Celebrating the 15th Anniversary of the Surfrider Foundation, San Diego, CA
August 28, 1999
by Peter M. Douglas
I am delighted to be here.
Congratulations to Surfrider for 15 years of remarkable growth — growth in membership, vision, effectiveness, and credibility. You're still a bunch of mavericks, but in my book, Surfrider is today one of a handful of the premier environmental organizations in the world dedicated to protecting the coast and ocean. You have come a long way and I salute you for your community outreach and evolving activism, your effectiveness and your uncompromising commitment to your vision of a healthier environmental future for marine environments around the planet.
I also salute one of my eco-warrior heroes who is no longer with us, one formerly among you as a champion and co-founder of the Surfrider Foundation who would be enormously proud to see what this organization has become. Tom Pratte, my friend, you will always live in our hearts and be an inspiration to those who knew you, especially those who labored at your side in the early years of the struggle for coastal protection.
Surfrider is a marvelous example of what citizen activism is all about. Several people share a concern about a particular issue protecting a special surfing area have an idea, decide to organize, and then they do it. The result is an association of like minded people coming together around something they love to do and building that association into an activist organization that today has global effects on the public, especially the young, and a degree of political clout its founders probably never dreamed of. You all can be proud of the rising organization we celebrate at this gathering you are making a difference.
I was lucky and caught a great wave 28 years ago and have been riding it ever since -- that wave is environmental stewardship.
And today, I want to speak about environmental stewardship and making a difference.
I have been a social and environmental activist for 32 years and know from experience that every individual can make a difference in whatever cause you choose to engage. The key is to make a conscious choice to get involved and then do it. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and picked coastal protection as my cause in 1971. I have never looked back to question my choices. I have, however, looked back every now and again to better understand why I decided to do what I did and because I know that remembering where I came from renews my resolve to stay on course and keep on keeping on.
It wasn't until 1996, when I turned 54 that I decided what my lifelong vocation (or career) would be. I am not putting you on, that's the truth. And it was the public, citizen activists including many of you here today, who made my decision for me. In another respect though, I still don't know what I'm going to do when I grow up because I hope I never do. I am serious about life, but I don't take all of my own doings or those of others too seriously. Life is too short and there's too much to experience that I hope I never stop being a kid on my first outing to the zoo I'm going to see all I can, I'm amazed by the diversity of animals on the planet, and I'm excited about still casting a shadow on wonderful Mother Earth.
Even though I did not know what I wanted to do in the way of career or vocation until relatively late in life, I always knew I would only work at something I like doing, something that is personally and socially meaningful and about which I am passionate, that is intellectually challenging and not easy to do, and something that I am good at. If I made a living at it as well, that would just be an added bonus. Indeed, I know how fortunate I am because ever since I began working in this field in February, 1971, I have been amazed I get paid for the work I do because it's the kind of work I like to think I would do for free.
From time to time I am asked what it takes to do a job like mine and to do it well? What is and is not "a job well done" is a matter of relative judgement, but from my perspective here's what I think is desirable and, in some instances, necessary.
When any of us think about where we are and where we're going, we have to understand where we've been. Bear with me while I give you a little background about myself so you have some perspective about where I am coming from.
Much of who and what I am and where I am as a spiritual and temporal person has to do with Nature the living and dynamic Earth, the heavens and energy fields of being, and our connectivity with ages past and yet to be. Of course, my personal and family histories have a lot to do with it too.
I was born in Berlin in 1942 in the midst of terrible war. Allied bombers destroyed our home on December 5, 1944. We turned away from the ruins of our house and the backyard bomb shelter that had saved our lives to seek refuge on a farm with family friends near the Polish border. The winter of '44 was hard upon us as retreating German armies on the eastern front forced us to flee just hours ahead of advancing Russian troops. Traveling by tractor and train, by foot and horse-drawn wagon, we joined a desperate flood of refugees and ran for weeks, stopping only upon reaching relative safety just inside the American zone of control in Bavaria. Though very young, the horrors of war, of death and destruction, of hunger, deprivation and suffering were indelibly imprinted on my psyche.
I spent the next five years growing up in a war-ravaged land. In early August 1950, what was left of my family began another journey this time by way of England to this country. Our crossing of the English Channel was my first time at sea and I absorbed it on deck, mesmerized by shimmering images of seacoasts and wreckage of war reaching up to us from the depths of dark waters all around. Months later, we embarked an oceanliner bound for a New World of hope and promise.
My first awe-inspiring encounter with the power of oceans -- of Nature -- occurred over several very cold December days in 1950 on the north Atlantic, as I stood at the ship's rail. I still picture clearly a seemingly endless reach of heaving, mountainous seas lifting and dropping with bone-jarring ease our very, very large ship. I spent hours on deck during storm and relative calm searching the horizon. I spotted my first whale and giant manta. I saw an albatross too -- the first of many I have encountered since then in my life. As angry as the sea was, I felt no fear only excitement and wonder about the vastness and enormity of it all. My soul was drawn into the ocean as one given over entirely, without resistance, to the Siren's song. It was there on that journey an intangible, unbreakable, lifelong bond between Ocean and me was forged.
I remember well our landfall in America shortly before Christmas -- Lady Liberty standing tall with torch held high to light the way. It was only years later that I understood why I shed tears as we steamed under her shadow to our berth on a bustling New York waterfront. We had some troubles with immigration officials but after my mother's work with the allies during and after the war became known we were given VIP treatment.
Now picture an eight-year-old with my experience landing at Los Angeles airport just before Christmas. Our route included a stop in Chicago, a place even colder than the north Atlantic had been. We were met by relatives in a convertible automobile, and drove along South Bay beaches to our new home in Palos Verdes. Tall palm trees swayed gently in a balmy southern California breeze and tanned, seemingly carefree people ran across golden sands and played in a fanciful surf. I leaned back, felt the sun on my face, closed my eyes and knew, without doubt, that if paradise exists on Earth, this had to be it.
Fond memories of my early California years are framed by beaches, surfing, diving, camping in the desert and Sierras, and long hours of labor on tugs, barges, a garbage hauler and passenger boats working between the mainland and Catalina Island. I was a little dizzy in those days and had a good time. Out of ignorance and an unthinking, foolish urge to dominate, I scarred the earth a few times in my youth. It is inconceivable to me today that I would spend eight years doing part-time work on a converted trans-pacific racing sloop collecting garbage and trash from ships in Los Angeles harbor and dumping it in the ocean off the east end of Catalina. Sometimes we even shot holes into barrels of gunk picked up from Navy ships so they would sink. After college, my working time on ships, culminated in a six-week adventure from L. A. to Rotterdam on a Norwegian chemical tanker.
During my time growing up in southern California, I spent most of my free time on the beach or in the water. I was a junior lifeguard in Redondo Beach and surfed for years on handcrafted balsa boards until I finished college. When I began surfing in the early '50s there were only a few boards on the water. The last time I was up on a wave in 1965, I was one among many dozens in the water. One of them ran me down breaking my board in half. I was keenly aware already in the mid '60s that surfing was a rapidly changing experience.
I also did a lot of diving in those days and remember pounding hundreds of abalone steaks and eating fish caught in the rich near-shore waters just south of Torrance Beach. Today, my experience in a sea of plenty is a thing of the past, because the sea of plenty is no more.
I was privileged with a fine secondary education in an all-boys school in Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula in rustic surroundings. As a working scholarship student, I lived happily in a converted tool shed behind the kitchen and was pretty much left alone. Often, on moonlit nights, I took animal tracks through thick woods to the rocky shoreline near Bird Rock.
And it was there my conversation with ocean, land and the heavens took on deeper, philosophical meaning. Waves driven by temperamental winds, drumming on the shore, imprinted my soul with awareness of peaceful harmony and perpetual motion in Nature. Sitting for hours, searching star-filled heavens for clues to the essence of being, moved by the mystery and wonder of it all, I wrestled with grand, confounding questions the young will ask. And I found some answers on that ancient seashore bathed in moonlight, alone with diamonds sparkling in the sky and shadows of finely sculpted rocky forms whispering mysterious tales of land's end.
Humbled and overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty of time and place, my heartbeat slowed and I heard voices in the silence of the land and sensed harshness leave my life. It was there I embraced faith and grew the philosophical holdfast for my being. It was there I came to terms with knowing there are no answers to the universal "why". It was there I determined that what matters most to me is living the questions I asked, and making my life, in the words of Barry Lopez, "a worthy expression of a leaning into the light."
After college and a year of self directed studies in Germany, I decided to go to law school not because I wanted to become a lawyer, but because I wanted to understand how the institutions of governance and the legal rules of control over human behavior work. I wanted to become familiar with the principles and regulations that govern society so that I could be free to do what I really wanted to do and possibly make a living too. Of course, I had no idea what I "really" wanted to do but I knew that that would reveal itself in time. Little did I know then, how valuable my legal training would be.
After law school and a period of alienation and disillusionment in 1969 brought on by the turmoil of the times, my wife and I left the country searching for another place to settle. After more than a year looking at other countries we shipped back across the sea via Mexico on a leaky old Spanish freighter that sank a year later when her pumps gave out.
Why did we come back? I won't speak for my wife, but I came back for several reasons: The most important being, that I realized this is my homeland, a home I adopted and a home that adopted me, but a very real home to me nevertheless.
The perspective I gained from our travels in other lands convinced me that while the United States is many things to different people, the one thing it is for everyone is a remarkable geography of hope and renewal whose diverse cultures are woven together by Constitutional principles and ideals that empower ordinary citizens to become involved in matters affecting their lives and to speak out and work for change within protections of law. The United States, especially California, more than any country I know, supports and encourages a life style of personal freedom and opportunity that enables, indeed requires each generation to rediscover and redefine its own values including personal responsibility, accountability, and sense of community.
Lying on the remote, white sands of the Tunisian island of Djerba, the land of the Lotus Eaters during the age of Ulysses, I remembered my activism in law school when I first began to believe I could make a difference and, if not, that I had at least to try.
I recalled too the advice of a wizened sage and friend with whom I studied in Germany who had suffered Nazi harassment and incarceration when he dared to speak his own mind. He told me: "Never give up on the new homeland that is yours even though deeply troubled by the injustice and absence of vision and compassion in it. Construct a personal culture of philosophy and values that holds meaning for you and then commit yourself to a lifetime of learning and action. Don't be an innocent bystander, afraid of becoming involved. If you want to make the world a better place for the children, you must work for change. Help shape the world of people because it will, in any event, shape you." The cynic in him once expressed it another way: "If you are going to get the shaft anyway, you might as well help shape the shaft before you get it." I, being the eternal optimist, would rather see it the way he first said it: "It's a beautiful world and one should contribute to making it a better place than it surely will be without our involvement."
Another reason I came back was because of a deep appreciation for the opportunities and skills I had been given in this my adoptive country. I had known hardship and desperate times. My family arrived here with little more than wits, energy, determination and a few friends. I was grateful for what I had received and wanted to give something back. I have never felt anyone owes me anything and I came to appreciate the difference between giving and taking. I also knew well the stark contrast between totalitarianism and government by principles of law.
I also remembered not to forget that, in a very real sense, what we have in this country today came at great sacrifice by others in the past. What many brave hearts gave dearly to secure before our time, we must work hard to preserve because the precious rights and material privileges of living we now enjoy in this land did not spring spontaneously into being and certainly are not self-sustaining. It saddens me to see the growing numbers of people who take so much for granted personal freedom, democracy, economic and personal security, education, parks and open space, infrastructure, a clean environment, and more. We, as a nation, have lost respect for tradition and forget too easily how we got here. That is one reason, we have no clear or collective vision about where we're going.
In addition, there is on the street a "victim" mentality and a need to fix blame on others for our own inadequacies. This mentality seems to say: "They owe me. If I'm not making it, it's "their" fault not mine. After all, I'm the victim in all this." This attitude reflects an increasing absence of individual accountability and an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for anything. Add to these conditions the erosion of a collective sense of responsibility for the well-being of the community, and we have before us a fairly grim picture of the future.
But before you get all depressed, let me remind you of what Mark Twain said when asked what he thought about Wagner's music. He said, "It isn't as bad as it sounds."
A characteristic of this country I admire, is the ability of its people to rise to the occasion of any challenge and to overcome adversity by coming together and pulling together to do the right thing. This country also has the unique ability to constantly rediscover and redefine its values around a central core of sound principles including participatory democracy, pluralism, the rule of law, liberty, humanism, tolerance, self-reliance, personal industry, and generosity. And I think we will do it again in our time.
I have often said that coasts and oceans, like precious geography everywhere, are never finally saved, they are always being saved. I also believe that public ignorance and public indifference are the greatest threats to these precious environmental commons of the planet. Over the years I have become more hopeful and optimistic about the future of coasts and oceans because I see that people care deeply about them and are becoming involved in ever increasing numbers and in more effective and sophisticated ways than ever before. In a very profound sense, many of the most important values inherent in environmental commons, such as coasts and oceans, belong to all of us and to generations not yet born. As such, we are all stewards of these commons and must take the initiative to find the ways and means suitable to each of us for becoming involved to do our individual part.
In my work as a manager of land and water uses, I have come to understand and appreciate the meaning and power of cumulative effects. It is no different in the cause of environmental protection. The power of one should not be underestimated. The power of many is usually irresistible. In the arena of environmental stewardship, the sum of the parts is clearly greater than the sum of the whole. That is another reason the transitory concept of "community" is so important.
Ours is a society of emotional, industrial, residential and recreational transients and freelancers. We teach our young to be flexible and adaptive, to be prepared for frequent changes in location of home and work. But how will a sense of belonging to a community and responsibility for community well-being take root if uprooting is the norm? It seems to me, "community" today has become an amorphous and transitory concept.
I think it imperative we rekindle serious thinking about the importance of community values, especially those that are essential to the environmental health and vitality of human and natural communities. In today's context, a vital "community" is a grouping of people with shared environmental interests in, for example, a readily identifiable place, whether a beach, a surf break, the coast and ocean, residential neighborhoods, public spaces (i.e., local, regional or national parkland), a place that is a source of livelihood (i.e., the ocean and forests) or home for a traditional way of life, a watershed or other ecosystem, or an area delineated for governance.
These environmental communities of interest are groupings of individual people sharing an interest in some aspect of environmental protection. They may be formally associated or merely similarly situated. The point is they have a strongly shared, common interest in the sound stewardship of what I call the environmental commons of the planet. And in this broader sense, the "they" are "we" and the "we" is everyone on the planet.
Environmental commons are geographic reaches of land and water that support natural features, including ecological systems, whose integrity and vitality is of particular importance to the health and well-being of the larger society. Included as well is the atmosphere that supports wings in flight and contains life-sustaining air. Other examples of environmental commons are coasts, oceans and inland seas, rivers, watersheds, forests, environmentally sensitive habitats, such as wetlands, mountains, sand dunes and grasslands.
I think this conception of "community" fits contemporary society well. It is a "portable" community to be taken along when the job or place of residence change. It is a movable community of shared, collective interests in protecting environmental commons wherever we find them. The Surfrider Foundation is an environmental community of interest and to your community belongs everyone who cares deeply for the health of coasts and oceans, whether they are Surfrider members or not.
The future well-being of coasts and oceans depends on more people sharing our vision of a better environmental future. For that to happen, we must do a better job in public education and getting people involved. This is an area in which everyone can do some lifting. People of all ages can learn and teach about coastal and ocean ecosystems and everyone can do something to help protect them.
Most people, I suspect, do not really see beauty in the natural state of Nature. Everyone with TV has seen images of beauty from, for example, a Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. But how many see the real beauty and richness in a seemingly barren landscape in a hot, dry desert, a smelly, mosquito-infested marsh, a salty, fly-ridden Great Salt Lake, or in the weaving of a spider's web? Where you and I see beauty, others with a different view see ugly. It takes an enlightened, educated eye to see the beauty in a swamp -- one more reason why public education and involvement are so vital.
Looking back nearly 30 years, I am struck by how little has changed in the politics of coastal management. Controversial issues then remain so today: Accommodating population growth and economic development pressures; home rule versus state control; private versus public property rights; public beach access; funding for the acquisition of public parkland and open-space; habitat protection, such as of wetlands; funding support for land use planning and regulation; environmental justice; preservation of agricultural lands; growth controls and setting urban-rural limits; conflicts among recreational uses and users; offshore oil drilling; fisheries management; water quality protection; erosion control and armoring the coast; gentrification of older communities; affordable housing; protection of scenic resources; and so on.
Certainly, there have been some significant changes. Indeed, California's coast is a marvelous place to behold, especially from the perspective of what could have been had environmental activists with the overwhelming support of the public not stepped to the plate to enact a citizen's initiative (Proposition 20) in 1972 to safeguard the coast. So we have made things considerably better along this coast. Our leadership and example has motivated and guided other states and countries to implement coastal protection measures.
Additionally, when I think back to the early '70s I am reminded that attitudes about coastal and ocean protection are significantly more positive and supportive today, especially among elected officials and the private development sector. Public awareness and understanding of environmental issues have also improved remarkably.
Notwithstanding increased public awareness about coastal protection over the past 30 years, a major challenge today is how to spark the public's interest and stimulate active engagement in environmental stewardship. In good times, it seems to be a natural tendency in our society for people to behave as if pulled away from a common center by centrifugal force. We need to find ways to generate a counter force bringing people together focused on a shared vision of protection for environmental commons everywhere.
Generally, the public psyche suffers from a serious attention deficit. If something does not affect our daily life, it is not much thought about. Absent galvanizing events such as the environmentally destructive machinations of James Watt in the early Reagan presidency, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez or the 1969 Santa Barbara Channel oil well blowout, the public tends to ignore environmental protection. That is why political leadership and the leadership of environmental groups like Surfrider are so important.
Our task is even more difficult because the more successful we are at what we do the more environmental protection is taken for granted. I think most of us here understand that it is in the nature of environmental stewardship to labor in ways not generally understood or recognizable to the public. For example, many of the most significant accomplishments in my specific area of work, coastal management, are things one canNOT see - the wetlands not filled, the public access not lost, the water pollution that does not occur, scenic vistas not spoiled, the subdivisions not approved, the offshore oil drilling that is not happening. Our work is not obviously self-promoting and the better we do it, the less likely people will think there is a problem that needs fixing.
Yet we know coasts and oceans are never finally saved. They are always being saved. That is why our work is never done. Many of you know better than I that our coasts and oceans are in serious crisis: Coasts are being carelessly and destructively developed in the face of inexorable population growth along the coastal margins of the world; marine pollution in most coastal-ocean waters near population centers is getting worse; many fisheries have collapsed; 50 "dead zones" now exist in oceans around the globe (the largest in the Western Hemisphere is 7,000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico off the Mississippi River); and, the biological productivity and biodiversity of oceans are in serious decline, in part, because of chemical and nutrient loading of the seas and atmosphere. All these perturbations are due primarily to human activities.
As we look ahead, while much has changed in the arena of environmental stewardship, much remains the same. Relative to change, people today have instant access to more information than ever, modern mobility and communication technology have transformed a vast planet into a global village that is rich in diversity yet inextricably linked and interdependent in terms of economic and environmental health. A growing number of the wealthy few, increased leisure time and technology have put wilderness at risk and within reach of the affluent seeking remote places to live, work and play. There has been a remarkable demographic evolution in the workplace, the neighborhood and the public square. The technology at our fingertips to collect, store, retrieve, analyze, process, transmit and present data is awesome.
Despite the dramatic changes in our material world, basic characteristics of human nature and the human condition have remained essentially the same. People want and strive for a state of physical and emotional well-being and security. Most people seek to raise their standard of living, avoid conflict and sickness, be loved and find happiness, have friends, acquire material wealth, raise families, be successful, have a good time and be left alone.
What motivates individual people and what they strive for depends on where they have been. I may want only material profit while you find meaning and reward in community service. You may care only about immediate returns while I worry about our legacy to future generations. Whether one is building a business or saving the planet will obviously shape their individual vision of the future each wants. It works the other way around as well. The trick is in getting people of differing backgrounds and motivation to recognize the interests they have in common, such as the health of the Planet. Certainly, some will never see it. Others see it but disagree on terms and definitions, and ways and means.
The key is that people recognize the vital need to talk to one another in a civil and reasoned manner. The search for common ground among a closely linked but highly diverse society of people is perhaps the most significant challenge of our time. We have no choice but to work at it. That means we must make the effort to understand and respect the perspective of others even if we do not agree. We must listen closely and hear each other. We must build on what unites us and not dwell on our differences. A healthy sense of idealism and altruism should not blind us to the very real needs of livelihood. Nor should a focus on profit preclude giving for the sake of the community. Most often, these varying needs are not mutually exclusive.
We are so busy and engaged in the struggles of daily life, I worry we will, as a society of individuals and groupings of special interests, lose sight of the forest for the trees. Or never having seen the forest, fail to discover its beauty and importance until it is too late. Our job, as environmental stewards, is to spread the word that there are precious, vulnerable and irreplaceable human and natural community environmental values out there worthy of and, indeed, in great need of our attention and special care. We must sharpen our message and stress the worth of preserving environmental values and worry less about the cost of doing so.
I have no doubt as the world becomes more crowded and the tug and pull of hectic modern life wears and tears at the fabric of our psychic well-being, we will, as a society of emotional human beings, yearn more and more for the solace of the shore. We will want and value even more than we do today landscapes and seascapes uncluttered by the doings of man. We will reach for solitude of place, the passionate pulsing of Nature and the inspiration found at land's edge as relief from the pace and pressures of urban existence. More people than ever will come to the seashore in search of its soothing and healing power. Because there will be less of them and those that remain will be more threatened, public support for the protection of parklands and other environmental commons everywhere will grow stronger.
The way of environmental stewardship is not easy in these days of citizen disillusionment, frustration, cynicism and tuning out. There is abroad in the land a focus on self-interest at the expense of community values. There is a loss of confidence in the ability of institutions of government to make a difference. A sizable segment of the public seems unwilling to recognize the good works done every day by those serving the public good. Many people demand public service but don't respect those who provide it. They want it but don't want to pay for it. They simply take public service for granted.
Most of us engaged in environmental stewardship come to and stay with our work by choice. Much of the reward we realize from our labor is wrapped around a bundle of intangibles. We are driven by motivation with deep roots in our personal values, our way of looking at the world and ourselves, philosophy, and dedication to service in the best interest of planet Earth and the life She supports. We can, and I do derive strength and comfort in the knowledge our work is meaningful, honorable and enduring -- at once noble and ennobling. When events push me into the arms of despair and I question the worth of the struggle, I remember the children and turn to Nature for inspiration and renewal.
Those who choose environmental stewardship as vocation hold in their care a precious trust. I sincerely believe most people want us to do our jobs well and expect that we bring vision, strength of purpose, knowledge, professionalism and integrity to the task. When we do, public support will be there. Knowing this and the nature of our work, should empower us to hold at bay the cynicism and resignation that inevitably gnaws at all of us from time to time.
Because our work is so much about rewards and values not easily held in hand, we must search within ourselves for satisfaction and fortitude to keep on doing what we do. Inspired and self-driven by our vision of a better environmental future for the country and the world, it is up to each of us to keep alive our dreams and keep stoked that fire in the belly.
American character has, for centuries, been identified with rugged individualism, taming of wilderness and exploitation of the Earth's bounty for human profit. It seems to me a most enlightened expression of our character as a people in the new millenium should be commitment to preservation and restoration of community environmental values for the benefit of current and future generations of all life.
I am confident this can be our future, if we but listen closely for the heartbeat in our being that gives voice to our vision of a healthy planet. And it is our willingness to embrace this vision that will lift life into the light shining just the other side of hope.
Thank you for having me here!
Peter Douglas served as Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission from 1985 to 2011. In February 2012 Mr. Douglas received a Coastal Impact Award at Surfrider Foundation's annual Wavemaker Award Dinner. Listen to an interview with Peter at that event. Mr. Douglas passed away on April 1, 2012. Read additional thoughts on Peter from Chad Nelsen, Surfrider Foundation's Environmental Director.