Stripped down to its bare essentials, surfing is intrinsically sustainable. 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. We should celebrate that, because we have found 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.
Surfing doesn’t need to be competitive to be fun. Unlike tennis or chess, it can exist without the participants competing against each other.
Surfing appeals to our innate need to interact with Nature, where you are blending in with the environment rather than fighting against it. Up-and-coming surfers could be encouraged to see it more like that, where surfing is a way to learn about the ocean and learn about yourself, and then share that experience with others.
Doing close-to-Nature activities, like riding big waves in remote locations, helps us realize experientially that we are part of Nature. The concept just creeps up on you, and, before you know it, it becomes so obvious that any other way of thinking seems absurd, almost disingenuous. This helps us to understand that we need to be a bit more humble, we need to stop destroying our environment, before it turns around and destroys us back.
Us surfers have a unique opportunity 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.
Surfers are an indicator species. We are on the ‘front line’, where environmental degradation often affects us before it affects other members of society. Surf spots are also a kind of indicator species too. If the surf spot is affected by some kind of human intervention, such as pollution, sand dredging, concrete structures, the same intervention will also affect other parts of the surrounding environment at the same time. Therefore, if we protect surf spots, the natural surrounding elements they depend on will automatically be protected.
Some of the people who have the clearest perspective on all this are those who live in societies where ancient traditions are still respected. People who arrived on the continents where they live, thousands of years before we, the European colonizers, arrived there. But they are not being listened to. They are, at best, ridiculed or ignored; at worst, slaughtered by hitmen paid by multinational companies. So, perhaps it is up to us as ‘action-sports participants’, as a kind of tribe in western society, to spread the message: that happiness doesn’t depend on iPhones, jet-skis, money or status; and the further we detach ourselves from Nature the less chance we will have of understanding how we are destroying it.
A lot of people find it easy to think of an excuse to do nothing about it. For example, you might be highly optimistic and decide that, whatever happens, somebody else will always think of a solution. So just relax and let them get on with it. But really that’s a bit of a cop-out – just letting someone else solve a problem that you are continuing to exacerbate. Alternatively, you might be pessimistic and decide that things are already so bad that it’s not even worth trying. So, what the hell? Enjoy the planet while you can. In this case, your deciding to do nothing is a self-fulfilling prophesy: it will help to ensure that it really is too late.
If you do nothing, you might just get away with living the rest of your life without too many changes affecting you. But our over-consumption here in the rich countries is affecting people the poor countries of the world right now, and if it doesn’t affect us in our lifetimes it will certainly affect our children and their children. So, if you decide to do nothing, you will be condemning your own children to paying back the environmental debt that you yourself created.
Whether we do nothing, or do something, our lifestyle in a few decades’ time will be nothing like our lifestyle at the moment.
If we decide to do nothing, we will change by default. The changes we will have made to the planet will force our children to be sustainable, because in a few tens of years’ time they will probably be struggling to survive. Change by default is what happened on Easter Island a few centuries ago. Jared Diamond in his award-winning book Collapse points out how the entire population of the Earth could end up sharing the same fate as the Easter Islanders, who deforested their entire island, depleted their own resource base, and then, finding themselves with no resources and nowhere to run, ended up cannibalizing each other:
“The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase. Those are the reasons why people see the collapse of Easter Island society as a metaphor, a worst-case scenario, for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.”
Or, we can change our lifestyle by design, not by default. That means changing our attitude now and convincing everybody else to do the same. Hopefully after reading this book you’ll have an idea how to begin, if you didn’t already know before. If you’re a surfer and you’re not already living in a more sustainable way than most other people, it won’t take much effort do so. Because surfers have that ‘secret’ – we already know how to enjoy things that money can’t buy. We can still be happy without a 42-inch television or a new pair of shoes. We know that after being out in the ocean at dawn on a six-foot day with light offshore winds (or whatever your preference) the feeling of owning a more expensive car than your next-door neighbour is somewhat empty.
Once we ourselves start living in a more sustainable way, we’ll quickly find out that we don’t actually miss all those things we thought we would. Once we realize that being more sustainable is actually less stressful and, in many ways, more fulfilling, we won’t find it too scary to try to become even more sustainable. Just like the natural systems of the planet, human behaviour is non-linear; it works on thresholds and critical masses. Hopefully, once we realize that consumerism is not all it’s cracked up to be, and sustainability can actually be more fun, we’ll quickly start to change the way we live, without looking back.
If we ‘cut out the middle man’ and used all that food and water to feed ourselves instead of farm animals, we would be much better off. And if we didn’t need to grow those farm animals in the first place, we would drastically reduce all the habitat destruction, deforestation and greenhouse-gas emissions that goes on behind the scenes of modern agriculture. I’m not just talking about the resources needed to grow, keep and slaughter all those animals, but also all the infrastructure needed to produce, store and transport all the food we give to those animals. But that, of course, would mean you would have to eat less meat. Which, perhaps, is something you feel a bit reluctant to do.
Proper laws to stop humans destroying their own resource base are always good news. Ideally, every part of the coastline and every part of the natural world should be interfered with as little as possible. It should be left to get on with what it was evolved to do, without any help from us. That should be the default condition. Then, if people want to build things like cities, airports and harbours, or want to remove huge areas of natural forest to plant genetically-modified monocrops, they should only be given permission to do so if it can be proven that the effects will be negligible. I know, that sounds a bit of a fantasy. But what is the alternative? Continue to destroy Nature until it is all gone?
I was convinced that big-wave surfing wasn’t just about chasing numbers. It was about the whole experience: being immersed in Nature, getting away from the stresses of modern life, understanding the ocean and understanding yourself. But of course, trying to explain that to people was like trying to tell a clock how it feels to have an orgasm.
Nowadays, instead of being about the experience of surfing, it was about the experience of seeing pictures of yourself surfing, and seeing your friends' reactions to them. Instead of dancing with Nature, you would try to conquer Nature. Instead of getting away from the stresses of modern life, you would take them in the water with you. Instead of using your own ingenuity and experience to understand the ocean and face the dangers, you would buy a jet ski and an inflatable vest.
When somebody builds a fixed concrete structure on top of natural mobile system such as a beach or dune system, it almost always causes more erosion, either locally or somewhere else up or down the coast. The shoreline at São Vicente evolved to be a mobile cobblestone beach, not a fixed concrete wall. Evolution carefully ‘chose’ this design as the best type of land-sea interface for this particular environment, and it took millions of years to do so. The cobblestones move around, so that the shoreline flexes and morphs and remains in constant equilibrium with the local conditions.
Surf spots, especially good ones, are unique natural phenomena just like mountains, waterfalls and duck-billed platypuses. They provide us with happiness, keep us healthy and bring us close to Nature. Smartphones and plastic bottles are also supposed to make people happy, but, far from being part of the natural environment, they exist at the cost of it.
New Zealand has been pioneering the concept of environmental personhood. Environmental personhood means that a natural entity such as a river or a mountain can be represented by a lawyer to denounce an act committed against it by a human being or company. These elelments have been declared to be no longer ‘owned’ by the government or by anyone else; they are simply ‘owned by themselves’. Maybe one day, surf spots around the world will also be ‘owned by themselves’, and, maybe one day they will be able to take coastal engineers to court for threatening them with violence and permanent disability.
We obviously need to switch over to renewable energy as soon as possible to help bring us away from climate chaos – nobody is denying that. But does that mean we have to sacrifice activities like surfing and kitesurfing, activities that bring us joy and happiness directly tapped from the energy of Nature? Isn’t there a way that we can have both? The kiting ban is particularly ironic: people are not allowed to use the wind to bring them joy and happiness, because somebody wants to convert that wind into electricity. Much of that electricity will probably be used to run devices like 52-inch televisions that make people’s lives better, or spin dryers that give people more spare time. Spare time that they can use to do things like surfing and kitesurfing.
A lot of people come up to me with the same old argument, that whatever we do it will never be enough to save the planet. So therefore you might as well just carry on flying all over the world, ordering useless gadgets from Amazon and eating genetically modified burgers until the planet goes to shit, which it inevitably will do. That way, at least you’ll have had more fun right up till the end, right? But that argument assumes that activities that destroy the environment are inherently more fun than activities that don’t. Which is just capitalist propaganda, fed to us by people who want us to continue consuming their stuff and making them more money.
The animal agriculture industry is a massive and totally underestimated contributor to environmental destruction. But we don’t really need to care about that because eating less meat is better for you anyway. It will help you not to get cancer, diabetes and heart disease later on in life. But even if you don’t care about that, it will also help you to perform better as an athlete, which ought to be a no-brainer.
The belief that we are the dominant species and everything on the planet exists solely for our benefit is called anthropocentricity; According to this viewpoint, we are separate from Nature, and superior to it. We have decided, in an arrogant self-fulfilling prophesy, that we are superior to other species because of traits that we ourselves have associated with superiority: for example, our large brains or our capacity to modify the natural environment. But maybe whales think they are the supreme species because they are so big; or albatross because they can fly, phytoplankton because they can do photosynthesis or sharks because they haven’t gone extinct. Did anybody think to ask them?
The fact that we are so arrogant that we think we are the superior species because of traits that we have chosen ourselves, means that we are probably not the superior species.
Anthropocentricity can be thought of as being ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. We can think of ourselves as undisputed Lords of the Earth and have no qualms about using and abusing every part of Nature because it is our God-given right to do so. Or we can think of ourselves as planetary stewards, where Nature is important and must be carefully safeguarded. The planetary-steward idea is much nicer but no less anthropocentric. It still sees Nature and humanity as separate entities, but this time with humanity the carer and Nature the cared-for. As if the Earth were a giant hospital, with the atmosphere, ocean and all species as the patients, and humans as the doctors.
Of course, we are not the Master Species. In reality we are just one among millions of species and other elements that go together to make up the planet, no more or less important than lions, jellyfish, fungus, bacteria, mountains, waves or low pressures. We are not separate from Nature at all, we are part of it.
In a time when we should be doing everything we can to put the brakes on climate change and planetary destruction, why the hell are we still digging for fossil fuels? Instead of using technology to develop forms of energy that don’t jeopardise the future of our species, we are using it to extract fossil fuels in ever more risky places using ever more desperate methods, like tar sands or fracking. Drilling for oil in ridiculous places like the Great Australian Bight is no exception.
The justification for protecting Mundaka is its uniqueness as a natural phenomenon. There is no reason why other surf spots in the world could not be protected in this way too, based on scientific studies of the physics behind the way they work, to identify those spots as unique natural phenomena. It wouldn’t matter whether a large number of people already surf the spot or whether it has only just been discovered; and it wouldn’t matter whether it brought in millions of dollars or zero tourist revenue. The protection would only be based on the physical uniqueness of the spot, nothing else.
In the end, are we going to continue thinking that we can redesign our surroundings better than they evolved naturally, until we turn the entire planet into a grotesque, man-made imitation of Nature itself? Shouldn’t we try a bit harder to adapt our own behaviour to suit to the environment instead of modifying the environment to suit our own behaviour?
Eventually, if enough local and international pressure can be applied, potential investors and shareholders will be scared off. They will start to think that the operation won't bring them the profits they hoped for, and they'll put their money somewhere else. That pragmatic solution is the best we can hope for. Just get them to worry about what they always worry about: money. Forget about trying to convince them that water to drink, air to breathe and food to eat for everyone including their own children and grandchildren, are more valuable than a yellow metal whose usefulness is limited to electrical contacts for gadgets that none of us need.
Doing some activity like surfing or climbing that brings us a bit closer to Nature, helps to give us a special insight, like a window through which we can see ourselves, embedded in Nature. We no longer feel that we are the dominant species; we are just another part of the workings, just like the plants, the soil, the rocks, the air and the sea. If only more people could see it that way.
In surfing, particularly in bigger-than-normal waves, the idea of dancing with Nature fits very well. Trying to dominate the wave is futile; you have to get to know it, blend in with it, match its every move. If you try something too cocky, you will fall. You and the wave are moving together, as if you were performing an intimate tango with a long-term partner. It’s a dance, but the wave is leading.
Next time someone tries to make you feel guilty about spending too much time surfing, which is apparently a useless activity because it doesn’t bring us money, status or a new car, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find a reason. Remember that surfing keeps us fit, young at heart and close to Nature. But more than that, surfing gives us Flow, a state of mind enjoyed by children and hunter-gatherers, but sadly lacking in today’s superficial, materialistic world.
We humans have decided that we are much cleverer than other animals such as beavers. Beavers are very good at building dams and altering the flow of rivers, but they don’t have agriculture, fossil-fuels and large machines. If, one day, beavers become clever enough to have those things, maybe they won’t be dumb enough to think that pieces of paper with numbers on them are more important than the air they breathe, the water they drink or the world they leave for their own children to live in.
Climate modification will be the last step in Man’s quest to control his environment. It will also probably be the last, final step onto the irreversible spiral of ecological suicide.
Bottled water is a moral and environmental crime. The companies that make it are stealing water which belongs to everybody, and selling it back us at extortionate prices in throw-away containers made of a toxic substance that never degrades. It is up to us to set an example. Stop buying bottled water and tell everybody else to stop buying it too.
To be able to enjoy the coastline as a natural playground every day is a privilege. You get a special insight into the fragility of the environment and the true value of the natural resources. Not just waves to make us happy, but clean air to breath, water to drink and soil to plant food. But after a few decades, that extra insight almost starts to become a curse. It makes you wonder why people seem to be hell-bent on destroying our life-support systems. It makes you feel that only psychopaths would knowingly produce a fossil-fuel-based, everlasting, toxic material in a factory that pollutes the local atmosphere and causes cancer to local residents.
Make no mistake about it, fossil-fuel companies do really nasty things. Partly to allow us to continue our petroleum-based lifestyles, but mostly to allow a few greedy men to make huge amounts of money. One example of their selfish and cowardly behaviour is when they choose to operate in countries with easily-corruptible governments or non-existent environmental laws, simply because they wouldn’t get away with it elsewhere.
We surfers are naturally aware of environmental problems before most of the rest of the population. Therefore, we ought to be environmental 'influencers' and show the rest of the world how we can help to preserve our life-support systems for our children and grandchildren. One way to do this is to keep unnecessary use of fossil fuels out of our surfing. Or at least try to do so. And if you can’t resist the temptation to bring fossil-fuel burning activities into the ocean with you, don’t brag about it.
For decades, climate scientists, environmental philosophers and evolutionary biologists tried to warn us. First about climate change, species loss, pollution, resource depletion and habitat loss; then about the perils of geoengineering. And, finally, about human detachment from Nature. It was the third factor that led us not to address all the others, and which led to the final demise of the human species.
We don’t have much time left to do something about it before the shit really does hit the fan; before ecological suicide and societal collapse become inevitable. For me, personally, as a surfing ambassador and environmental activist, it eclipses everything else I do in my life.