THE ‘ELEPHANT IN THE CORNER’
By Rick Brown
The “green” Surfer’s Path and the Green Wave Awards are highly commendable, progressive initiatives, but don’t they gloss over one very important point? Surfing’s not “green”. By that I don’t mean the boards we ride, the clothes we wear or the paper our magazine is printed on. I mean surfing as a way of life. Ultimately no matter how many people start riding hemp surfboards and wearing organic wetsuits the “Elephant in the Corner” will always be there. Travel.
Travel is central to pursuing a serious interest in surfing, whether it’s driving around from spot to spot or flying to remote destinations. No matter how close some surfers live to their local break, they will spend a significant amount of time travelling elsewhere, whether that’s in a car or a jet plane. And flying is becoming ever more affordable. We’re constantly told we should be travelling more and further, whether it’s the government wanting to increase air travel, the Travel section of the Sunday newspaper, or the surf magazine telling us about that spot in Fiji or the Mentawais. In the old days we went on road trips down the coast for a bit of wave variety – nowadays we’ll just as readily fly to the other side of the globe.
It’s a fact that air travel, combined with wide-scale recreational car-use, contributes more to global warming than any other human activity, because we all do it. In the UK, it’s estimated that if air travel increases by the expected amount over the next few years we would have to completely cut out all other emissions if we were to meet the present targets for emissions cuts.
Ironically, many of the places most directly affected by global warming (rising sea levels, increased frequency of extreme weather events, etc.) are the very destinations that all surfers yearn to get on a plane to travel to. What can we do? The most workable solution to the problem of global warming is proposed by Mayer Hillman in his book, How we can save the Planet. This allocates every person an annual carbon allowance. The allowance calculated by Hillman is such that one return flight from London to New York would use the whole lot. That means no Indo trips, or any other flights at all, really. Try telling that to your average “trip a year” surfer, let alone the pro who clocks up more air miles than most trans-Atlantic businessmen. Of course, it’s highly unlikely to be implemented unless (or until) some environmental catastrophe occurs, but it puts the scale of the problem, and surfers’ part in that problem, in terrifying perspective.
I’m not saying surfing or surf journalism are directlyresponsible for increased air travel, or that we should all just stop travelling and surf only our local break. Governments and other bodies need to act to rein back our insatiable but ultimately destructive wanderlust and try and make it sustainable. Moreover, surfers only make up a fraction of those travelling by plane, so we’re not the root cause of the problem. But holding “Green Wave Awards”, or printing the magazine on recycled paper, or making our own individual efforts at recycling etc. might make us think we’re part of the solution, when actually most other aspects of our lifestyle (ie trips to the coast, flights to Bali) make us very much part of the problem. Put it this way: the relative good done by buying a surfboard that is produced with a lower environmental impact is reversed when you take that board on a plane to Fiji. Let’s not kid ourselves that dropping off a few bottles at the recycling dump on our way to the airport is achieving anything.
Of course we should all do the little things like recycling that collectively make a difference – we absolutely should, and it’s fantastic that green initiatives in surfing and the surfing industry are being championed by this magazine and held up as an example to us all as to how we can make our existence more sustainable. But I can’t help feeling that when we focus on those little things, we’re giving false comfort and distracting ourselves from the “Elephant in the Corner”. So don’t hesitate from buying a hemp surfboard or an organic wetsuit or whatever, but don’t pretend that by doing so you can sleep easy on the next long-haul flight to Paradise.
Rick Brown works as a trainee lawyer in London, so is forced to make un-eco-friendly trips to West Cornwall (his spiritual home) whenever possible for a surf fix. He takes a keen interest in environmental policy and hopes to become involved in that field after qualifying as a solicitor.