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Secrets from the World's Happiest Environmentalist

Feeling pessimistic about the environment? If so, here’s a cure—or seven. Earlier this week in San Francisco, the Earth Island Institute doled out its annual Brower Youth Awards to seven of the country’s boldest young environmental leaders, teens and early 20-somethings who aren’t sitting around bitching about problems but are actually doing something about them. Now there’s an idea.  

Take Kyle Thiermann, a 21-year-old pro surfer and environmental filmmaker. Raised in Santa Monica by documentary-filmmaker parents, Kyle learned to skateboard at 6, built a skate ramp in his backyard when he was nine, and started surfing local breaks and traveling the world—to Peru, Australia, and El Salvador, among others—by the time he was 11. At 19, he landed sponsorships with sustainable bigwigs Patagonia and Sector 9 and turned pro. 

KyleThiermann[photo: Brower Youth Awards]

But Kyle’s not your average surf dude. For starters, he doesn’t compete in contests on the pro circuit. Instead, he travels the world to ride waves and make short films about global environmental issues, like coal plants, single-use plastic pollution, offshore drilling, and nuclear power. In his first video in his Surfing for Change series, “Claim Your Change,” which came out in 2009, he exposes the link between large multinational banks and the coal industry. In just over four minutes, the blonde-haired, preternaturally perky Kyle explains that by putting your money in big national banks, you may be unwittingly supporting financial organizations that fund coal projects, like a proposed plant in Chile bankrolled by Bank of America. Gloomy as it sounds, Kyle doesn't go in for hopeless hand wringing. Instead, he offers straightforward “daily decisions” that will make a difference. In the two years since “Claim Your Change” debuted, he estimates that $340 million of lending power has been moved out of Bank of America and into local institutions that invest in more sustainable community projects.   

In his most recent short "Where is 'Away'?" about tons of plastic pollution washing up like "toxic tumbleweeds" on Hawaii's beaches, Kyle talks trash with fellow surfer and singer Jack Johnson and advocates a simple, doable solution: reduce plastic consumption first, then recycle. That means saying no to plastic bags and bottles. I caught up with Kyle this week to find out what fuels his activist fires, why adventure and environmentalism go hand in hand, and how to inspire the next generation of earth-conscious go-getters. (Next week: a conversation with Brower Youth Award winner Victor Davila, 17, who’s using skateboarding to promote environmental justice and beat obesity in the South Bronx.)

12 Questions for Kyle Thiermann 

RR: What inspired you to become an activist?
KT: I was really privileged to have the opportunity to travel a lot, starting when I was young, and come from a family who valued traveling as a big part of education. Because of this, I was exposed to so much, especially in third-world countries. In many parts of the world, people are just working to survive. I realized that if you can help, you should help. 

RR: You seem like you’re having a really good time making your films, considering the subject matter. Why the sunny approach?
KT: A lot of feature length documentaries left me with a sick feeling in my stomach. Scaring people isn’t really is the most effective way to get them involved. People change out of inspiration rather than fear. Many activists don’t look like they’re having that much fun with the work they do. It’s such a turn-off. I go on a surf trip, and even if I’m working hard, it’s really fun. A lot of changes come out of emotion, not fact. If by going on surf trips and having fun makes my message more effective, then great. 

RR: How do you stay so cheerful?
KT: I love to surf. Obviously my work isn’t all fun, like when a friend calls and says the waves are up but I need to stay in and do research. But I do what I love, travel and surf. I use surfing as a window into really important global issues. It’s a self-reenergizing cycle. 

 

RR: How often do you surf?
KT: Almost every day. When I’m not surfing, I’m training for surfing, swimming and cross-training. I have a surf coach. Even though I don’t compete, I want to be as good as I can be. 

RR: Can you tell us your favorite breaks?
KT: There’s a place in the Santa Cruz harbor, just down the street from my house, where the wave breaks on concrete jacks. It’s high intensity surfing. I also got a chance to surf recently at Jeffreys Bay in South Africa. Surfer magazine just rated it second best wave in the world. I went there to film my next movie, coming out in November, which investigates a proposed nuclear plant near and looks at a model for developing alternative energy. 

RR: Do you do make your movies yourself?
KT:Yeah, I do most of the work. I travel with a professional photographer, but I shoot the scenes I’m not in, and he shoots the ones where I’m on camera. Then I come home and edit them and release them. I’d really like to build a team. It takes so much time. 

RR: What comes first: the environmental issue or a really good surf trip?
KT: The issues always come first. Then I travel. If anyone has good ideas, let me know!

RR: Surfers sometimes get a bad rap for being disaffected. How has the surf community responded to your movies and your message?
KT: Generally it’s been really positive and supportive. In the end of my films, I don’t say, ‘Go do this.’ I don’t tell people what to do. I use my own learning instead. I show people that hey, this is something I’ve learned about how I can make a difference. Then I let people make their own choices. I will not make a movie if I can’t offer a simple, direct decision a person can shift to in their daily lives. Most people aren’t going to become full-time activists. I realize this. But everyone has an opportunity to be part of the solution. Sometimes we’re disconnected from our daily decisions. We don’t see a dead albatross on a water bottle label, but the pollution from single-use plastic can have that effect. I hope my movies allow people to make that connection. 

RR: If you had to pick one issue that’s most important or worrisome, what would it be?
KT: I’m passionate about putting money into local banks. Your money stays in your community and funds more sustainable projects. 

RR: Is it really that simple? How do you know that your local bank isn’t investing your money coal plants and offshore oil drilling? 
KT: Most local banks don’t. Most banks keep the money in the community. But you should absolutely ask where your money is going and what they’re doing with it. Corporations rely on loans from banks, and banks rely on your money, so as an individual you are very powerful. 

RR: Got any advice for aspiring young activists?
KT: If you have fun and incorporate your passion into your work, you can be really effective. If you can help, then you should help. 

RR: What are your top solutions for making a difference in daily life?
KT: That’s easy. Bank locally, shop locally, bring your own bag, and bring your own bottle. 

  

 —Katie Arnold 

 

 



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