Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute
No better way to get a feel for environmentalism than to immerse yourself in the environment. Photo: Justin Jung

No better way to get a feel for environmentalism than to immerse yourself in the environment. Photo: Justin Jung.

The Inertia

For the environmental researcher, it is important to experience environmental issues in a real-life setting and, perhaps even more important, to take action on these issues. In that respect, surfing gives us a rich experience. If you’re a surfer, you live within the rhythm of the ocean and the weather. This makes you sensitive to changes in the environment and passionate about environmental issues. Also, to be able to convincingly explain the results of your research to civil society and local government, it is important to experience them in reality.

With regard to environmental issues, what researchers and surfers have in common is that work and sport is a part of their lifestyle. There could be other professions that are integrated into a lifestyle, but because I love these two activities, I would like to discuss how real life experience is important for your profession and passion while comparing the common points of the two. In particular, I will try to explain the advantages of having to experience environmental problems as a lifestyle through surfing for environmental researchers and other people who are passionate about their work and the environment.

As well as a sport to enjoy at the beach, surfing is also a lifestyle for those who live by the sea and are close to nature. Surfers do not necessarily have to be people who possess a professional surfing status. This is not strange if you consider surfing as a lifestyle rather than a sport. Therefore, there are many surfers who are serious about environmental issues and coastal protection but are not professional surfers.

People involved in environmental issues have many things in common. When I looked up “Environmentalist” in my English-Japanese dictionary (my mother tongue is Japanese), I found two definitions: 1. People who study about environmental issues, and, 2. People who live based on the principle of environmental protection. Being passionate about environmental issues does not only mean research work, it also means a living a lifestyle devoted to the environment. I am a researcher working on environmental issues, but I was also a practitioner for an international development agency as well as an adventurer traveling across Australia on a bicycle, and searching for empty waves with a tent and surfboard in Indonesia, New Zealand, etc. Analyzing environmental issues via a think-tank and working directly on environmental problems through international organizations and NGOs as well as protesting against coastal pollution as an activist are desirable careers for a researcher on environmental issues. It is essential to feel and experience environmental issues and to take action on these issues in reality. In that respect, surfing gives us rich experiences.

Environmental researchers and surfers are connected through a lifestyle that protects the environment. It is important for surfers and researchers to incorporate environmental issues into their lifestyle. Why do we love to surf? A swell comes from the ocean and raises a liquid wall or tunnel at the moment that it dissipates, and we enjoy riding it. However, if the seawater is dirty and the beach is a full of garbage, we do not feel refreshed and no longer enjoy being in the water. Sometimes, excessive coastal development eliminates waves. Therefore, surfers are sensitive to environmental issues.

So what is the purpose of researchers working for environmental issues? They live in the domain of science, and science comes from the term, “to know,” in Latin. So, the answer is “to know” the environmental issues and explore solutions. There will be several possible solutions and the solution you select will depend on the environment you experience through your lifestyle.

For example, a researcher in contact with the natural environment through surfing is receptive to environmental problems and will recognize that installing breakwater blocks blindly in the name of coastal protection will change water currents and may eventually destroy sandy beaches and the ecosystem of local plants and creatures. Such researchers will understand better why development should not be too fast.

The dry season in Indonesia this year had an episode of La Nina like 2008, so that the sea surface temperature was higher than usual and it rained much more than is normal in the dry season. As I surf every day in Canggu, Bali, I live in the rhythm of the ocean and the weather. I have experienced high sea water temperature and strange patterns of rainfall. I know that the easterly wind did not blow strongly in the dry season. Through the real world experience on environmental issues, an environmental researcher can discover a point of interest and verify the information obtained.

Field experience is fundamental to being a good environmental researcher. It is said that science should be objective, but it is necessary to set criteria for making a judgment such as “good or bad for the environment;” therefore, environmental science has to be subjective to some extent. Those involved in environmental issues should incorporate these issues into their life and be passionate about this subject. Otherwise, any attempt at solving an environmental problem becomes a business report balancing out with rapid development. Apparently, working on environmental issues is cool, which is why there are “hothouse plant” environment researchers who do not like to be covered with sand and mud on the beach. Sure, they can be smart and may write a report well on their computers while sitting in an air conditioned room, but is there a love for the environment there? Without actual contact with the natural environment, they are making decisions about the natural environment by treating it on par with their daily financial problems such as paying car loans and kids’ school fees. A sport such as surfing gives us the passion involved in environmental issues.

Environmental studies are an applied research area, so they are meaningful only if the results of research are used in the society. The research results have to be scientific. However, if the results are not communicated to development organizations and NGOs that need the results, it is almost meaningless to do the assessment. It is not easy to make people understand environmental problems scientifically. I have experienced the difficulties of bridging the gap between science and policy in Indonesia. That’s why I think we need to make a coherent argument clearly and passionately. A report in which we can feel the enthusiasm will be read by more people than another report that is only scientifically significant. A report is not the only way to spread awareness on environmental issues. It may also be done by visiting a development site with senior officials of the local government who usually decide everything around a desk. It may be in the form of a workshop with civil society organizations near a populated beach. Even if you do not come up with a concise number, you can make them experience the problems in the field, and let them meet civic groups living with environmental problems. Those who threaten the natural environment and the lifestyle of the people living there may feel differently after seeing, talking, and experiencing things. Again, the experience is important for better communication.

If you are an environmental researcher who has not played outside recently, why not go to the beach next summer? If more people surf and adopt an environment-friendly lifestyle, all environmental issues will be solved. Am I making an overstatement? I don’t think so.


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