Words by Stuart Swift
Since I first journeyed abroad with a surfboard, I have been unable to ignore the primal nagging sensation the that surf travel planted in me. The most obvious symptom of this being the almost daily swell check of faraway waves that were once surfed, a self-inflicted swell tease.
Being someone who has never lived close to the coast, having a trip on the horizon to a distant wave blessed land has been something I have tried to ensure remained as constant as financially possible. And in truth, the horizon has never been far away… Indo, Tahiti, New Zealand, even an overland adventure from London to Cape Town. Looking forward to these trips has provided me with escapism while studying or working boring jobs and looking back on them has provided me with some of my fondest and most enduring memories.
Within the surf community tales of intrepid travel form the foundation of our communication with one another, and go a long way to explaining how no matter where in the world you are and no matter what nationality surfer you are chatting to, we have a remarkable ability to get along with each other and find common ground.
It’s deeply imbedded in our culture, and most aspiring young surfers views a trip to Indo as an almost essential part of their progression as a surfer. Globalisation, the rise of cheap air travel, and the increasing dominance of social media on our lives are all factors in quite how deeply imbedded this is.
You can’t hop online without seeing someone, somewhere, being spat out of a crystal-clear barrel in a pair of board shorts. It’s not uncommon for a surf edit to even boast about the amount of travel that was required to reach a destination, ‘three flights, two busses, and three local ferry’s later and we reached the spot’…
Yet in 2019, the year of collective climate awakening, we are only just starting to wake up to the climate emergency we face. The latest climate research paints an alarming picture, with most studies concluding almost all indicators of environmental degradation are happening at a far faster rate than even the most pessimistic predictions of 20 years ago.
Polar ice melt, droughts, wildfires, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, carbon concentration, and rising air pollution all already causing widespread rampant environmental collapse. Climate change is no longer something to avoid, it’s now something to minimise.
If one bares in mind the time lag between when a fossil fuel is burned and when its effects on the climate are made apparent, we have half a century at least of this getting worse before any hopes of improvement
If one bares in mind the time lag between when a fossil fuel is burned and when its effects on the climate are made apparent, we have half a century at least of this getting worse before any hopes of improvement. That’s assuming we even seriously reduce our emissions today, which is not looking likely.
But how much of an impact does our deeply established culture of long-haul flying have on our environment? An economy class return flight from London to Bali generates 2.15 tonnes of Co2 per passenger. To put that in perspective, that is considerably more than the average Indonesian citizen will produce, in total, in an entire year. You could even throw in the combined average yearly emissions of a citizen from Sierra Leone, Madagascar, and Uganda and you would still come up short.
The environmental damage that flying creates is most alarming when we look at the near-term impact, which seems sensible considering the next five to ten years appear to be make or break in terms of our ability to minimise climate disaster.
One recent study highlighted that if we look only at the impact over the next five years, planes account for more global warming than all cars on the road combined. The study went on to argue that per passenger mile, flying is on average ‘50 times worse than driving’.
At the heart of this lies the issue of climate justice. If you were to overlay a map of the regions of the world home to the best surf and a map of those regions that will suffer the most due to climate change, there is a remarkable correlation. Island communities and coastal regions blessed with perfect surf are also those most vulnerable to rising sea levels, and more frequent and violent storm systems.
If you were to overlay a map of the regions of the world home to the best surf and a map of those regions that will suffer the most due to climate change, there is a remarkable correlation
By travelling so frequently to theses destinations we are collectively contributing to the warming of the planet which will, if our current behaviour does not change, eventually make their homes uninhabitable.
Surf travel, arguably more than any other type of travel, brings together very remote local people and travellers, as information is shared and often accommodation provided. This means that as a community we have an additional responsibility towards these people, who are not simply abstract statistics of ‘rising sea levels’ and ‘displaced populations’ as they are to many others, but friends and acquaintances who’s lives we have seen and been a part of first hand.
Then there is the issue of intergenerational climate justice. How will my future children view my actions when I am pushing them into their first waves on a sunny day in Cornwall? Up until last year I would be able to say to them that I wasn’t fully aware of how my global travelling was affecting the planet.
This might come as little consolation to a child who, through my actions and many others like me, is now unable to enjoy the wonders of surf travel due to huge carbon taxes and a radically different attitude to flying. They would be furious, however, and quite rightly so, If I told them that I was aware of the damage I was causing, as I am now, but was unwilling to give it up because I enjoyed it. One wonders if a relationship could withstand such a grudge.
As a citizen of a large Western country, and one that has travelled far more than average, I have contributed disproportionately to this global climate emergency, and yet stand to be disproportionately affected by the consequences. This is profoundly unjust, and I would argue means that as surfers we need to radically change our attitude to surf travel.
So, what could a healthier attitude towards traveling to do the thing we love look like?
Surfers like Fergal Smith have long been advocating for such a change, giving up his career as a global big wave surfer in favour of a life built around local community, sustainability, education and growth.
Granted, not everyone has access to the quality of waves Fergal does living on the West Coast of Ireland, but we can all learn something from a person who has voluntarily given up a life many surfers dream of in favour of staying at home and exploring the waves he has been blessed with, instead of traveling half way around the world to explore others at the cost of the planet.
Fergal is just one example, and I’m sure countless others have been well ahead of me in coming to terms with quite how damaging global air travel is and changing their attitude to it accordingly. Equally, I suspect that many will be well behind me, and I hope this article will join a rapidly growing body of journalism surrounding climate change that aims to stimulate a conversation about the climate emergency we face and how we can begin to tackle it.
Surfers have historically been very progressive in many ways, campaigning, for example, against the use of plastic well before the issue entered the wider public domain. Yet when it comes to air travel, I would argue we have been either woefully ignorant, or more likely, unwilling to face up to the fact that If we are to truly take this emergency seriously, we must sacrifice some of the things that we love doing, such as traveling to surf.
We must recognise that the very destinations that we love to visit are the ones that often stand to suffer the most at the hands of climate change
This doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning flying altogether, but I would argue it does require a fundamental change in our attitude from viewing global surf travel as part and parcel of the sport and something to be celebrated in magazines and films, to something rare and special.
We must recognise that the very destinations that we love to visit are the ones that often stand to suffer the most at the hands of climate change. We must recognise that no amount of environmentally conscious consumer decision making, whether it be recycling, avoiding plastic, eating less meat, reducing the amount we drive, or switching to renewables can offset the damage we cause when we regularly hop on a plane for a week’s holiday to somewhere half way across the world.
It would be amazing if this change comes from the top of the surfing world, and more high-profile surfers follow in the footsteps of people such as Fergal Smith in publicly rejecting the globe-trotting lifestyle that has become synonymous with the sport.
Yet while the various world tours are still in place and competitions remain the bread and butter for many of the world’s best it’s hard imagine such a change coming from the top.
I suspect the real change will come from us, the surfer who plans holidays in far off places without thought for the carbon footprint. The surfer who considers themselves loving of nature and the outdoors, in tune and respectful of the ocean, yet fail to see the conflict in flying half way across the world for a surf. It’s time we turn our attention away from global surf travel, and learn to appreciate what’s on our doorstep, or at the very least next doors doorstep.
Cover shot of JBay by Deon Lategan