Editor’s note: This feature is supported by our friends at Klean Kanteen.
Greg Long has always struck me as a unique ambassador of big wave surfing. He’s a thoughtful, articulate fellow whose calm demeanor contradicts the wildman ethos one might project upon a skilled hellman. After all, these folks huck themselves over the ledges of small skyscrapers (sometimes) for money and (always) for the singular, accompanying endorphin hit. Long, however, is an enlightened adrenaline junky. We made a 22-minute documentary with Greg in 2012 called Sine Qua Non: The Psychology of Big Wave Surfing. The Latin roughly translates to: Without which (there is) nothing. Since that doc, Long nearly lost his life at Cortes Bank, won another world title, and radically transformed his philosophy and approach to the ocean and his work. Still one of the world’s most decorated big wave surfers, Long’s managed to invert his responsibilities. Now, he focuses most of his energy on bringing attention and solutions to causes he believes are essential to our collective healthy future. He still also surfs (the biggest waves on the planet). We caught up recently to discuss his latest adventures.
Greg! What’s happening? Give me the low down. You were in Puerto over the summer, and I think you did another trip more recently, yeah?
I was in Puerto but it was a very short trip as I had some other work projects at home. And the other trip was to check in on a surf-oriented environmental/social project I’ve been working on for a couple of years now with Twiggy. There’s a lot of detail to still be worked out, but we’re hoping it can potentially serve as a model or some form of inspiration as to how surf tourism can really be a mechanism for positive environmental and social support in developing communities and how visitors can ensure the footprints they leave behind are positive ones.
It sounds top secret.
It is a little bit…for now at least. It’s been a tremendous learning process in so many ways.
I like the intrigue. Well, we’ll know soon enough. It’s been cool to see a shift in your career. Not too long ago, your time seemed exclusively dedicated to being the greatest big wave surfer on the planet. And while you’re still riding the biggest waves on earth and pushing the world’s elite, it seems like that’s something you do “also.” Your primary focus seems to be on causes important to you.
Yeah, it really is. A big part of that comes from maturing as a surfer and far more important, as a human being. You spend enough time traveling the world, especially in developing countries and witness both the positive and negative impacts that can stem from an influx of tourism, and it forces you to reflect on your own actions and whether or not they are actually contributing to the betterment of these places. I was always tried to do my best and engage however I could to help support local communities in my years of travels, but if I’m honest, surfing was always the primary focus. That has most definitely changed, and, consequently, led to a deeper satisfaction and level of enjoyment in life both in and out of the water. And that is where the passion for the project I just mentioned originated.
And as far as a shift in my big wave focus, I guess a few years back, I started to feel like I reached a point where the effort that I was putting into it, versus the reward and sense of accomplishment, didn’t really match up anymore. The level at which I was doing it, entailed most of my time be spent training and preparing to do so, leaving very little room for much else in life. I didn’t feel like I was personally growing or being challenged in the ways I wanted to be anymore. Catching a big wave didn’t carry the mental or emotional weight that it once did for me, so a change of where I was putting my time and energy needed to happen. But, ironically, now that I am not chasing every big swell, I arguably love big wave surfing more than ever before.
Now my focus is really about finding ways to blend my passion for surfing and notoriety within the ocean community and beyond and helping to give back and create some positive change in the world.
Think about what’s changed since that documentary we made in 2012. A lot. That was before your horrific wipeout at Cortes Bank and another world title. So much has changed.
It most certainly has. As we all hopefully do to some extent through the course of our lives. I’ve had some extreme highs and some very low challenging moments, which most of the greatest lessons and personal evolutions have stemmed from. From nearly losing my life — which, looking back now, was the greatest thing that could have ever happened to me — to so many incredible travels, winning another world title somewhere in the mix of it all. It’s been a wild ride.
But, yeah, looking back and thinking about that interview and what my priorities were at the time, the mental state, I was in…I can’t help but laugh at it a little bit now. I’m ironically sitting in the exact same place at home where we did that interview. If you had asked me the same questions now, I am sure the answers now would be shockingly different.
Shifting to some of the initiatives you’re working on now, it seems like you’ve worked hard to align yourself with brands and partners that support causes you care deeply about. Whether it’s eliminating single-use plastics or responsible surf tourism. Can you speak to that a bit?
I’ve been on this planet for 36 years with the vast majority of that time either in, or next to the ocean. In that short period of time, especially in the last ten years, the changes I have seen take place on this planet from an environmental standpoint are staggering. And when you’re looking at the most pressing environmental challenges that we’re facing be it plastic pollution, climate change or anything else we have to admit that we all have been contributing to the escalation of these problems. For a rather significant part of my life, I was moving through the world rather blind to the fact that there were consequences of some sort to every one of my actions. And as easy as it is to adopt the mentality that I’m just one person, and what I do doesn’t make any difference, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. We’ve reached this critical point in time because billions of people didn’t think that their daily actions and choices didn’t matter.
So now I’m very mindful of my personal actions and choices and a part of that is choosing to align myself with brands who share the same values. Those who are regularly striving to minimize their impact on this planet and find alternative environmentally conscious ways of doing production.
Obviously, Patagonia is at the forefront of conscious production. Clif Bar, whose latest campaign was Make it Good…essentially supports and inspires their athletes and people to go out and find ways in which they can give back and make the world a better place. Otis Eyewear, whereupon having a conversation similar to this, immediately decided to invest in and launch a line of sunglasses made of eco-acetate…essentially replacing plastic frames, with all-natural, renewable and biodegradable material. And I have most recently partnered with Klean Kanteen. When looking at the global plastic pollution problem, a significant part of that is the single-use items that are in our lives every day…and they exist not based out of any form of necessity but rather convenience and sadly our own laziness. Plastic water bottles, bags, cutlery, straws and so much more. When you slow yourself down and realize how often we cross such items in our everyday lives it’s mind-blowing. But more so is how easy it is to replace them with reusable items. And doing so from what I have seen and experienced is actually one of the easiest on-ramps to creating radical change in one’s life. I always like to think that when you refuse a single-use plastic item, or pick up a piece of trash, or clean a beach, you are also cleaning your mind, and opening up new space to ask the question: How else can I do better? And then acting on the answer.
For me, it has all been a tremendous learning experience. It’s like going back to school in many ways. I’ve been able to spend some time with some of the leading scientists, researchers, designers, activists at the forefront of a lot of these issues both educating myself on how I can personally do better, and of better service using my platform to educate others. And having the unwavering support of brands and individuals behind me in the process is amazing. I couldn’t be more grateful for all of those opportunities, companies, and people.
And your arrangement with Patagonia is a little different than most athlete relationships with brands, right? You’re an employee there, correct?
Yes. The relationships they have with their athletes is much different than that which exists historically with most brands. That being that there are zero expectations to go out and perform in our sport. What they ask is for us to use the voice and platforms we have created in our sports as a force for good in the world. Whatever that looks and feels like for the individual, they are incredibly supportive of. And since most of us have built our lives recreating in the outdoors taking a stand to protect it in some form or another, it’s typically a priority for all of us. But, of course, the backbone and ethos of the company is built upon getting outside and having fun. And that can be summed up succinctly in Yvon Chouinard’s famous book, Let My People Go Surfing. So, when the waves or snow are good or there’s an incredible adventure opportunity for somebody, you won’t be finding them in the office.
I’m often getting Out of Office Replies from their crew, who is usually doing something that sounds awesome. So I appreciate them making time to get out there. Also, the SeaTrees initiative you’re working on with Sustainable Surf seems interesting. We’re working with them to make our EVOLVE summit carbon neutral, but tell me about that.
Kevin [Whilden] and Michael [Stewart] have been at the forefront of pushing the sustainability conversation in the surf industry well before it was on most people’s radar. I have personally learned a lot over the years from both of them. They just launched their SeaTrees initiative which supports regenerative projects planting and restoring mangrove forests, kelp forests and more. The idea being, people can purchase products or simply donate and in turn support these projects and “wipeout” their carbon footprints. As I mentioned before, there are consequences to all of our actions and decisions and traveling is one that I know leaves a significant CO2 footprint. And I have personally done my best to cut down on how much I am moving around these days. But in the event that I do, be it flying or driving, I keep a record of just how far I have gone. Sea Trees is a very easy platform that can help you calculate what your CO2 footprint may be and present a few options as to how you can help offset it through one of these projects.
Nobody in this world is perfect when it comes to their environmental impact, except for maybe a select few people living entirely off the grid somewhere. The majority of us don’t exist in a world that’s conducive to being perfect when it comes to these things. People need to drive to work or fly to meetings… But right now, I do believe it’s imperative that we all step up and try and do a little bit better. This program is just another easy avenue of doing so.
There are a lot of ugly numbers when it comes to plastic pollution and carbon emissions and pressing issues. Is there one that you’re most concerned with?
They are all extremely concerning to me! But I have personally spent a lot of time the last few years working on different initiatives around the plastic pollution problem. I have had the privilege of spending a good amount of time working with Parley for the Oceans on a number of different educational programs which are geared towards all walks of life…from rural communities, youth programs, all the way up to some of the world’s largest brands and corporations.
All of the environmental challenges we currently face are extremely complex problems, with no one single solution. We all need to step up in our own unique, individual lives like never before, educate ourselves and find ways to do better and remember that we are one human family living on this planet together. And that there are very delicate balances that exist between all living things in this world, and the harmony between them is what allows us to exist and thrive the way we have been for thousands of years. Sadly, our behavior and actions are now throwing those balances off at a staggering rate, and will ultimately lead to our demise if we don’t change. Changing these global challenges starts by changing ourselves.
I guess quite simply, as I keep on down my own unique path of being a passionate surfer, I’m just trying to look after those places I love, do my best to tread lightly, show respect for all living things and hopefully educate and inspire others to do the same along the way.
That’s all we can ask of ourselves, I think.
Editor’s note: This feature is supported by our friends at Klean Kanteen. Give them a gander, and chances are you’ll always have free, cold water available to you, and the earth will have a few hundred less discarded bottles of plastic on it as a result. It’s a win-win.