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The Water Will Rise

Surfers occupy no higher ground in the moral landscape of climate change.

features // Mar 14, 2022
Words by Ethan Davis
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Editor’s Note: This is a Stab Premium piece made free because Ethan, the author, insisted the message of the article shouldn’t be blocked by a paywall. Sigh…kids.

Before it was Danny’s house it was the Church of Jehovah’s Witness, and before it was the Church of Jehovah’s Witness, it was the House of the Rajneeshes containing the second largest gong in the Southern Hemisphere. Now the building belonged to Danny, or what was left of it. 

The building was a shell. The walls were gone and the floorboards had been stripped exposing the earth below. The floorboards had not rotten because they were old, they were fine a week ago. They were rotten because they had been soaked in water for several days prior, softened and warped. Now the plywood had a soggy Weetbix texture. The less porous hardwood beams that supported the plywood floorboards from underneath were fine. They were arranged in a matrix, and to cross the ‘living room’, you needed to walk across them like a gymnast beam, one foot in front of the other. If you fell, you would fall into a foul-smelling muddy sludge. 

When the floods came they had caused the septic tanks in the neighborhood to leak, and everyone in town had septic tanks. When the flood waters rose the septic runoff coated every surface in shit water and stained them brown. Insects were plentiful, spiders, flies, roaches, mozzies. As were microbes, mold and bacteria. 

“A couple of orgies went down here,” Danny assured us.

“Danny I love what you’ve done with the place”, said Toby upon arriving at the scene. Danny, staring at the carcass of his recently-purchased first home, and who had been getting the sympathy treatment from family and friends for the better part of two days, welcomed the edgy comic relief. 

The Northern Rivers is in the shits right now. Literally. The floods have affected more than 200,000 nationwide, and a significant chunk of those affected lost everything. The floods, topping 14.9 meters in some places, were the worst in recorded history. So far, the response has been almost entirely community lead, seeing ordinary folks stepping into the role of first-responders. Some surfers were among them, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Mikey Wright, Ryan Hipwood, and others used their jet-skis to pluck those drowning in their houses to safety. Blokes with tinnies and an outboard, who formed guerilla fleets in the first few days dubbed the ‘tinny army’, were the heroes of the rescue effort. 

Mick Fanning
This guy (and others) paid for multiple rescue choppers entirely out of pocket. He also spent a significant amount of time pulling people from the Tweed River himself. Photo by Rip Curl

When the rain subsided and places like Lismore were deemed safe to visit, you could find caravans hanging from trees, shipping containers in courtyards, gasoline rainbows in every gutter, and livestock corpses littered everywhere. “Army personnel have been walking down the street decommissioning houses on the spot,” says local plumber, Dunstan, who had taken temporary leave to help clean up the mess. “Those houses are a write off. I doubt anyone will ever build there again.” 

The long term economic consequences will be hammered given many were uninsured and it disproportionately affected lower-SES areas. There will be an incredible housing shortage, and what it means for property prices in affected areas is anyone’s guess. There will also likely be widespread health impacts re: stress, mold and contamination. 

But this story is not about the Northern Rivers floods, it is about climate change, which affects us all. We’re all aware about what climate change means, rising tides, melting poles, more frequent and severe extreme weather events etc, not many of us understand how it works though. The how of climate change is probably less important than the what, when, and who climate change affects, but if you do want to know more of the how, you can watch this clip below to learn all about it in this easy to understand, bite-sized morsel.

There was a time when climate activism was laughable. A problem for the future promoted by luddites and hippies. Climate activism is still laughable, but for different reasons, namely how in vogue it is. 6 million people joined the climate marches following Greta Thunberg’s iconic 2019 UN address, many more not fond of waving placards around Town Square were there in spirit. Climate consciences are now ubiquitous, manifested by reusable bottles, keep cups, mason jars, tote bags, and every single boardshort commercial using upcycled plastic. 

On the North Shore of Oahu, the first beachfront house fell into the water last month after years of sea erosion took out its foundations. Many others on the strip are threatened, and similar beachfront setups worldwide face a similar fate. Swathes of low-lying island chains in the Maldives, Micronesia, Tuvalu, and French Polynesia are expected to ‘drown’ in the near future with encroaching waters threatening to destroy land masses. Along with them, their waves as we know them. Kiribati, an island chain in Micronesia, has already purchased 12 square miles in Fiji, optioning the ability to relocate its entire population.

“Sea level rise, in terms of single digit feet, may not sound earth shattering, but one foot of vertical sea rise can mean 100 feet of inland creep depending on topography”. Photo by Ryan Miller

University of California Santa Cruz professor and sea level rise expert Gary Griggs, PhD, puts it in more immediate terms: “On the West Coast, El Niño events will cause sea level in the Bay Area to be a foot or two higher, for a month or two at a time. That’s like throwing in 50 years of sea level rise in the short term. Then you have king tides and storm waves occurring simultaneously. This is already happening.” The first surf spots to drown will be the low tide spots like Super Tubes, Stockton Avenue, Pitas Point, and Sandspit. Beachbreaks like Blacks, pointbreaks like Rincon and Malibu, and rock-reef breaks like Sunset Cliffs and Steamer Lane will be seriously degraded.

What may have seemed unfathomable a decade ago is no longer becoming that hard to fathom. It’s staring us in the face. The once teeming ecosystem and World Heritage Site, The Great Barrier Reef has now lost 50.7% of it’s initial coral cover to toxic acidification and invasive species in the past 27 years. In 10 years at the current rate, 90% will be gone incurring a mass disruption to the resident ecosystem. Sea level rise, in terms of single digit feet, may not sound earth shattering, but one foot of vertical sea rise can mean 100 feet of inland creep, depending on topography. As Jeff Goodell put it, “The difference between three feet and six feet is the difference between a manageable coastal crisis and a decades long refugee disaster.”

Will Steamer Lane have a mass exodus of surfers?

Those receptive to the existing reasons as for why we ought to do better with climate change aren’t the ones that need convincing. Preaching to the choir is not a worthy investment of time or energy, and as Stephen Fry put it, “it is a failure to prefer to be right rather than effective.” Convincing those already on your side is just affirmation-seeking.

Appealing to the selfish desires of those not convinced seems key. And selfishly, even the most bullish libertarian will care about raised taxes to cover increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters, or about the potentially declining value in their beachfront investment properties threatened by sea erosion, or about local, state and federal representatives being elevated to positions of power with concrete agendas taxing carbon and penalizing environmental foul play, or about investors shorting stocks because consumers hold them to stringent ethical standards. 

Environmental disasters or a proxy for inland folks to learn to love and care for the ocean?

I am sufficiently jaded to curb my enthusiasm of a global upheaval of corporations pillaging the environment for profit. Or people killing their crook cash cows. But interestingly, greedy kooks are losing their market share across a number of industries. Tesla’s market cap last year eclipsed that of top 5 rival carmakers combined. Big. Renewables dominated investment in new power generation and accounted for 70% of 2021’s total of USD 530 billion spent on all new generation capacity. Green innovation is a humming business ecosystem with folks like Sam Elsom, a lifelong surfer and the founder of Sea Forest, a company growing asparagopsis kelp to offset agriculture emissions being listed in GQ’s green innovators of the year.

Surfers occupy no high ground in this moral landscape, despite often flaunting our preternatural, quasi-religious connection with nature. As Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson pointed out, “If you can’t even clean up your own room, who the hell are you to give advice to the world?” and surfers can’t rage against the machine until we acknowledge our own dependency on the exploitation of nature for our benefit. According to industry experts, 175,000 boards are made every year in Australia with a heavy reliance on petroleum products and harmful chemicals, which is a lot. The carbon emissions of a single surfboard is estimated to be 272kg which is also a lot. On top of that they damage easily and age rapidly, travel on gas-guzzling cargo ships and quickly become considered outdated with rapidly progressing trends in surfboard design. So despite many surfers considering themselves nature loving purists, a look in the mirror might reveal our right to have moralizing god-complexes when lecturing others on the subject has been withdrawn. 

Right so what to do about it then? Can we unfuck ourselves before another devastating natural disaster? Probs not. But we can action several things that will make the world more livable for our groms. Here’s 9 of them suggested by the Imperial College London which I have translated from English to Australian.

  • Elevate politicians with climate policies who have the skillset to implement effective solutions. This might not mean the most radical. It means the person who can read the room and actually get people on their side
  • Eat less meat and dairy – Agricultural emissions account for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of global water supply. Plus, you just don’t need that much of it
  • Cut back on flying – John John we already told you how you could sail to events and still win the world title
  • Ride a bike, walk, carpool – self-explanatory, share your footprint 
  • Turn off the fucken aircon – save your $$$ and reduce your energy consumption – energy and heat production is the #1 biggest contributor to climate change
  • Plant trees, offset emissions, and protect green and blue spaces – They’re nature’s lungs
  • Invest responsibly – Money’s great, don’t give the pleasure to grubs
  • Cut waste – Buck’s 4 board Hawaiian quiver did the job. Also reusable bottles, mason jars etc make you look hot
  • Be interested in this shit – Make it about money if you need to, green tech is booming. Importantly here: Don’t moralize or be annoying, it’s not effective, which is kind of key here, we are all learning. FYI: Learn about hemp surfboards here, or watch Mikey’s joyride on Ryan Harris’ Earth Technology surfboards which have a 75% recycled construction. 
Don’t be annoying when trying to persuade someone. Photo by Ryan Miller.

If you’ve made it this far. Thank you. I also need to come clean and say I am in no position to preach, I eat bacon and eggs most days, seldom carpool, and am a big fan of air conditioners. If the tone has come of that as preachy, inform me and I will wear my leg rope on the wrong foot for a week as penance for my sin. 

At the end of the day, we wrap up work on the house. Friends, family and total strangers to Danny sit on his steps sipping XXXX tins. The 10-year old, son-of-a-builder, who at one point was operating an angle-grinder unsupervised, sipped a Coke. Danny, who had just lost a lot, seemed humbled by the community turnout. Me too, a sook in moments of human sweetness was filled with a sense of restorative hope that humanity and compassion was alive and well, and left before the feels got the better of me. 

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