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“We have a spot which only exists because the steel industry dumped all their waste there, it’s a perfect right hander.”
An interview with surfer, academic and multimedia artist Dr Clifton Evers, who lives in the north-east of England
“We have a spot up here which only exists because the steel industry dumped all their waste there, it’s a perfect right hander that breaks over industrial ruins.”
It looks like Twitter is almost done, which is a shame as I’ve always found it useful for sourcing environmental stories and seeing what academics who study action sports are up to. These two interests came together in the work of Dr Clifton Evers, who I’ve followed on the platform for a while for his work on how pollution and what he calls the ‘fossil fuel industrial complex’ shape surfing.
Clifton is Australian but he lives, works, and surfs in the north-east of England, in the shadow of the UK’s industrial heartland. Hope you enjoy our chat.
Hey Clifton, how’s the surf been lately?
Shite! We’ve had no proper groundswell in the north-east, it’s been the worst start to a season ever…
You’re a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Newcastle University. Why did you start looking at pollution and surfing?
I went over to Fukushima as I had a mate there and we looked at how surfers were beginning to return to their areas after the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster. I thought it was interesting that the surfers were the first to go back to that space, and it prompted me to think about how people adapt, and also the purity of nature premise.
Can you expand on that?
When was nature ever pure? We’ve had carbon intensive industries and pollution for centuries and surfing, snowboarding, and skating are tied into that. Skateboarders started by skating empty pools made of cement, without petroleum you wouldn’t have cold water surfing. Good luck surfing where I am in the North Sea without a 5-6 mm wetsuit in deep winter!
Now we’re seeing some pushback and Yulex [a natural rubber alternative to oil-derived neoprene] has been developed. But if you think about what enabled these activities, it’s a fossil fuel industrial complex and that’s radical. It creates some nervousness when people in surfing come out with new environmentally friendly products, because we are so embedded in pollution, it’s produced these sports and cultural lives.
If you think about certain surf breaks, people belong to them because of the pollution. We have a spot up here which only exists because the steel industry dumped all their waste there, it’s a perfect right hander that breaks over industrial ruins. Locals learnt to live with it, not because they didn’t care but because they had to. What were they going to do, stop the steelworks or chemical plant which created all the jobs?
Even when the pollution was getting better the local crew would say no it’s still really bad to keep people away. But now there are major problems with the dredging for the freeport and it’s totally toxic again, the mass die-off of crustaceans is happening in this area. When you see the beach it’s an Armageddon. But people are still going in.
If there’s been a nuclear accident or tens of thousands of dead crabs show up on the beach, someone who doesn’t surf might say, why are you still going in?
We do though, don’t we? Because when you go surfing you feel good. People talk about it in terms of blue health and wellbeing but when you’re getting all that you could also be dying. The lads in Fukushima told me they had to weigh it up, but they love surfing, and they need it, for them it’s what makes life worth living.
It's funny as we have similar discussions down here on the south coast. We’ve had so much rain lately, and so many sewage alerts, but sometimes the forecast looks too good to miss…
Our relationship to pollution is nuanced. The fishermen in Fukushima use Geiger counters to measure the radiation before they fish, and if you’ve said to me 20 years ago, when you go surfing, you’ll have to check the SAS app for pollution I would have laughed you out of the room. But now it’s a daily occurrence. Surfing here people will talk about drinking full fat coke to kill all the bugs in their stomach. It seems silly but it’s also interesting as a tactic, others will only surf 72 hours after rainfall.
Different surfing communities adapt to pollution. They might look at ways to mitigate its effects, but they’re resigned to it and learn to live it. People might jump up and down and say why don’t you try and do something about it, but if I’m living in an industrial area that is heavily polluted and I’m struggling to put food on the table in a cost-of-living crisis I might not have time for the activism that say a middle-class person might have.
Who gets to be an activist? There are class and race issues, which affect whether you get to participate or not. Some of the most polluted places are often the most deprived in the country and then they’re being asked to be activists too. Some do, don’t get me wrong, and they inspire me daily, but a lot can’t.
And when people write about surfing, it’s pretty much the classic trope that surfers should be stewards of the environment, but that’s not always the case. In Norway, the government tried to fence off a surfing area for the birds, and the surfers fought to get rid of that protection. What does that do to the narrative about surfers being predominantly environmentalists? For some it is when it suits them.
Surf brands push the narrative of surfing in beautiful places. Should we embrace our imperfect spots a bit more?
I get a little irked by the way surfing is made to look very pretty still when it’s not pretty in a lot of parts of the world.
We surf opposite a big chemical plant, it has a flame coming out of the top, it’s completely dystopian, but it’s sort of cool. When the sun’s going down and the flame is bursting and you can hear these chhhhhhhhhh sounds, it feels like you’re in a Bladerunner film.
It changes our surfing aesthetic, but the industry doesn’t tell that story of surfing in the shadows of power plants and pollution, they want crystal clear Maldives, Mentawais, Fiji… Even the pictures of Cornwall [are pretty] but then you see the outflow at St Agnes. The photographer Lewis Arnold has got that aesthetic, and of course he comes from this area. The counter narrative has to be told too.
Is the optimistic take that we’ll keep seeking out these waves for some necessary release as the environmental crisis deepens?
I hope we do, but what if you just can’t go in the water anymore, or if you have to migrate away from places because of the conditions? I know people living in parts of Australia which won’t survive two degrees of warming, let alone the surf spots in those area. I want to be optimistic and of course we need hope to do stuff, but I think sometimes hope is about not surrendering.
When there is a possibility of making strategic changes, we strike but, in the meantime, you have to hang in there, and sometimes just surviving is the activism. You’re refusing to go away and shut up; you’re going to keep doing this no matter what.
To read more about Clifton’s work on Polluted Leisure head here
Clifton appears in Glass, a photobook by Lewis Arnold, which is an amazing celebration of surfing in the North Sea.
I’ll be interviewing Lewis for the next newsletter about his new film The Big Sea, which is showing at the London Surf Film Festival at the end of the month. Get your tickets here.
The new issue of Huck is out, and it looks ace. It includes a feature I did on the skate outdoor film Land for Everyone & a piece I did on using surfing as therapy featuring Wave Wahines & Reclaim the Sea. You can order it here.
I’m normally cynical about Christmas & brands but this year’s John Lewis ad did get me.
Please fwd this newsletter to anyone who you think might be interested & if you want to commission me to write about any of these topics please get in touch.
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