Forging The Path Forward

Tony Butt

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Updated 9d ago

Surfing provides us with enormous helpings of joy and happiness. What is more, the amount of energy you take from a wave when you ride it is so relatively small that it doesn’t deplete or damage the wave in any way. In other words, stripped down to its bare essentials, surfing is intrinsically sustainable.

I can’t help thinking that we should celebrate that. We have stumbled upon a way of getting fun and happiness straight from nature without destroying it. We should be proud of that and we should use it to influence everybody else. If we all got together, we might be able help steer the human population away from ecological oblivion.

Hugo Tagholm talks ocean pollution.

Hugo Tagholm talks ocean pollution.

© 2022 - Lian Van Leeuwen.

But there is a slight problem. Surfing contains a lot of paraphernalia that has risen up around it, making the whole package anything but environmentally friendly. I’m talking about all the travel, all the throwaway boards and suits, and all those fossil-fuel-burning machines buzzing around in the line-up. Those things have been normalised these days. Therefore, before we start to influence the non-surfing population, we first need to get our story straight.

Recently the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released what they said will be their last report. The phrase ‘Code Red for Humanity’ jumped out of the front pages, and important people like the UN Secretary General warned that “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet.”

Gabe Davies, Ocean Marketing Manager at Patagonia, realised how desperate the situation is. So he decided to bring together some of the best minds from in and around the surf industry, at a unique event called the Surf Impact Camp, to see what we could do about it. “The idea was to bring together a broad spectrum of people who are already on a more responsible journey”, he said.

The meeting was all about having a really honest conversation about how things can be changed; about how we can all give the system a powerful enough nudge in the right direction, so that we, the surfers, can spread the environmental message out into the wider world.

The urgency of this event reflects the urgency of the recent IPCC report. “With all the experience and expertise in the room, if we can’t at least make some headway, then nobody in the surfing world can”, said Gabe.

The four-day gathering included representatives from major surfing brands, plus activists, writers, scientists, photographers and filmmakers. All in all there were around 30 people from 12 different countries. “The group needed to be small enough to have an open conversation, but big enough to have enough influence to really change things”, said Gabe.

Crew attempting to answer the environmental question.

Crew attempting to answer the environmental question.

© 2022 - Lian Van Leeuwen.

Some eye-opening and often emotional presentations were given. The range of topics broadly covered five themes, all related to surfing in one way or another;

*Our addiction to fossil fuels, and ways we can persuade surfers to show the rest of the world how life doesn’t have to depend on fossil fuels;

*How large extractivist corporations are destroying our oceans, and how we can campaign against that;

*The ongoing problem of plastic pollution, why it desperately needs to be cut off at source, and how that can be done;

*The debate around rewilding the ocean and restoring vital carbon sinks such as kelp and seagrass;

*Underprivileged communities, and how protecting a surfing wave in a developing country almost always has a political-social understory.

The meeting was held deep in the forests of Southwest France, away from all distractions. The 20-minute walk to the empty beach was priceless, not only for getting to know each other, but also for putting into perspective what had gone down at each session. The discussions during these walks, and back at the camp, were the real essence of the meeting. Sometimes lasting well into the night, these were some of the most stimulating conversations I have ever had on these issues.

Hugo Tagholm from Surfers Against Sewage gave the opening speech. He stressed how important it is that we all work together. Not just everybody in the room, and not just all surfing NGOs and activists, but the whole of the surfing industry and the entire surfing community.

To try to get a better handle on this, we discussed the concepts of cooperation and competition, and how they fit into surfing. Surfing doesn’t need to be competitive to be fun; unlike tennis or chess, it can exist without the participants competing against each other.

Part of the reason surfing is so much fun is because it reaches deep down into our genetic programming. But it can appeal to different aspects of that programming. It can appeal to our competitive ‘instinct’ where you are competing for a limited resource; or it can appeal to our innate need to interact with Nature, where you are blending in with the environment rather than fighting against it.

One way that might help us all to work together is if up-and-coming surfers could be encouraged to see it more like the second example, where surfing is a way to learn about the ocean and learn about yourself, and then share that experience with others (more about this here).

“You should never doubt that a small group of concerned people can change the world. As a group, surfers underestimate their currency and their ability to make change. But we have to unite, behind topics that are important to us and important to the world.” - said Dan Crockett, Blue Marine Foundation

Another thing that we discussed was the hypocrisy and disingenuousness that currently exists in surfing. The things that surfers do that are so obviously environmentally destructive, but that nobody seems to complain about or even mention. The Elephants in the Room.

I’m talking about things like jet skis – noisy, polluting, fossil-fuel burning machines that should be the antithesis of a natural activity like surfing – but something that is now ‘socially acceptable’ in the line-up in exactly the same way as smoking was ‘socially acceptable’ in restaurants up until recently.

And then there is our diet – the easiest thing we can do as individuals that has a significant impact, is to get away from a meat-based diet; but we almost never talk about it. Many surfers still believe that if you want to be a strong, high-performing ‘athlete’, you have to be seen eating large amounts of red meat.

Discussions all day and night.

Discussions all day and night.

© 2022 - Lian Van Leeuwen.

Adam Hall, head of sustainability for the online retailer Surfdome, is also heavily involved in the North Devon World Surfing Reserve. Adam thinks that the surfing industry is not doing enough: “I think it’s really important when we the media and the surf industry are publicising all these beautiful places we surf, to also explain the risks and threats they are under. We can’t be selling these beautiful places while at the same time disregarding the fact that they might be threatened. I think it’s our responsibility to weave that message into everything we do.”

We also agreed that more work should be done on making surfing equipment last longer. At the same time as making stuff out of less toxic materials, we should also do something to slow down the flow of those materials through the system. Oliver Spies from Langbrett showed us how his company recycles old wetsuits into shoes, and how the shoes themselves are recycled in a totally closed loop. Why can’t more manufacturers do that?

And talking of shoes, perhaps the shoe is the one item that best symbolises the concept of ‘Love your Stuff’. A properly worn-in pair of shoes is always more comfortable than a stiff new pair – don’t tell me you have never heard that. That concept could be extended to other things including surfing equipment. Surfers should be told how cool it is to keep a surfboard for ten years or a wetsuit for five. Snapping a board doesn’t mean you are a good surfer, nor does buying a new wetsuit every three months.

Towards the end of the event, we started focusing down on practical solutions. Where do we start? How can we use our influence? How can we really make a difference?

© 2022 - Lian Van Leeuwen.

We talked about an ‘influencer chain’. A kind of pathway through various groups of people, through which a good idea expands, like a meme. If it works properly, the idea will spread exponentially. But it needs to reach a tipping point, a critical mass before it takes off, and the problem is how can we find that illusive tipping point so that we can get the snowball rolling.

We all agreed at the end of the event that we need to keep the momentum going. Each go back to our respective surfing habitats and do what we can to spread the message. We need to say it like it is, even if it makes us feel awkward, offends somebody or gets us into a heated debate. We just haven’t got time to mess around anymore, the environmental crisis is upon us right now, and societal collapse is just around the corner unless we do something about it.

And us surfers, we have a unique opportunity to make other people want to be just like us, to show other people that enjoying Nature without destroying it can be more fun and more healthy. If we succeed, our children, grandchildren and future generations will not only have a chance of survival, but they will also enjoy healthy food, clean water, clean air, and the opportunity to continue enjoying Nature as the wonderful playground that it is.