Surfing Made Me An Environmentalist

Surfing turned me into an environmentalist. Though I wasn’t exactly a tree-hater ten years ago when I lived in a landlocked city, I was generally indifferent to environmental issues. I took an impartial stance on the climate crisis, and neither supported nor rejected plastic bag bans. I didn’t make any effort to reduce my carbon footprint. I lived totally detached from nature- mostly indoors, except when I walked pavement paths between climate controlled buildings. Unless inclement weather meant deteriorated traffic conditions or that I had to change my clothes, my visceral concern for the environment was zero. 

But when I moved to the coast and started surfing, I began to track the tides and water temperature and pressure systems. They affected the quality of my sessions, and thus the natural world began to matter to me. So as is the case with most noble pursuits, my transformation into an environmentalist began with selfish motivations.

I wasn’t a great surfer and I imagine that my stoked-ness was mostly rooted in finally having some connection with the outdoors. As I spent more time surfing, I found that the water, in all of its distinctive moods, is always beautiful. Even on days with less-than-ideal forecasts, when I squinted to see through the onshore wind and blown out surf, and on flat days where thick fog made the world look black and white, and on the days when the cold water froze me to the core, I would stay out just to watch the ocean’s drama.

My mood in the water only deflated when I found myself floating in a gyre of trash. This happened all too often, that I sat amidst a swirling, foaming galaxy of water bottles, plastic bags, and cigarettes, dotted with the highlighter pinks and greens of candy wrappers. In attempts to paddle away, the current would inevitably reunite me with the debris. So I’d give up and go straight to the shower to rinse off the salt water and microplastics.

Where does the trash come from, and where does it go? It looked as though somebody in an act of malice had dumped contents of an amusement park dumpster off a pier. But despite man’s great capacity for evil, I suspected that the presence of trash in the ocean was more the result of many well-meaning people living in a throwaway culture, and there simply being a lot of trash. Such an unmanageable quantity of trash that much of it was not destined for the landfill, but for the ocean. Perhaps in California’s case, for the great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Were the trash clusters that disrupted my surf sessions going out to sea, to enmesh and grow with the GPGP? Or were they defectors of the GPGP, washing ashore to litter beaches beaches? I decided it didn’t matter, because there is no good place for trash. Trash is an unwanted byproduct of convenience, and an estimated 14 billion pounds of it are dumped into the ocean each year.

But now, I realize that if all the trash in the ocean washed ashore, then a lot more of us would be confronted with the reality of the mess that we’ve created. After floating in this reality, with bits of it clinging to my leg and getting stuck in my hair, and trying to paddle away from it, and being unable able to do so because there’s so much, I know that once you have felt reality, you cannot unfeel it.

No longer can I go to the grocery store for a pre washed bag of arugula. Guilt is a powerful appetite suppressant, and I wouldn’t want to metabolize such a toxic emotion anyway. So I play a game of ‘buy this not that’, opting for food purchases that if I saw out in the lineup, I’d know they’d either decompose or get eaten and fully digested by an animal- rather than accumulate in the organs of some poor albatross. For every type of plastic I’ve found at the store, I see another in the ocean.

Though I could thrum on about living by my virtues and perhaps create an illusion of righteousness, it wouldn’t incite others to do the same. And it wouldn’t absolve me from the fact that in most of the non-grocery-related parts of my life, I am as much of a scourge to the planet as the rest of humanity. I ride my bike to save fossil fuels except when I drive my emissions heavy van. And I don’t buy anything wrapped in plastic except everything I can’t avoid.

In spite of my hypocritical foibles, I am trying to do less harm and nobody is making me. If someone begins to care about the environment, it’s not because someone else told them to. You must love something before you change for it, especially when that love is something as big as the planet, and that change is as outwardly minutiae as declining a plastic straw. I didn’t love nature until surfing showed me that the earth we have is too peculiar and beautiful to not try and protect through tiny actions.

All the ocean trash isn’t going to wash up on the beaches -only some of it - and the general population won’t soon have the outdoor access necessary to become enamored with the planet and to be confronted by our trashing of it. We won’t reexamine our individual and collective habits if most of us can’t get outside to see what we’re losing.

I really don’t want to lose surfing. I don’t want housing developments to change the sandbars that make a good break, I don’t want plastic to acidify the water, and I don’t want the animals to die. I want to spend the rest of my life collecting seashells and not bottle caps; chasing waves and not running from ever more violent storms. The change needed to stop ourselves from trashing the planet inconvenient, but regret is painful.

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