Michael Forbes was among those who resisted the construction of Trump International Golf Links Scotland (photo from Getty Images)

There is a thesis that Donald Trump’s presidency has a silver lining in inadvertently laying bare the source and extent of many contemporary problems.

This can be named the Wake-Up Call Thesis. It was expressed, for example, by Baltimore Sun columnist Tricia Bishop: “This social media president has brought our faults to the surface for all to see. So now, instead of expending energy to hide them, perhaps we can start addressing them.”

Whether this thesis bears out – that is, whether the harsh realities of a Trump presidency will alert us to long-standing problems that have been largely ignored or dismissed – remains to be seen. Moreover, Trump opponents might well argue that any silver linings are still features of the storm cloud of his presidency. But, if the first step in solving a problem is admitting its existence, the Wake-Up Call Thesis is intriguing.

As researchers studying sport and the environment – and as researchers who have had our own “encounter” with Trump – the Wake-Up Call Thesis piqued our attention. Is there a silver lining in Trump’s fraught relationship with sport, and with golf in particular?

Trump on the Tee: Trump International Golf Links Scotland

Our interest in Trump pre-dates the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Our ‘encounter’ with Trump came in 2012, concerning his then-in-development Scottish golf course, Trump International Golf Links Scotland.

The Trump company’s efforts at building Trump International Golf Links Scotland initially suffered what appeared to be a fatal blow. In 2007, the course proposal was rejected at the local level by Aberdeenshire council’s Infrastructure Services Committee in a close vote. A core concern with the development plan was that the golf course would encroach on the Foveran Links sand dunes, which are officially classified as a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

But the demise of the course proposal was not a fait accompli. In a narrative twist, the proposal was “called in” for review by the Scottish government. In 2008, the Scottish government’s Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals recommended that course construction should go ahead, offering the following rationale: “None [of our findings] affects our overall conclusion that the economic and social advantages of this prospective development at national, regional and local level are such as to justify, uniquely, the adverse environmental consequences caused by a development on this scale and in this location” (pp. 225). The initial decision against the course was ultimately reversed.

Tripping Up Trump

Fast-forward to 2012, when we visited the course as it was nearing completion. By that point, Trump International Golf Links Scotland was embroiled in controversy. A protest movement called Tripping Up Trump (TUT) was striving to derail course construction for various reasons – most notably, the course’s environmental implications and its potential uprooting of local (human) inhabitants in the area. Residents were especially worried that Trump’s group would apply to the government for a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO), which would force residents’ removal from their land.

Trump himself butted heads with Michael Forbes, a local resident whose property lies on a proposed site for course construction. Judging from quoted excerpts, Trump’s claims ranged from hyperbolic (“Everybody thinks this is the best piece of golf land they have ever seen”) to dubious (“When completed this land will be environmentally enhanced and better than it was before”) to, in the case of Michael Forbes, coarse and pugnacious (he “lives in a pig-like atmosphere”). Having met with Forbes and been warmly welcomed into his home in 2012, we can affirm that the last of these claims is fake news.

Yet Forbes was up for the confrontation. To guard against a potential CPO, he donated a small plot of his land to TUT, who in turn initiated a mass ownership campaign. The idea was that signing over the land in this way would render the process of forced eviction impossibly complicated, as there were so many (Forbes-supporting) owners to deal with in any legal confrontation.

In the end, however, the golf course was completed. Stopping it was perhaps an impossible goal, given the government’s support of its completion. But Forbes and others were not forcibly removed. For his obstinacy, in 2012 Forbes won the ‘Top Scot’ prize at the Glenfiddich Spirt of Scotland ceremony – an award previously given to celebrities such as author J.K. Rowling and tennis player Andy Murray.

A Silver Lining? A Story of Sport and the Environment

The story of Trump International Golf Links Scotland is a multifaceted one. Among other things, it is an archetypal story of modern sport and the environment.

In recent years, the impacts of sport on the environment have received substantial attention. Sport event organizing committees, associations, and organizations have explicitly adopted an environmentalist stance – albeit one that aligns with corporate priorities, like ongoing growth and profit generation. Sport mega-events, for example, are accompanied by detailed plans for mitigating their environmental impacts. Sport leagues run environmental awareness programmes headlined by star athletes. The games go on, but with an explicit and well-publicized awareness of environmental issues.

The logic that underpins many of these initiatives is the logic of sustainable development – which means, in short, meeting the needs of the present without inhibiting future generations from meeting needs of their own. Sustainable development typically comprises the three prongs of economic, social, and environmental development (the ‘triple bottom line’).

But we have argued that sustainable development, at least in its application in sport, is deeply flawed. In theory, the triple bottom line weighs various facets of development in the interest of balancing them all. We contend that, in practice, environmental concerns tend to be considered so long as they do not intrude on social and, even more so, economic ones. Environmental goals can easily be superseded; it would seem that they are rarely, if ever, superordinate.

For a case in point, look no further than Trump International Golf Links Scotland. Recall the verdict delivered by the Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals: “[t]he economic and social advantages of this prospective development justify, uniquely, the adverse environmental consequences caused by a development on this scale and in this location.” In the Directorate’s report, even Trump’s organization recognized the potential loss of dynamism in the inimitable sand dune ecosystem. But the spectre of, for example, jobs and tourism made for sufficient justification.

If this critique of sustainable development is accepted, the question then becomes, How will sport’s relationship with the environment ever change? Can we make it such that the environment is considered in a more profound and meaningful way? The answer is unclear.

But what the Trump case does is lay bare the tenuous place of environmental concerns in the relationship between sport and sustainable development. Perhaps this is an initial step toward social change.

Indeed, the Trump case seems to have inspired some regret. A Scottish Natural Heritage spokesperson reportedly said recently that there has been habitat loss and damage to the dune system. The site may lose its status as an SSSI.

What’s more, former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, having at one point championed the golf course and associated developments, reportedly now believes that Trump has broken his promise to build a world-class resort. In November 2017, The Guardian noted that the course employs the full-time equivalent of 95 people – against an earlier promise of 6,000 new jobs. If nothing else, the case should inspire even greater scrutiny of the presumed economic and social benefits of projects of this kind – and whether they should so easily supersede environmental considerations.

This is far from an academic matter. Another proposal to build a golf course on an SSSI in Scotland has recently been ‘called in’ by the government. In addition, a second course at Trump International Golf Links Scotland is still a possibility (a petition to block this recently earned more than 30,000 signatures).

To change sport’s relationship with the environment is no doubt a daunting task. But, if the Trump case has a silver lining, it is perhaps in revealing fault lines in the concept of sustainable development. It would fit the Wake-Up Call Thesis if Trump, inadvertently, were to bring this to the fore.

Brad Millington is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at the University of Bath in the Department for Health. His research focuses predominantly on the relationship between sport and the environment and on health and fitness technologies. He is the author of two books: The Greening of Golf: Sport, Globalization and the Environment (2016, with Brian Wilson, Manchester University Press); and Fitness, Technology and Society: Amusing Ourselves to Life (2018, Routledge).

Brian Wilson is a sociologist and Professor in the School of Kinesiology at The University of British Columbia (UBC), and Director of UBC’s Centre for Sport and Sustainability. He is author of The Greening of Golf: Sport, Globalization and the Environment (2016, with Brad Millington, Manchester University Press), Sport & Peace: A Sociological Perspective (2012, Oxford University Press) and Fight, Flight or Chill: Subcultures, Youth and Rave into the Twenty-First Century (2006, McGill-Queen’s University Press). His research focuses especially on links between sport, environmental issues, peace, and media.