Recent news on the state of the oceans, makes for bleak reading. Our waters and the life they contain are facing a full barrage of assault as a result of human activity over the past few hundred years. The oceans and it’s wildlife are being fed a non stop diet of litter and microplastics infiltrating all levels of the food chain. Global warming is both rising sea levels with all the consequences this brings and leading to an acidification of the oceans occurring at breakneck speed damaging our coral reefs and the life they support. It’s so shocking and widespread, it’s possible we might feel numb to the change – helpless even.
Where do surfers sit in this debate in the 21st century? Are we a group of eco-worriers advocating for nature every step of the way, or are we another part of the problem racking up endless miles in search of waves and consuming the damaging products of the surf industry?
Surfer as environmentalists?
Many of us are acutely aware of the state of the coast on our stretch – we notice the marine litter and we tend to know when the water is polluted, we’re the ones who get sick or develop ear infections. Talk to dedicated surfers and they will often have an intimate knowledge of their coastal environment honed through spending countless hours in the sea and walking it’s shores. The romantic part of the story, the one told in surf magazines and perhaps established in culture, is that surfers are environmentalists at heart, stewards of the seas we choose to spend so much of our time.
In many examples, surfers have been the positive ambassadors of the coast, often banding together fighting to protect stretches of coastline from pollution, dredging and over development – usually those areas near quality waves (think Kirra, Trestles etc). The development of surf reserves which has been a significant step forward in recognising the value of surf zones, and promoting the coast as a space to protect. The last thirty years have seen the rise of surfing eco-groups such as Surfers Against Sewage and in the states the Surfrider Foundation. These grassroots groups grew from humble beginnings, small local organisations aiming to improve stretches of coast or beaches, to now making mainstream news, steering the debates to protect our oceans nationally and internationally and bringing home core environmental messages to surfers and non-water users alike.
Surfing controversies – past and present
Whilst these organisations have gained some serious environmental credentials in recent years and many of us might tie up our surfing identities with environmental concern – I’d hasten to bet that not much has changed in the way most of us access waves in the 21st century. Many of us, me included, still travel much more often and for longer distances for waves, than the non surfer. Likewise, we consume boards, wetsuits and clothes that inflict a serious environmental impact. Long haul air travel remains a favourite of globe trotting surfers in search of decent waves, for many, tipping their climate footprints to a extra large size at best.
Looking to the future, you can’t seem to read a surf magazine without reference to another proposed wave pool. These things look amazing, the kind of artificial set up with perfect little almond barrels you dreamt up when you were day dreaming in school as a kid. Whilst few yet exist, they’re looking to become much more common. The energy consumption in these spaces has the potential to be huge and the environmental impact on flooding large areas has already caused controversy at some sites. Will wave pools be as environmentally controversial as golf courses? Do we need wave pools and will they have an upside in reducing long journies to the coast? I’m not sure of the answers, but it’s all worth considering that if wave pools take off – as surfers it might be wise to take their environmental impact seriously.
Surfers have come under fire in the past from the environmental community, when decisions taken in the name of the environment have threatened to put waves at risk. There was a brief, but heated debate in 2006 about the testing of offshore renewable energy devices in Cornwall and whether it would impact upon waves. In the US, surfers in Cape Hatteras came up against environmentalists when they wanted to ban 4×4 access onto the beach to protect bird species, limiting access to the remote but quality wave rich region. Whilst, these examples are very different, they level the question are surfers environmentalists of convenience when it impacts upon us directly? The recent issue on sharks – has demonstrated how tricky this debate can get, and how quickly emotions can flare. When Kelly weighed in on the spate of shark attacks on the Reunion islands, he waded into territory that left him under fire from conservationists.
Are we doing enough?
Anyone who surfs, realise that we’re not a completely distinct harmonious group of people, as suggested by the media and the surf industry. Indeed we’re sometimes a fractious group, with competing interests often sharply defined by territory, skill and the craft we ride. Culturally we’re stereotyped and lumped together with all the associations that follow. The surf industry has a huge influence on shaping trends and how surfers are perceived in the wider sphere. However, there perhaps is some truth to the idea of surfers as a part of a global movement – generally surfers have always been fairly global, our willingness to travel and explore new cultures has led to a kind of “tribe”.
It seems that recently, surfer pressure groups have become more effective as one of the groups who have a unique insight into the challenges facing our coast lines, and perhaps it’s a natural next step that we should be the ones to alert and capture the imaginations of those who aren’t aware of the problems that affect our waters. The issues that groups like SAS have has been highlighting have been a successful in recent years as they have managed to engage and capture the imagination of the wider public – campaigns such as introducing a disposable plastic bottles charge in the UK are gaining serious momentum. It’s my belief, that the largely positive image that surfer’s hold publically, mean that as a group we’re perhaps well placed to join forces and campaign for the environment, for the benefits of the water’s we so enjoy and our wider environment. With the growing popularity of the sport across the world, surfers can influence wider trends to promote ocean stewardship in our own circles and beyond. Similarly, each of us can work on our own individual footprint – how we use resources, and how we approach the way we use our local environment is an important first step.
Lowering your surfing footprint?
Shock, threat, doom and gloom dominate the news about the challenges the environment faces. There’s some evidence that on a psychological level, we’re not particularly good at responding to negative messages – be it improving our health, driving safely or day to day recycling. It’s like being told off or punished as a kid, it didn’t always have the intended effect. Similarly, in terms of environmental messages, there’s a risk that if we experience too much doom and gloom in the media we feel overwhelmed and switch off. In terms of many of the global challenges we face to protect the environment, we have a tendency to deny, avoid or feel cynical, wondering how we can make any meaningful change as one individual. We might hope others can find a solution – yet many of the things we can do to improve our environmental footprint can be both beneficial to us locally, and the world.
Instead, we can align with positivity and hope and empowering ourselves and others to be a part of the ever growing toolbox of solutions that already exist. Many of the challenges we face, have solutions that can be achieved individually that can make a significant difference, whether it’s giving up using plastic water bottles that each of us consume on average 200 per year to using refillable options, or simply pledging to drive less each week or taking a surfing holiday closer to home. Changing our own behaviour, however small, can be beneficial to the environment and importantly, ourselves.
Here’s some simple surfing related steps that might reduce your footprint:
- Car sharing – car sharing is a great way to reduce the burden that travel has on the environment. If you can lift share to the beach, cycle, walk or check the cam first – you’ll cut down on some serious surf check miles.
- Surf locally – many of the best waves can be found in the UK and Ireland, we don’t need to fly to the other side of the world every year to score amazing waves. Likewise, surfing your local, despite it not being quite as good as the wave half an hour a way, might also leave you just as satisfied and won’t drain your fuel tank.
- Consider the board you ride and the wetsuits you use. Old boards are not necessarily bad and second hand can be the the way forward.
- Enjoy the art of the “2 minute beach clean” – pick up a few bits of rubbish after each surf, and you’d have a sizeable effect on the quality of your local beach. If every surfer did this after each surf, it will make a big difference to the marine environment, it’ll make you feel good too. It’s also pretty interesting to see what washes up on your local beach.