Green With Apathy
The Pacific Garbage Patch, and other environmental issues that remain off surfers' radars
This feature appeared in the June 2009 issue of SURFER Magazine.
Jim Moriarty has a problem. Here he is, 45 years old, graying, in a T-shirt and jeans, sitting on a rock. He wears Vans and fashionably oversized sunglasses. He is the head of the Surfrider Foundation. Nominally, in the professional-good-news department, he is fresh off of a victory in the Save Trestles campaign—wherein, you might note, he and his foundation Saved Trestles (of course, there are those who believe that Trestles was never threatened, but more on them later)—and has recently returned from a week in Washington, D.C., where he sat in a room with policy wonks contributing to newly-elected President of the United States Barack Obama’s ocean environmental policies, and he is riding a proverbial wave of interest in all things green, which itself is very fashionable, yet he’s still faced with the same problem that he’s had since taking over the Surfrider Foundation in 2005. That problem is not a simple one, and it is not all unique to the Surfrider Foundation or Jim Moriarty, but we should try to frame it anyway.
But before we do that, we would be well served to digress for a minute and take a look at another problem: Right now, in the Pacific Ocean, at approximately 145 degrees west latitude and 38 degrees north longitude, about a thousand miles off the coast of California, there exists something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Because you’re reading SURFER Magazine, you’re likely a surfer, or at least longing to be the same, and by virtue of that fact, you probably fall into one of two categories: 1. You are already environmentally engaged, and so you already know all about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and are snickering at the mention of something so environmentally elementary, or 2. You could care less about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, because, well, because if you went around caring about everything that some God-Damned Environmental Watchdog Organization told you to care about, you’d spend your days caring about this and that and the other, and, quite frankly, you’ve got enough to worry about with your own life, your job, your bills, and your problems, and in the rare instance that you do have a free moment, you’d really rather just ride a wave—guilt-free, preferably—which really doesn’t seem all that much to ask. Right?
Regardless, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in an oversimplified version of events, works in collusion with something called the North Pacific Gyre. Basically, the natural currents of the ocean draw plastic trash out to sea, and, because the currents work in exactly the same way, they swirl the trash around and it gets deposited, eventually, in the center of the figure-eight of the current, in this thing called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This process takes about five years from the time the trash leaves the beach to the time it arrives at the center of the gyre. The trash, because it is plastic, never decomposes, even if it is broken down by the sun and by wave friction into pieces as small as about 5 millimeters in diameter. The tiny red and blue and yellow pieces, extremely small though they may be, add up to form this Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The thing about this Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which sounds so fantastical that it can be easy to assume that it doesn’t really exist at all (which, by the way, those same people who believe that Trestles was never threatened, believe the same way they believe that Global Warming is the greatest PR fix foisted on mankind in the history of the marketable world. But, again, more on them later) is that it is as large as the United States. That is not an exaggeration, or a typo. Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—the same ocean that you surf in everyday and that your kid pees in during the summer—there exists a field of plastic debris that is the size of the United States. And it is growing by the day.
Moriarty himself is rather obsessed with single-use plastics of late, and he points to a study that might somehow succeed at being more alarming than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch statistics: A study has found that there is more plastic in the ocean than there is plankton. There are so many statistics like this that it can be thoroughly and fundamentally depressing to contemplate them seriously, which speaks to Jim Moriarty’s problem.
“I see things like the garbage patch,” Moriarty says, “And I honestly, seriously, in my heart, question whether we’ll be around in 100 years.”
Okay, so now on to Jim Moriarty’s problem. Jim Moriarty’s problem today is, in fact, the same problem that he wakes up with every day: He is sitting here on this rock, in late January, on a day so sunny and warm that, now that you think about it, does feel unnatural, on a historic beach in Southern California called Swami’s, with a writer from SURFER Magazine who himself is trying to tackle the question of what really are the biggest environmental concerns facing surfers, and why it is that surfers (including that writer from SURFER Magazine who drove his own 13-mpg V8 pickup truck to said interview) seem to do so little to protect their self-interest, given that the pursuit that they have based their lives around is 100 percent dependent on a healthy planet for its success. Jim Moriarty is sitting here, explaining that much of his job is asking people, who are by nature self-interested, to care about the environment, which, by nature, does not care about humans. This, you can see, is a problem. Put more simply, the problem is this: How can you make surfers, who would seem to have every reason in the world to care about the environment, embrace more environmental change? Put even more simply, the problem is this: How do you make a surfer care, and fast?
“Surfers aren’t leaders,” says Moriarty. “They’re not. They’re so smitten by the experience of interaction with nature that a lot of things come second. And one of them is the environment. That’s a generalization—there are certainly a lot of people where that’s not the case, but as a generalization, I think that’s true.”
It is both. It is a generalization, and it is true, but out of fairness, let’s say this: Surfers do care about the environment…to an extent. Most of us recycle, we turn down the heater, we sprinkle the lawn every third day instead of every other day, we carpool, we pick up three pieces of plastic on our way in from the surf, we pack our trash, we take only pictures, we leave only footprints. But, really, when there’s something so apocalyptic as a Great Pacific Garbage Patch out there for us to contend with, how the hell are we supposed to care? It’s sunny out, and the surf’s on the rise at Swami’s, and if the world’s going to melt with us on it, then we may as well ride a wave before that happens, right?
Jim Moriarty’s problem, of course, is not his problem at all, but all of ours: Our future as people, and, to a lesser extent, the future of our recreation as surfers, is dependent on an ecosystem that is categorically unhealthy.
To that end, Moriarty wants surfers to understand the global context of the environmental issues they face. “We’re trying to change the world, in a big way,” he says. “I know that’s a big statement, but I say it with confidence. I don’t mean to suggest that Surfrider should stop doing beach clean-ups, but you can’t only be doing beach clean-ups. You need to be influencing policy, you need to be engaged on a national level.”
This is exactly right, says Mark Massara, Director of the Sierra Club’s California Coastal Campaign. Himself a renowned Environmental Attorney who’s known for fighting tirelessly for California coastal issues, Massara is something of an elder statesman in the arena of beach and ocean environmental awareness. Asked to identify the No. 1 environmental issue facing surfers, Massara is deliberate: “Climate change is the single biggest issue—environmental or otherwise—facing surfers, and all humanity. It is impacting, and will increasingly effect our economy, our physical environment, wildlife, water resources, food production, recreation, and surfing in a myriad of ways over the next 25 years.”
To many, this might read as scripture, but not to all. So, now to address those people who don’t feel that Trestles was ever threatened by the toll road, who think that the garbage patch is quote, the biggest piece of crap, that it doesn’t exist, and that it can’t be proven, end quote, and who think that global warming is, “the biggest con on the planet. So is the fact that there’s any sort of scientific consensus. The environmentalists are so snotty and holier than thou, which is also a bunch of crap.”
Here’s where things get sticky. The person making the above statements, while unwilling to go on record with their actual name, is a surfer with 30 years experience who has worked in the surf industry for his entire career. We’ll refer to this person hereafter as George.
So, after a long series of observations about how global warming isn’t happening, how we’re all being sold a pack of lies, how the media, the Left and environmental NIMBYs are to blame for the same, how surfers are swallowing up all of this hook, line, and sinker, George says this: “I’m way more concerned with sewage running into the water than I am about global warming. There’s a lot more proof that your chemical plant is going to pollute the water than there is that climate change is happening.”
To set the record straight for one moment, we should say this: First, we should all care about sewage, and our own backyards. Second, climate change is happening, there is a consensus, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch does exist, and is growing. The evidence here is overwhelming, and though there are other, more appropriate, more scientific forums for this point to be made than SURFER Magazine, it’s worth noting that within academic, scientific, political, commercial, financial, religious, social, and commerce sectors, there is a broad and growing consensus. Even many contrarians have stopped being contrarian. But not George.
Moriarty says he’s had conversations with people like George plenty of times over the years, and ultimately it comes down to this: “I realize when I have these conversations that these people have to believe what they’re saying. Because, if they don’t—if they concede that global warming is real—than they’re saying that they’ve lived their whole lives being wrong, and they’ve contributed to this problem.”
Okay, so, the record is set straight, even if Al will never agree with any of what’s been said here. But in a sense, it’s a non sequitur. Great, global warming is happening, but how does that relate to your life as a surfer? Massara explains: “Take just one example: fisheries. Many climate scientists now believe that ocean warming and acidification will cause fisheries to collapse before 2050, and that increasing acidification of the oceans will cause coral reefs to die as well, a double whammy that will eliminate fish and most fisheries permanently. Take another example: sandy beaches. Many scientists now believe that if rising sea levels and shoreline armoring continue unabated, sandy shores will disappear from California and around the globe within a century. Drowning beaches don’t just eliminate beach combing—it will ruin surfing environments across the planet.”
Which leads us back to our central question, which is how do surfers fit into this picture? What can be done? Is George right that we just don’t want to face the problems in our front yard? And really, what good does a beach cleanup do if the climate is going to change and 6 degrees are going to kill us all? What’s ground zero for surfers in the environmental concern?
“Ground zero is where you live,” says Moriarty. “Ground zero is what we love. Ground zero is for all these people out here that have made surfing the wave a much higher level of priority than the environment, ground zero is for them to actually understand that riding that wave, in order for them to have that, the environment is a part of that.”
What does that actually look like, though? And is there a disconnect between the types of environmental work most surfers do, like beach clean-ups, and the dire problems facing surfers today, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Global Warming, etc.
“No, I don’t think so,” says Massara. “We have to continue to care for our local front yard and beaches while we ratchet up the pressure on politicians and policy makers to initiate the type of state and national measures necessary to ensure dramatic reductions in carbon emissions over the next three decades. California’s goal of 80 percent carbon emission reductions by 2050 is great, but if we aren’t prepared and forced to change our lifestyles, it won’t happen. Talk is cheap; we’ve got to ensure money and our tax dollars push action rather than business as usual.”
That pressure, and surfers’ impact on policy decisions, was no more apparent than in the fight to block the extension of the 241 Toll Road in South Orange County (the same toll road, by the way, George rallied to have built) and which would have built a toll road through San Clemente State Park and near Trestles in San Clemente. The Surfrider Foundation, the Coastal Campaign, and other surfer interest groups fought vigorously against that toll road, and ultimately defeated its passing.
Almost as important as that victory itself, though, say Moriarty and Massara, was the manner in which it happened. Over the course of two hearings on the issue, more than 6,000 surfers were in attendance, making their largesse felt as policymakers grappled with the decision. They went head to head with big, big organizations with lots of money. And they won.
“I used to say that organizing surfers was like herding cats,” says Massara. “It isn’t true anymore. I think any one of those 6,000 people who attended the public hearings to defeat the San Onofre toll road will tell you it was time well spent.”
When Massara’s comments are related to him, Moriarty nods fervently in agreement, and says that “Trestles,” as it is now referred, can be used as a catalyst to create environmental awareness going forward.
“Trestles was big,” he says. “It was a single rallying cry that brought activists, chapters, boards, industry—it just brought everyone together. Everyone made it their own.”
And that, Moriarty says, is the small key to tackling the big problems facing surfers and people dealing with environmental struggles—making it their own.
“Everyone’s got their green thing,” he says. “Everyone’s going green. And while on one level that is grotesque, on another level I see it only as positive. To me, it’s like you can only be a poseur for so long. Like, back in the day, if you went to listen to Black Flag and you weren’t into it, it was so obvious and you’d be hating it. I think that’s the same thing, especially through the surf industry.”
And, Moriarty says, as people, particularly in the surf industry, become more environmentally aware, they tend to care more genuinely and more deeply, taking up their own issues and their own causes—which is where a group like the Surfrider Foundation comes into play. “We fail if we don’t give people a way to understand,” he says, citing that it comes down to surfers on a person-by-person, issue-by-issue basis. “If locals want to engage on it, we want to help them out.”
Meanwhile, Massara says that education has changed the playing field.
“I think most surfers care intensely about the quality of the coastal environment. In many cases, however, it is a matter of balancing jobs, family, girlfriends, and time for surf with a desire to protect the planet. Many times it is difficult to know exactly what use of limited free time will have the best impact on protecting the coastal environment.”
So, where do we start? On this point, Massara and Moriarty say that all change starts at home, but surfers need to know that the changes they make on a local level reverberate up. Take Trestles, for instance. A group of locals came together to fight the toll road and preserve the state park, sure, but that effect had a much bigger impact.
“What many people may not have realized,” says Massara, “was the positive impact of their actions on protecting the planet from the needless carbon emissions and climate change that would have been wrought by that awful sprawl-inducing highway to nowhere.”
In that sense, continued engagement by surfers—from the beach cleanup at their local break, to attending a meeting or writing a letter on an issue they care about, is how change is happening.
“The day of the clueless surfer is long gone,” he says.
Which is comforting, since the world—and the surf—depend on it.