In 1990, Chris Hines and his friends were just a bunch of surf bums hanging around looking to catch the best waves. But when they decided to take a stand against the sewage pollution that was literally making them sick at their local surf break in Cornwall, UK, all that changed. Within just a few years, the grassroots organization they founded, Surfers Against Sewage, became a massive, respected voice in the fight for cleaner water and better regulations in the UK, and one of the most effective groups in the history of environmental activism.
Described by the BBC as being among the British government’s “most sophisticated environmental critics,” Surfers Against Sewage has helped to bring about enormous environmental change, and is responsible for landmark changes in British industry standards and water treatment policy.
On Sunday, Hines will be telling the Surfers Against Sewage story at the Lab. But first I caught up with him (just barely – he almost missed our interview because he went surfing instead) for some practical advice on making big change happen.
Sometimes the problems we’re facing are so massive that it seems impossible for individuals or small groups to make large-scale change. Did you feel this way when you started out? How did you deal with it?
It was a massive task, and we were incredibly naïve. And I think our naivety was one of our strengths… But it was a whole David and Goliath thing. The more we looked at it, the huger it was. We had ten water companies, the British government, the environmental agency, which was called the National Rivers Authority until the mid-1990s. That was who was stacked against us. [That] was a lot of people and a lot of power.
But every time we went into the water we would be swimming and surfing in and around slicks of human excrement, panty liners and condoms, they would get stuck onto your head when you ducked under a wave. You couldn’t avoid any of that, and that fired us up. The more that our government or the water companies said no, your beaches are fine, we’re not going to do anything about it, and any time we felt overawed by it, I would go back down to the beach and I would get angry. I’d come back out kind of going, ‘No, you don’t know.’ And we believed that. So, the more people would say, ‘You can’t do this,’ the more we would say, ‘You want to bet?’
You were just a bunch of surf bums, though. What made you an activist group that people listened to? What can activists do to be taken more seriously?
We did know our facts very well. I knew sewage pretty damn well. And I guess we were rowdy, and troublesome, but we also would engage. I once gave evidence to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in regard to a takeover bid of a water company. This was high finance, you know, something completely beyond me. And yet, I made sure I understood, and I did put a suit and tie on. Some people didn’t understand why I would do that. They said, ‘Come on, you’re a surfer, you’re selling out.’ I never sold out. It was always me inside. Yes, I feel more comfortable in a wetsuit than I do in a suit. But if we were in the middle of Africa or something and we were going to meet a tribe, we would pay respect. And that is in effect what parliament or the Monopolies of Mergers, or the City in London, is. They are in a way a different tribe. And if you show a bit of respect to them, then that gives you a stronger basis upon which to challenge them.
So be respectful, understand, put the suit and tie on, and go and do what they do better than they do it.
What advice would you give to grassroots-level activists today to help take their action to a larger scale?
The big things are, know what your aim is, and keep coming back to that. Identify the problem, and know your problem inside out, whatever it is. If it’s dog poo in your local park, or it’s litter, identify the problem, and come up with everything around it. Understand the legislation.
Then come up with a solution. You can’t just say, that’s a problem. You’ve got to come up with a solution, because otherwise, what are you expecting? If you just complain to the authorities, well, it’s the authorities that came up with the system as it is.
Then you have to create the environment for change. Use the media, be attractive, get it down to sound bites, but sound bites backed up by science and fact. Be more media-savvy than the people you’re taking on. . . . You also do things like buy shares in companies. Then you can go to their annual general meetings and you can ask all sorts of awkward questions and you can put forward your case with your solutions. . . . Understand them. Understand the pressures that are on them. They need to return a share. If you understand and you go in there they can only say no. Understand the regulators too . . . because they’re not going to come, necessarily, to your beach, or to your park, so take it to the corridors of power yourself.
Everybody that you’re trying to lobby, they all use the system. They’re part of the system. In a lot of activism, a lot of people sit outside and say, well, if we were to go to an annual general meeting or if we bought a share, or talked to those big bad people in London, we’d be selling out . . . but they’re trying to do the right thing. I don’t think any of them set out to issue a directive or a law that does the wrong thing. They probably just don’t understand how it rolls out in reality. And so we would help them. We pretty much had open door if we wanted to go talk to the European Commission, and they were really good fun.
So engage. And make it fun. It’s important to have a bit of fun in there because it makes you attractive to the media. If you’ve got fun with a serious side to it, that’s good. . . . Identify the problem, come up with a solution, create that environment for change, make it fun, fund yourselves, believe, be committed, and . . . use every single tool that those you’re trying to change would use.
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Images: courtesy of Chris Hines