How will Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, fight for environmentalism when the leader of the free world thinks climate change is a ‘Chinese hoax’?

How will Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, fight for environmentalism when the leader of the free world thinks climate change is a ‘Chinese hoax’?

Welcome to the future. Donald Trump, that outlandishly fake-tanned, rich, playboy, post-truth politician is president of the United States. Our idols are all dead and our enemies are in power. In this new world it’s easy to lose hope and become a nihilist.

But, just like other dark times in history, there are unintended positive consequences to negative turns of event. And out of this cesspool of disappointment a new flurry of inspiring, innovative grassroots organisations and resistances are forming.

As part of our collaboration with Patagonia over the next few months we’re reaching out to incredible people leading the charge in environmental and sustainability issues and finding out where the frontline is in the battle today and what we can do to help.

Today we’re speaking with Surfers Against Sewage CEO Hugo Tagholm who joined the organisation a year after its inception in 1990 and took over in the top spot in 2008.

Give us a little bit of history on SAS?
It started in 1990 as a single-issue pressure group on the sewage issue that was so chronic at the time, and we’ve now evolved into one of the leading marine conservation charities in the UK, working on range of issues. The new sewage is, without a doubt, plastic pollution in our seas and that’s probably our lead campaign.

What work do you do fighting plastic pollution?
Plastic pollution is such an issue in our seas and it’s got solutions at every level. We work with tens of thousands of volunteers around the coastline who get involved in beach cleans every year… And then we work at government level too. We were instrumental in bringing in the five-pence plastic bag charge last October, which has already been proven to reduce the circulation of plastic bags by six billion… That’s one of our big campaign victories… We’re now on a very similar journey with plastic bottles, which are a litter species that we see across all of our beaches. And we’re calling for a deposit return system to be put in the UK. Our older members remember that very well – when you used to get 20 pence back for returning your bottle to the shop – and in many countries that sort of system still exists and they collect far higher percentages of cans, bottles and containers. To give you one example, in Germany they collect over 90% of plastic bottles back into the recycling process and here it’s just over 50 per cent. The rest will end up in landfill, or worse in our oceans, polluting our beaches and killing wildlife.

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How does something like Trump’s election in the US impact on the work you do and the challenges you’re trying to overcome?
It’s funny that he calls climate change a Chinese hoax yet in Ireland where he owns a golf course he wants to build a huge wall to protect his golf course from the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. So the man clearly doesn’t operate much joined-up thinking, which is what we’ve seen during his entire campaign to become president. It’s a very disjointed campaign, which is part of what I think people now call ‘Post-Truth Politics’, where candidates don’t even have to say the truth to bring certain parts of their electorate along with them. We’re very worried. Trump is putting in place leading climate sceptics to be in charge of the environmental agenda. He wants to reopen coal and put a huge accelerator under business and manufacturing, which may be good for jobs, but may also have a huge impact on our environment. So it’s going to be testing times. We’ve just seen Brexit and the EU was the very reason we were able to have success in our first decade because of directives like The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive and The Bathing Water Directive, which has helped improve our water quality right across Europe. So while we’re going to have the Great Repeal Act come March to bring all of that into UK legislation, the concern is that it may be able to be unpicked moving forward without the EU to watch over it. But what I do think is a positive unintended consequence to the huge swings to what could be described as the right, is that it has re-politicised people. I think people now do realise that their vote counts and there’s more strength given to the grassroots community. And I think we can help catalyse that into an even bigger movement in the environmental surf sector, to engage people with taking real action in protecting the spaces, the wildlife, the waves, the reef, all of the things they want to protect in the UK and elsewhere.

What do you find exciting in grassroots activism right now?
I think there are all sorts of movements across the environmental sector. We’re part of a huge global movement called Break Free From Plastic and this is aligning organisations all over the world, from the very small grassroots to the big traditional charities and businesses to a certain extent, to really take action on plastics. I’m excited to see that voice being galvanised and I think it’s a response to a true and real issue that people are seeing on the ground. That’s a very authentic experience and I think that what we’ve seen in these elections is that where you’re able to tap into people’s authentic, real experience you can really galvanise change.

How important still is your heritage as a surfer-led organisation?
Surfing is so much more than just riding waves for a few seconds, it’s the whole experience – being immersed in nature and surrounded by nature. In this age when there’s more and more disconnect with our natural world I think that’s very important. We’re all in front of screens, on our phones, disconnected from people and places around us and I think that surfing is something that brings that whole experience, and the need for that experience, back. It’s a core part of our identity, and our members’ identity. And often we’ll describe our own supporters as Marine Indicator Species because they surf at the mouth of rivers that are polluted, or walk across tidelines filled with trash, or see a development that might be affecting their beach. So it’s always important that we keep harnessing that energy. Of course we represent a much wider audience than that and we use surfing to inspire those people too.

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Often, when you actually expose people to things – that they don’t understand or that they stand to lose – they can become great advocates and ambassadors for that cause.
We always go back to that old Jacques Cousteau quote: “People protect what they love.” I do believe that. But people have to be careful not to become complacent. I think there are people who think just because they’re using the environment they are an environmentalist already, they’ve taken action. But I would always urge people, to actually get involved and take action. If you’re a surfer and you’ve seen marine litter, take part in a beach clean, lobby your local MP about new legislation that needs to come in to help stop the flow of litter to our beach, use your consumer choice to make the right choices, to minimise your own plastic footprint, and actually take action. Don’t just assume because you’ve been surfing with dolphins, and you love your beach, you’re an environmentalist.

Leonardo DiCaprio was recently criticised for flying all over the world for his documentary Before The Flood. Can you only be an environmentalist if you’re a perfect environmentalist?
I don’t think we should be put off. We’ve got to do what we can. None of us can do everything and we all have an impact and we have to be careful not to be demoralised. I think a lot of people can point a critical finger at Leonard DiCaprio flying around the world, doing what he wants, and then telling everyone there’s this big disaster. But we can all do our bit, however big or small, and we’ve got to keep growing that and pushing ourselves to a more sustainable world. My fear with the Donald Trump election is that we may see the sequel – After The Flood – all too quickly, where we go down a road of accelerating the really big drivers – burning coal, opening new coalmines. And actually that could really be the end game. But we’ve got to remain optimistic and do what we can. We’ve never been more aware for our own resource limitations… And I think we’re going to see innovation… In 10, 20 years with innovation from people like Tesla, what are we going to see on renewable energies and materials and recyclables? What are we going to see on a truly circular economy? How much cleaner can we get water around the world so people can use their oceans and rivers for healthy, happy balanced lifestyles? I think we have to be hopeful and keep doing what we do and have the courage to keep fighting for that change.

Why, when there is so much innovation and access to knowledge and information, do we still have climate change deniers?
Vested interests maybe could play a part in it? There will always be for and against any school of thought. The science is there in an abundance. If they want to be deniers then that’s just them and we have to carry on putting the scientific facts forward to create the new world people want to live in and need to have around them to be sustainable.

What would you say to people who may say there are more pressing issues – like unemployment and health and poverty – that we need to deal with before the environment?
I would say there’s a convergence of all of these issues into one central place. You can’t separate people’s health from the environmental impacts we’re having, you can’t separate those environmental impacts from the global economy and globalisation and production and manufacturing. You can’t even separate out some of the health issues that humankind is experiencing from these pollutants that we’re putting into this world. This is all part of the same agenda and we need to look at it in a more joined up way to start living in a successful planet.

Why is a brand like Patagonia important?
They are the exemplar brand of innovation when it comes down to reducing impact, of looking at new sustainable solutions, of sharing that information with other companies, of sort of leading the way. We’re delighted to work with them. They share our own passions for the environment. We speak the same language. And I think it’s important we see successful leadership from a business that is committed to positive environmental change. Because that can then inspire other businesses, which may not have brought the environment to the core of their agenda, to see that a business can still be profitable, make their products, and do much more good to protect the environment that we so rely on.

Are you hopeful for the future?
Yes I remain hopeful. I’m pleased to see more and more action being taken, more groups emerging on the plastic pollution issue for example. I’m pleased to see the great success stories we’ve seen on water quality so far. So yes I think we’ve got some good success stories to inspire people to show that we can protect these spaces. We’ve seen organisations like the Surfrider Foundation protect a wave like Trestles forever, which is not only an iconic wave but has a great nature reserve around it. So there are great success stories and we must build more.

If someone’s reading this and they feel inspired what’s the first step?
I would always suggest they get involved with their local, or closest, environmental NGO, whether that’s Surfers Against Sewage or not. Reach out to us, become a member, get in touch with your regional rep, come to a beach clean, get involved and take action. Whatever you do, take action. Don’t think just by liking or sharing something on Facebook you’re taking action. Pick up the phone, write a letter, come out to an event and make yourself known in a physical way.

As part of our collaboration with Patagonia, we’re also hosting a screening with snowboarder Alex Yoder and his new film Foothills, and a panel discussion with a wooden boardmaker and sustainability expert, at the Huck gallery 71a Wednesday November 16. Tickets are free but you must register on eventbrite.

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