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A for Effort

Are many of us environmentally-minded surfers actually taking the easy way out when it comes to combatting climate change and fighting for ocean health?

It was a stunning day for a paddle: 75 degrees, water as green as the purest emerald, a light easterly breeze carrying the scent of pine, the ocean tossed with a gentle windswell sending ankle-high waves smacking noisily into rock stacks crowded with barking harbor seals—as beautiful as the Golden Gate gets. After about a quarter mile of paddling, I sat up on my midlength, marveled at my good fortune to live in such a place, and wheeled the big board around to paddle back toward the cove where I started. A flash of light on a sliver of untouched beach caught my eye: a clear plastic bag washed up on a beachside boulder, the only thing marring a perfect scene. I tsk-tsked to myself, cursing the careless polluter who’d let the bag drift into the ocean, collected it, and began stroking toward home.

By the time I hauled my board onto the hot sand, I had three plastic bags in my hand, collected during the paddle back: two empty and torn ice bags and one Ziploc bag. I dropped the sandy bags into a plastic recycling bin in the parking area above the beach and exchanged a knowing look with a lifeguard spending his lunch in the truck. 

Minutes later I packed up my sustainability-minded wetsuit and pedaled home on a bike, self-satisfied. I’d done my part that day for the environment—a small part, but an important one, I assured myself. I ridded the ocean of three of the approximately 8 trillion bits of plastic floating through the sea, collecting in the guts of whales and sea turtles and breaking down into microparticles that turn up in the flesh of the snapper making up the fish and chips we order at beachside shacks. The bags would be recycled, in theory, meaning three fewer products would need to be made by the horrifying petrochemical industry ravaging the earth in the name of cheap and simple convenience. Or they’d end up back in the ocean after a seagull turned over the trash can looking for fried food leftovers. Either way, I’d done a good deed. 

But those little things were essentially the only steps I took that day to address the overwhelming environmental issues facing the ocean and threatening our ability to spend so much time playing in it. To be honest, picking up plastic bags from the beach and riding a bike when it’s convenient are about the most direct efforts I really make when it comes to walking the walk of environmental concern. That’s really not enough, not even a little bit, but it’s so easy to pretend it is. 

The surfboard I’d paddled that day was made pretty much entirely from petrochemical-based plastic. Far, far more plastic than in the bags I collected from the beach. When I’ve grown tired of this board, I have no idea what will happen to it. I’ll sell it, someday the buyer will too, and eventually it’ll end up in a landfill. The little things I did that day that felt like they were truly helping the environment—collecting garbage, riding a bicycle, feeling holier than thou (surely that offsets some of my carbon use, does it not?), really don’t amount to shit. 

Deep down, I know that’s true. We all do. 

It’s awfully comforting to feel like our own individual consumption makes an actual difference, but who are we kidding, really? You’ve read the news. You know how fucked the oceans actually are, to say nothing for climate change as a whole. The melting of Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets is happening way, way faster than scientists have predicted, mostly because of difficult to calculate feedback loops. It now looks like if we, as a species in general but specifically in the big industrial countries, don’t stop burning fossil fuels, like, yesterday, we’re gonna speed right past the point of no return in the next decade or so—about when Slater will actually retire. Maybe.

You’re fave little South Pac reef you went to for your bachelor or bachelorette party? Subsumed by sea level rise. Local sandbar that works best on a low tide? High tide is soon to be the new low tide. Recycling doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Study after study shows plastic just gets dumped into landfills. Eventually, it’ll end up in the ocean.

So it can feel good to ride that ecoboard and to drive that Prius or, hell, Daddy Warbucks, that Tesla to the beach. I patted myself so hard on the back for picking up trash I think I cracked a rib. But it’s pissing into the wind. Whistling past the graveyard. Pick a do-nothing cliché. 

What’s the point? We’re getting blinkered by conscious consumption. By doing the little things. It’s cool to buy stuff made from recycled plastic, but it’s still plastic, it’s still buying stuff, it’s still consumption, even if it’s mindful. 

I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy to placate us while the glaciers melt and the seas rise, but it does maybe obscure what makes for a far more powerful tool for change: political action. There are kids suing the government to curb fossil fuel production. There are people arguing—and winning—in courts in other countries to grant human rights to the environment in order to legally protect sensitive and crucial ecosystems. Picking up a plastic bag or riding your bike to surf are great, and we should absolutely do them, but they ain’t making strides to force real change in the way our country produces and consumes energy. 

But voting does. Running for government office and fighting for change does. Supporting political forces that are, even now, working their asses off for a clean ocean and a habitable climate does. 

That bio resin-glassed board you bought is great. Good for you. But it’s going to take more than us concerned surfers trying to buy our way out of climate catastrophe with feel good products like recycled fishing net boardshorts and mushroom-foam surfboards. 

I realize this may seem depressing, or accusatory, but it isn’t meant to be. Conscious consumption is great, and kudos to the brands that make it possible. But our greatest power is not as consumers. We can actually create the ecological future we want, or at least make serious efforts to get there that go far beyond packing our trash and recycling. We have tremendous collective power as an ocean-loving crew of hundreds of thousands.

We just have to learn to wield it. 

Rose-Colored Housman is a look back at some of journalist and Rock Fight contributor Justin Housman's classic pieces. Subscribe to Adventure Journal to read more of Justin's work or hear him twice a week on Rock Fight's flagship podcast: THE ROCK FIGHT.


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