In preparation for sharing this story, I flipped through a book written by Gregory Borne and Jess Ponting titled Sustainable Stoke: Transitions to Sustainability in the Surfing World. In the context of surfing, stoke — a word that has been used by surfers since the 1950s — means excited, pleased, happy, thrilled. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, “stoke is an English adaptation of the 17th-century Dutch word stok, used to describe the rearrangement of logs in a fireplace in order to bring up the flames.”
Coincidentally, I was compiling data about global climate change at the time, thus, the stoking of a fireplace serves as an apt metaphor for how humans have affected the global climate over the past century — we have turned up the heat, quite literally. Global emissions of carbon dioxide — the leading contributor to climate change — reached an all-time high of 37 billion tons in 2018. It was also the fourth hottest year on record since the pre-industrial baseline.
Looking at the problem through the lens of those statistics makes finding solutions a daunting task. But on a smaller scale, like that of small, independent businesses in surf and tourism industries, carbon neutrality is achievable.
I learned this when I came to a camp located in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica in early December 2018 called Bodhi Surf + Yoga. I was there to work as an environmental consultant and was immediately struck by the company’s lofty goals (and achievements) in the realm of sustainability. Bodhi is a small business that utilizes surfing, yoga, nature immersion, and community engagement to promote individual, long-term, pro-environmental action for its guests. From a corporate responsibility standpoint, Bodhi’s pro-environmental outcomes are bolstered by partnerships with environmental non-profits like 5 Gyres, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and the Surfrider Foundation.
Surfing directs the individual’s attention outward toward nature and the elements, while yoga draws the attention inward toward the mind and the breath. Ultimately, these activities function synergistically in the cultivation of awareness—which, quite deliberately, is the meaning of the Sanskrit word Bodhi. And this newfound awareness, coupled with nature immersion and community engagement, serves as a catalyst for positive behavioral changes with respect to the environment.
In my particular worldview, surfing and environmental conservation have always gone hand-in-hand. In 2015, three years prior to coming to Costa Rica to work as an environmental consultant, I entered an annual Ocean Guardian contest in which participants are asked to share innovative actions they are taking to be environmental stewards in their local communities. One of the stipulations of the contest was that I sign the Ocean Guardian Pledge, thus initiating my Ocean Guardian journey—a year-long email campaign disseminating concrete actions of stewardship that individuals can take to reduce their environmental impact at home.
By early 2018, Bodhi had committed to going carbon neutral, and a little more than a year later they are now close to achieving said goal. So how does a small-business operating as a surf and yoga retreat actually achieve carbon neutrality? First, the company had to calculate its gross annual CO2 emissions, taking into account both emissions directly produced in business operations, as well as emissions indirectly produced by guests and providers.
In order to reduce its carbon footprint as a business, ownership chose to mitigate CO2 emissions by recycling, composting, gardening, planting trees, retrofitting appliances for energy efficiency, and using eco-friendly sunscreen, surfboards, and yoga mats. However, since the majority of guests travel to Costa Rica from outside the country, it became evident that there was a large amount of business-related CO₂ emissions that was not being accounted for. Realizing this was at odds with their purported goal of environmental integrity, they decided to account for the 161 tons of CO2 created by guests’ flights in their 2017-18 offsetting plan. The best way to achieve net zero carbon emissions, they decided, was to invest in renewable sources of energy that would save as much CO₂ as emitted through business practices.
In April of 2018, Bodhi purchased 186 tons worth of carbon offsets via NativeEnergy—a U.S.-based benefit corporation specializing in climate change mitigation—to neutralize its business-related CO₂ emissions for the 2017-18 fiscal year. This purchase provides more capacity to the Los Santos Wind Farm in Cartago, Costa Rica, which is located less than 100 miles away. At current capacity, this project can generate 12.75 Megawatts of energy, providing electricity to 50,000 people and saving 11,000 tons of carbon emissions each year.
These factors even need to be accounted for in details as seemingly minute as sales tax. Under the current capitalist paradigm, a typical business will add the price of a sale to the company’s gross product while forgetting to subtract the price discounted to the environment. For example, when Costco generates a sale of a Wavestorm surfboard, they fail to account for the entire life cycle of the product, i.e., the non-biodegradable polystyrene foam and plastic board will end up in a landfill somewhere, and someone will eventually have to deal with this waste.
The entry-level, low-profit-margin Wavestorm may seem cheap to the average consumer but the full cost of the board has not been factored in. This gross oversight in accounting cannot continue on forever, as indicated by the current environmental crisis. Therefore, a responsible tourism company needs to adopt the practice of what environmental essayist David Orr calls honest or full-cost accounting—accounting that includes ecological costs routinely written off to the environment and/or future generations.
In the current Trump political era, in which American elected officials (somehow) continue to overlook the dire need for climate change reform at the institutional level in favor of growing the national economy, it seems that grassroots activism is the only means of ushering in a new pro-environmental era. Fortunately, more and more businesses are recognizing their crucial role in spurring on this paradigm shift, as indicated by growing movements such as Certified B Corporation and 1% for the Planet. Recently, the responsible business exemplar Patagonia, a member of both aforementioned movements, updated its mission statement to reflect a sense of urgency: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.”
On the individual level, David Orr suggests instilling the idea of place in people’s minds so they start taking environmental issues seriously: “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love,” Orr wrote.
Surfers spend an inordinate amount of time in the ocean, literally sitting in nature. To not care about the water quality at one’s local surf break would be quite the Icarian tragedy. “The ocean gives and gives and continues to give indefinitely,” says Bodhi co-owner Travis Bays. “And as surfers, what do we do? We take and take and take. It’s about time for us to start giving back.” According to Bays, a father of two ocean-loving daughters, paying an emissions tax is a necessary step toward protecting what he loves—now and forever.
I want to reiterate that my experience working with one camp is not that of a typical tourism business, and once the façade of “surf and yoga retreat” is peeled back, this can be seen for what it truly is: an unconventional school bent on educating and empowering its students to become environmental stewards. Simply put, the mission of carbon neutrality is achieved in part by instilling a sense of place in guests, ultimately motivating them to give a damn about the health and continued prosperity of the planet.
For example, Bodhi leaves all their guests with a small blue marble at the end of their stay. The marble is meant to represent our home planet, hued blue by the vast oceans that cover more than seventy percent of its surface. For me, the tiny marble serves an apt reminder of my appropriate place in the grand order of things. The greatest change will have to come from within, by those who inhabit the planet’s predominantly blue surface—the surfers and yogis, the scientists and politicians, the small-business owners and corporate bigwigs. It’s about time someone stokes the fire on climate change reform, so why not us?