“There is a smugness that comes with surfing. But research shows surfers don’t do enough when it comes to the environment.”
An interview with surfer, swimmer, and academic Dr Rebecca Olive, who is from Byron Bay, Australia
“There is a smugness that comes with surfing. Surfers think they’ve accessed some direct line to truth that no one else in the world understands. But all the research on surfers’ attitudes shows they don’t do as much as they know they should when it comes to the environment.”
I first came across Rebecca from her work on representation in women’s surfing and this excellent piece on surfing and localism. Her latest research, which I first heard her mention on theType 2 podcast last year, looks to deconstruct the idea of ‘blue health’, though she doesn’t call it that as you’ll see below, and ask why it’s always framed around what we can get from the ocean, as opposed to how our presence might affect these marine landscapes for better or worse.
Rebecca grew up in Byron Bay but moved to Melbourne, Victoria recently, where she is a Senior Research Fellow in the Social and Global Studies Centre at RMIT University. I hope you enjoy our chat.
Hey Rebecca, how’s the surf in Victoria?
Good question. I actually only moved here recently and I’m still finding my way back to the ocean. The surf beaches are about an hour and a half from me and commuting to surf sucks, so I’ve just launched myself back into the pool, which was also a real saviour during lockdown.
I have a bunch of fieldwork to do this year though so I’m super excited about that as I’ll be planning lots of trips to the beach.
That’s cool, what sort of fieldwork?
I feel really lucky. My work means I go swimming, surfing, and sailing in order to understand those sports and what the experience of doing them is like. I do lots of interviews and look at social media to try and understand the role of sport in shaping our relationships to ecologies and how we take care of those ecologies.
What led you to start thinking about ‘blue health’ and asking why it’s so often about how humans can benefit from being in these spaces, as opposed to the other way round?
I don’t use the term ‘blue health’ I use ‘human ocean health and wellbeing’, as oceans aren’t always blue. Where I grew up, they are, they’re crystal clear and subtropical, but I’ve travelled a lot and been in different types of water, it’s brown or grey or green, it can be murky or stink. [It’s been many of those things on the South Coast of the UK this week.]
There is so much work around how we get our health from place, I feel that too and all that work is wonderful, but my question is what do we do for the place in return? What about the health of the place and how does our participation in sport have impacts on a place?
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Thinking about issues of colonisation and localism made me think who has the right to think about a place and decide how it’s used. In Australia, it is usually white settlers talking about that and it got me thinking, what is their actual agenda here? Often their agenda is to take care of a place in order to access the waves, but they don’t think that’s what they’re doing, they think they’re part of the bigger narrative [of surfers as environmental custodians] so I started looking at the tensions in that.
I’m not in policy and I believe that real change has to come from regulation, but I do think we can change our thinking. We might change our voting practices when the option comes up or our consumption practices or we might change our actions. I might feel really good when I go swimming or surfing, but the truth is I’ve always left something behind, that might be microplastics from my swimsuit, it might be that I’ve peed out antibiotics or analgesics and left them behind in the water. Or I might have crushed some plants underfoot or sunscreen might have washed off my skin and become part of the film on the surface. We’re always leaving things behind, so I’m also questioning the purity of how we think our relationships to these places are, this idea [these coastal landscapes] are untouched and pure.
Do surfers have a deeper connection to the marine environment than people who don’t surf?
There is truth to it, we do feel connected because we’re immersed in it. And I do think there is something different when you’re immersed in a space, that could also be hikers in a forest, or a mountain climber could feel that on a mountain.
But I think there is a smugness that comes with surfing. Surfers think they’ve accessed some direct line to truth that no one else in the world understands. I say they as I don’t think that myself anymore, I’m sure I thought it at some point, but there is a kind of feeling that you know something other people don’t know, that riding a wave is something else.
But all the research on surfers’ attitudes shows they don’t do as much as they know they should when it comes to the environment. That might have changed since the last survey on this, but surfers know they don’t do enough, and that they’re not thinking about this enough. I think there’s an assumption that we’re quite connected to the ocean and already know enough but our consumption levels are very high, surfing requires a lot of equipment, a lot of travel…
I feel way more connected to the ocean and vulnerable and part of it when I swim than when I surf.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s the immersion part. You are just you and a pair of flippers and swimmers or a wetsuit, and maybe a goggles and hat. You’re pretty vulnerable. With surfing you’re a bit elevated, and I’m a longboarder and I think because the board is big and you’re not usually that far offshore, you feel like you could catch a wave in. But if you’re in the water with just these little legs kicking, maybe it’s that imagery from Jaws haha.
In your work, I read about the concept of ‘being prey’, could you talk a little about that?
The experience of swimming here in Australia is so different to the UK. There are a lot more big and threatening animals and sometimes it’s immobilising, you have to paddle in because you’re so frightened but mostly you just have to accept it. If you’re going to be in the ocean in Australia, you might encounter a shark. And the drone footage, which has shown all those close encounters with surfers, has really highlighted that. Sharks are constantly around us; we just don’t notice them.
And trying to make sense of that vulnerability, I was reading all these eco-feminist works by Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing and Val Plumwood, which look at the idea of vulnerability as productive and feeling vulnerable as a moment to pay attention to. Val Plumwood got in a death roll with a crocodile three times and said in that moment she realised she wasn’t a spectator, but she was part of a feast. And that’s how I feel when I swim.
What can we learn from that? That we’re part of an ecology, we’re not separate from this stuff. It wasn’t the first time I felt I was part of the natural multi-species world but it was when I started thinking deeply about it and how sport and physical activity brings us into these moments.
Pollution is another thing we’re encountering, when you’re absorbing it into your body, it’s part of your guts and eyes and ears and mouth and you have to start thinking about things differently in terms of what you consume and produce, and what you excrete and leave behind.
What is the answer to getting surfers more engaged with environmental issues?
I feel like people are more activated. We all know that using a keep cup or us not driving to the beach will not solve the problem, it’s so much bigger than that, and that can feel overwhelming and frustrating. But mass protest can be very effective, as Surfers Against Sewage have shown us, the mobilisation of multiple voices in the same direction is really effective.
In Australia, we’ve had Surfers For Climate campaigning and The Fight for the Bight movement [in which tens of thousands of surfers mobilised against oil drilling in a vast marine park]. Surfers have realised we’re quite good activists, and we’re good at visual culture. Surfing is very attractive, you get a lot of nice-looking people, who are very photogenic, and newspapers want to publish that kind of stuff and it gets lots of likes on Instagram. The Fight for the Bight was really good, the surfers were doing paddle outs, which look great visually and I think it’s something people can feel like they’re a part of.
I love that there is this much activism and advocacy on sewage in the UK and it gets a lot of international attention. In the bay here in Melbourne, the Environmental Protection Authority puts out alerts about the water quality for swimming, when there is storm water after heavy rainfall. Whatever is on the roads runs into the sea, I love those little reminders you see all around the world: “All drains lead to the ocean.”
I’ve never seen one of those in the UK…
You should start a movement, get a stencil, and get people to spray paint it on a storm water drain.
Haha, watch this space. What should surf brands be doing more of?
They need to invest in more ethical production processes and the cost of that can’t just be passed onto consumers. Accept that it’s going to cost them to do this, they are going to have some losses and not be able to maintain financial growth the whole time, especially the big brands. They’ll make the money off it in the long run, but they need to invest in this stuff now.
And finally, women’s surfing has evolved a lot in recent years, where do you think we are now?
The representation and treatment of women in professional surfing has really improved and that’s heartening to see. Am I going to celebrate the World Surfing League finally paying women equally? Absolutely not, they shouldn’t get any credit for finally coming to the party. It is really exciting to see women put in good waves, rather than being given the onshore slop, and to see the men support women’s surfing and talking so positively about it in non-patronising ways, that’s really great.
First nations people and feminists have driven a lot of the environmental politics that are in surfing, those things aren’t separate because they’re about the oppression of different people, animals, environment for our pleasure of sport and leisure. If you’re thinking about the marginalisation of people in a space, it’s really easy to start thinking about how animals tie into that as well.
And you can listen to herType 2 podcast with my good friend Matt Barr here, I found it a really inspiring chat.
If you’re interested in reading more about surf activism, here’s a piece I did for Mpora on the subject last year, including interviews with Hugo Tagholm (then of Surfers Against Sewage, now of Oceana Europe) and one my favourite surfers ever Belinda Baggs.
If you’ve been following the story about the mass die-offs of crustaceans in the North East of England, which I wrote about for Huck, the North East Fishing Collective have a crowdfunder going to fund independent research and their legal fees which you can donate to here. The government is expected to announce the findings of their ‘independent’ expert panel at 2pm today (Friday 20th January), will they finally #stopthedredge?
And last up, a piece for Raconteur on the limits of climate philanthropy.
Please fwd this newsletter to anyone who you think might be interested & if you have any story tips on any of these themes pls get in touch.
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