How Surfers Can Prevent Climate Chaos

Tony Butt

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Updated 270d ago

I wrote this article about a month before the coronavirus lockdown. In it, I talk about some of the ways we are destroying our natural resources, and suggest that doing something about it might actually be more fun than just carrying on with business as usual.

Now, like it or not, ‘business as usual’ has ground to a halt. The coronavirus and the worldwide reaction to it has temporarily reduced our current rate of planetary destruction. Almost nobody is flying anywhere, most of us are not using our cars, and the manufacturing industry has been slowed down considerably. As a result, the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has dropped dramatically.

The experts are saying that the world after coronavirus will be a different place. If we get away without total societal collapse, we in our western consumerist society might end up with a leaner, trimmed-down form of existence. One where we prioritise the simple things in life and stop chasing things that don’t make us happy. Which is something environmentalists (me included) have been preaching for years.

The act of riding a wave can generate enormous helpings of joy and happiness. What is more, stripped down to its bare essentials, surfing is intrinsically sustainable. The amount of energy you take from a wave to push you along for a few seconds is so relatively small that it really doesn’t deplete or damage the wave in any way.

I can’t help thinking that we should celebrate that. We have stumbled upon a way of making us happy in a sustainable way; living close to nature and getting fun straight from a natural resource without destroying it. We should be proud of that and we should use it to influence other people.

But there is a problem. Surfing contains a lot of other 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 when it gets big. Those things have been normalised by the media and accepted by the surfing population. And the worst thing is that many of us are not even aware of the irony.

There's certainly a message of sustainability dripped through 2017's excellent Fish People. We'd recommend a watch after scrolling through this.

So, obviously, we need to cut down on those things. At first sight it might seem like a massive sacrifice, especially if you were brought up with low-cost airlines, fast-fashion and jet-skis. And it might seem too good to be true, because one of the results of living in a capitalist world is being suspicious of win-win situations.

However, you’d be surprised; true happiness doesn’t depend on how much we destroy the planet. In fact, a happier planet can also mean a happier you.

It's in what we eat

I started thinking about this when I came across a recent article about food. The article described some research showing that food that is good for us is also good for the planet.

The authors found that foods most likely to cause serious long-term harm, such as processed red meat, high-cholesterol dairy products and sugar-laden, nutrition-free drinks, have the highest environmental impact. And foods least likely to do us harm, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, pulses and seeds, have the lowest environmental impact.

Modern, industrial-scale animal agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change and pollution. There is a massive amount of environmental destruction that goes on behind the scenes of modern agriculture. If you are a surfer, having the right nutrition is fundamental. You will be stronger, fitter and more resilient, which, in turn, means you will feel better and have more fun

This includes all the deforestation associated with planting the animal feed; the loss of biodiversity if that animal feed is a genetically-modified monocrop; all the fossil-fuel burning and pollution related to growing and transporting that feed, and all the resources needed to grow the animals themselves. For every calorie produced, beef needs about 100 times more land and emits about 450 times as much greenhouse gas as chickpeas or lentils, for example.

If you are a surfer, having the right nutrition is fundamental. You will be stronger, fitter and more resilient, which, in turn, means you will feel better and have more fun. If you can do that and cause less harm to the environment at the same time, it’s a no-brainer.

It's in the stuff we buy

This is James Otter, of Otter Surfboards in Cornwall, UK. He creates sustainably sourced wooden surfboards from scratch that will far outlast the foam and fibreglass equivalent.

This is James Otter, of Otter Surfboards in Cornwall, UK. He creates sustainably sourced wooden surfboards from scratch that will far outlast the foam and fibreglass equivalent.

© 2021 - Mat Arney.

The food article made me think of other examples where doing something that is good for the planet can be good for you too. One of those examples is all the crap we continually buy and throw away. If, instead of throwing it away, we keep it for as long as possible, the environment benefits and so do we.

The part of a product’s life cycle that corresponds to ownership by you or me is quite a small interlude during the whole cycle. It is sandwiched between the front end, consisting of design, manufacture, distribution and retail; and the back end, consisting of waste management and afterlife (which, in the case of plastic, is infinite). In contrast, buying stuff designed to last, keeping it for longer, repairing it, selling it second-hand or re-using the materials, is much better for the environment

The ownership stage has been getting smaller and smaller all the time. And, of course, that’s what the manufacturers want, because the faster all that stuff can be pushed through the system, the more times you buy and the more profit they make. But more throughput also means more environmental degradation. It means more raw materials extracted out of the ground, more manufacturing, more transportation and more waste ending up in landfills and in the sea.

In contrast, buying stuff designed to last, keeping it for longer, repairing it, selling it second-hand or re-using the materials, is much better for the environment. Keeping things for twice as long means you will buy half as many of them. This reduces the throughput to half the speed, and reduces the trail of destruction at both ends of the life cycle.

Continually buying and throwing away stuff is not much fun anyway. Like a drug, it is a superficial experience that wears off quickly. It destroys the environment and doesn’t make us any happier. Keeping stuff for longer is much more satisfying. A surfboard, bicycle or pair of shoes can become attached to you if you keep them long enough. You start to see them like old friends to be loved and cherished, instead of inanimate objects to be used and discarded. It’s a mutual agreement: look after your stuff and it will look after you.

It's in the travel we do

Once a year trip? What about once in a lifetime.

Another example, of course, is travel – the big elephant in the room. We all know that travelling, particularly flying, is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and, therefore, one of the biggest causes of the climate crisis. To help avoid planetary meltdown, we need to seriously cut down on travelling. At first sight, that seems like a big sacrifice.

Surfing and travelling go hand in hand. If we couldn’t travel at all, surfing would lose its meaning for many of us. Surfing the same beach day-in-day-out might make us narrow-minded and territorial; and if we couldn’t experience new surf spots and different cultures of the world, we might find it more difficult to understand the finiteness of the planet and the fragility of the environment.

However, we might not need to give up travelling altogether. If we went back to a slower, more sustainable way of travelling, that would be good for the environment and, in many ways, less stressful and more fun for us as individuals. Taking lots of short-haul flights is the worst because planes use an incredible amount of fuel for taking off and landing

Flying is the most environmentally-unfriendly way to travel. It eclipses almost everything else we do in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Taking lots of short-haul flights is the worst because planes use an incredible amount of fuel for taking off and landing. In contrast, getting there by train or boat, or even by car as long as you have at least two or three passengers, is much less carbon-hungry and, therefore, much more sustainable.

But flying is not really much fun anyway. Think how stressful air travel can be. Most of us don’t enjoy being treated like farm animals, pushed and shoved in endless queues, constantly worrying if we are going to make that connection, or if our boards and luggage are going to make it. In the end, most of the journey just fades away as a bad memory instead of being an integral part of the travel experience.

Travelling ‘old-style’ – overland or over water – can be much less stressful. Especially if you accept the fact that the journey is part of the experience. Maybe your trip won’t be as productive in terms of number of waves caught or seconds of tube time, but the overall experience will be richer, more rewarding and more memorable.

Likewise, a single, yearly migration to a place that’s likely to receive good swells, and then sitting it out for a month or more, might not be as efficient as several two-day ‘strike-missions’, but chances are that it will be a much more relaxing experience. Importantly, it will be infinitely better for the environment.

The way we see surf travel has a lot to do with what our heroes are doing. They tend to normalise things that would otherwise seem ridiculous. Every day we read about pro surfers and big-wave riders flying from Chile to Portugal to Fiji to Hawaii and back again, never missing a swell anywhere in the world, all year round. Many surfers nowadays want to be just like them.

A few years ago, however, our heroes had a different agenda. The mags were full of people like Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson. They didn’t have unlimited travel budgets. Instead, they had no choice but to use their ingenuity. They discovered hidden pointbreaks in remote areas, living among the local population and sending back fascinating stories, just when we thought they had disappeared forever. They travelled any way they could: on the top of crowded trains; in the back of trucks, and on the deck of cargo ships – anything to get to remote stretches of coastline as cheaply as possible. We wanted to be just like them. People like Kepa Acero or the Azulay brothers are documenting surf trips that are not just surf trips – discovering different cultures, and discovering themselves, with surfing the initial motivator but not the only result

Perhaps we still can. Modern-day equivalents of Naughton and Peterson are becoming more and more popular (admittedly with sponsors and much larger budgets but with the same basic idea). People like Kepa Acero or the Azulay brothers are documenting surf trips that are not just surf trips – discovering different cultures, and discovering themselves, with surfing the initial motivator but not the only result.
In conclusion, climate chaos and ecological suicide are still our biggest issues, even though they might not be at the forefront of most people’s minds at the moment. In fact, once the coronavirus crisis is over we will have some catching up to do. With a bit of luck, the current crisis might have given us a clearer insight into how we are going to tackle the upcoming one.

We as surfers have the unique opportunity to be ‘influencers’. To make other people want to be just like us. We can show other people that living in a more sustainable way – enjoying Nature without destroying it – can be more fun and more healthy.

Now that we have this unique chance to reflect, all we need to do is recognise which is the right path to go down. If we take the opportunity and start changing things as soon as we can, our children, grandchildren and the next seven generations will not only have a chance of survival, but they will enjoy healthy food, clean water, clean air, and the opportunity to continue enjoying Nature as the wonderful playground that it is.

Cover shot by Scott Beitz