solidified the perceptions of a golf course as a lush green place dedicated to leisure.

“What was less known is that in order to produce a golf course like that, you, in many cases, need to use immense amounts of water and lots of chemicals,” said Wilson. “It’s not natural to have a shimmering, pristine light-green look.”

One of the more hard-to-swallow ideas that Wilson is currently researching is that the best way to preserve the future of a sport like golf and make it more environmentally friendly may be to radically change it.

“What are the conditions that we might want to have in place in order for it to be more reasonable for golf to exist? Does it have to look the way that we’ve always thought it would look?” said Wilson.

“It raises questions not only about how we can have the most environmentally friendly sport events, but when is a sport event not environmentally friendly enough [to hold]?”

Beyond the 18th hole

Golf isn’t the only area of the sports world that Wilson scrutinizes.

Along with colleague Liv Yoon, he recently created a documentary looking at the cutting down of an ancient forest for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. He has also been chair of the UBC Centre for Sport and Sustainability, where he examines the intersection of sports and social development.

“I’m interested in the way that sport is enabling and constraining,” said Wilson. “These issues that take place both within sport and through sport don’t necessarily receive the attention they could.”

Despite the thorny issues that lie at the intersection of the environment and sport, Wilson remains hopeful, pointing at the great leaps and strides that industries like golf have made. But he is also interested in what that change means — and who’s in charge of it.

“Should [we] be looking to these industries as leaders or not and what does it look like for them to not be leaders? Who else is leading and what might that look like?”