Wave Check: Will surfers lead the charge to stop environmental degradation?

In the span of two weeks, both Hawai’i and Mexico felt the aftermath of an encroaching environmental disaster hit their shores.

On Oct. 26, a state-owned PEMEX oil platform reportedly leaked off-shore and polluted beaches in Salina Cruz, Oaxaca. While the extent and amount of oil is not confirmed, wildlife covered in the substance were found in areas 42-65 miles away, according to the Save the Waves Coalition. 

Farther out to sea, the North Shore Coastal Resilience Working Group released a report highlighting critical concerns related to coastline erosion and community vulnerability on O’ahu. Among the concerns were the increase of risk due to climate change and sea level rise, along with “damaged and public beach access due to erosion, beach loss and inappropriate response measures.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

On the North Shore, about 28% of residential properties are built 20 feet or less from the shoreline. The gravity of the erosion has the NSCRWG calling for a statewide “managed retreat,” as hot spots were identified at the classic surf spots of Rocky Point, Turtle Beach and Chuns. 

The increase in residential construction and the properties’ close proximity to the water jeopardizes the working groups’ ability to implement mitigation measures, Lauren Blickly, a spokesperson for the O’ahu Surfride Foundation, told Hawaii News Now.

“While coastal erosion is a natural process, it has been accelerated by climate change and sea level rise and unfortunately private homes and public infrastructure have been built too close to the shoreline and the water’s edge and directly atop the natural dunes from which the shoreline would naturally replenish itself,” Blickley said.

In Salina Cruz, the immediate effect of the oil spill has been felt across communities and beaches. The initial spill reached beaches including Playa Brasil, Playa Azul and Playa Guelaguichi, along with the Salinas del Marqués wetland. The locations compose part of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, an ecosystem that provides life for endemic and vulnerable species of animals, but also is a main source of livelihood for local fisherman and surf tourism centers. 

The clean-up process is projected to last at most six months, but in the interim, fishing has been suspended. PEMEX has pledged to hire local residents for the clean-up.

To prevent another situation like this happening, the Save the Waves Coalition has developed a campaign to designate the area as a legally protected ecosystem. The plan also intends to halt the proposed construction plan of an industrial port next to the Salina Cruz wave.

“A conservation project in Punta Conjeo will prevent further threats to the wave, biodiversity, habitat, and the local livelihoods and will contribute to conserving this unique and important ecosystem,” Save the Wave Coalition’s surf protected area network manager Mara Arroyo said.

It sometimes feels a little exasperating to relay the gravity of environmental harm in a way such as, “Your favorite wave to surf is going to be ruined.” But unfortunately, when individual psychological barriers exist to confront the reality of climate change, there aren’t many options to turn to.

For example, psychologist and economist Espen Stoknes has attempted to grapple with why (some) humans have avoided dealing with threats to the environment. I qualify the question because it has been confirmed over and over that it isn’t the entire human population that is resistant.

“We need to be clear that this is a cultural phenomenon,” Stoknes said in an interview with Yale E360. “Because in countries like Thailand and the Philippines, or in Latin America and countries in Southern Europe, the concern about climate change is very high. So it is an issue that particularly pertains to people in wealthy democracies.”

Stoknes identifies five psychological barriers that are triggered by climate science communication: distance, which highlights the disparities that help wealthier countries avoid immediate impacts of climate change; doom, a catastrophic framing by the media; dissonance, knowing that our individual impacts do contribute; denial, ignoring unsettling facts; and identity, where we look for information that is self-confirming to our own values — and ignore the challenges. 

While any of these barriers is a column in and of themselves, identity has a specific place in a surfing column. 

When surfers have the time or the resources to travel the world on flight after flight to waves, including in the most acutely climate-vulnerable locations, it feels like an extension of dominion, or control. This is not to say that some surf tourism does sustain local communities, but the exchange between the surfer and that particular spot is usually one-sided; it is a chance for the surfer to get a ride of a lifetime, but it ends at that.

Many environmentalists, and Stoknes himself, have called for a reframing of the relationship between an individual and the environment to one of stewardship rather than dominion. It can start with small steps, such as a donation to local environmental or Native groups to each surf spot visited, or participation in the activism that these groups spark in order to facilitate often lengthy battles with state or federal governments to combat the effects of climate change. 

So while it can be somewhat uncomfortable to frame environmental destruction in a way that emphasizes harm to surfing, sometimes you have to work with what can work.