Last summer, Surfers Against Sewage caught up with novelist & environmental campaigner Tim Winton. The interview was first published in SAS’s membership magazine Pipeline.
SAS: What are the environmental issues affecting our oceans that most concern you?
Tim Winton: Well, the health of our seas determines the future of humanity – it’s as stark as that. Overfishing is an obvious threat to our capacity to feed ourselves. A problem not so well understood is the growing presence of plastics in the marine food chain. If we don’t make big changes fast, the fish we do save may no longer be safe to eat. But nothing is as daunting as the threats associated with global warming. That’s the biggie. Everyone bangs on about rising sea levels but the real challenge of a warming planet is ocean acidification. An acid ocean spells the end of life on earth. The end of the world begins in the sea we love. And that should be a wake-up call to all of us.
SAS: Tell us about your experience of environmental campaigning & marine conservation.
Tim Winton: I grew up in a whaling town. We didn’t stop whaling in Australia until 1978. And I’ve always lived in fishing communities. You could say I’m from the Redneck Wing of marine conservation. Everything I know about the sea I learnt at the end of a spear or a hook. Seems weird to admit it, but I hunted and killed my way to enlightenment. Eventually you see where you’ve been. All the traces you leave are gaps and absences. And it’s a sick feeling, knowing you might bequeath a full dose of Nothing to those who come after you.
For the past 15 years I’ve spent quite a bit of time advocating for turtles, sharks, fish stocks, whales and so on. As the patron of the Australian Marine Conservation Society I’ve helped spearhead the movement towards sustainable seafood consumption and campaigned for marine parks. This kind of thing is a bit of a challenge to someone as unsociable as myself. Given how much I hate committees and public speaking and media interviews, I’m kind of the wrong bloke for the job.
Q3: What have been the high and low points?
Tim Winton: We put Australia’s second great coral reef into the public mind and after we saved it from the developers’ clutches we helped bring about its listing on the World Heritage Register. Ningaloo Reef is one of the planet’s treasures. So I was stoked. And a couple of years ago Australia set up the world’s biggest suite of marine parks. A lot of us have been working toward that goal for 15 years. It was a great feeling.
Australia was once a leader in taking global warming seriously. The former PM called it ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’. But in the past couple of years the national consensus has been eroded and Australians are being encouraged by the polluters and their mates in Parliament to forget it was ever mentioned. It’s heartbreaking.
SAS: Tom Keely, the protagonist in your latest novel Eyrie is a once successful environmentalist, disillusioned by the underhand tactics of big business and the destruction of the environment. As someone who has been highly involved in environmental campaigning to protect the coast, how do you find the optimism to continue the never-ending fight to protect the environment?
Tim Winton: Well, optimism is necessary even if you don’t instinctively feel it. A bit like confidence, I guess. Whether you’re in the water staring up at a looming set or standing in front of 15000 people at a demo, you have to manufacture some courage and a sense of optimism in order to get through the moment, the day, the rest of your life. I try to give myself a bloody stiff talking-to. And thankfully I have the encouragement of my comrades and colleagues to rely on. Every great moment of social change was once a confirmed impossibility. People’s determination in the face of overwhelming odds has, time and again, triumphed over what seems impossible. This is what you tell yourself.
But it’s hard to hang on to hope. Like-minded people bear each other up. And truly brave people accept that they may not see victory in their own lifetime. You just keep at it for the sake of those who come after you. You might not win but you stand a better chance by doing something. Doing nothing is making certain you lose. Which is just gutless.
SAS: Do you think surfers are more inclined to become environmentalists because of their connection with the sea?
Tim Winton: Well, we should be. We are the canaries down the mine. Those of us who surf spend more time than anyone soaking in whatever the sea has become. We’re suspended in consequences, you might say. And surfing is one of the most joyful pursuits a human can take up. But there’s no joy in a deadzone. If you’ve ever surfed in turds and medical waste you don’t want to repeat the experience. If we love the sea as much as we claim to we’ll do everything we possibly can to keep it healthy. Otherwise we might as well take up golf.
SAS: What words of advice would you give any budding environmental campaigner?
Tim Winton: Get educated. Get comrades. Get organized. And get out there. We need you!
SAS: It seems to me that there is now a reputable genre of surf writing. Do you agree?
Tim Winton: I hope not! Who wants to be reputable? That’s for golfers and tycoons with a sleazy past. But you’re right. Writing about surfing has gotten better.
SAS: [Assuming you agree] But in contrast to, say, mountaineering and boxing, surfing was slow to spawn a discernible literary tradition. Why do you think this was?
Tim Winton: Mountaineering was for a long time the preserve of the posh. And the well-bred took to boxing and other blood sports by way of slumming. In my country surfing was for the oiks. It was always rebellious. And sadly it was for a long time a bit unreflective and macho and anti-intellectual. Unlike other sports it was essentially a youth cult, like rock and roll. But like rock and roll its people grew up. Surfers travelled and opened up and changed. It became more mainstream, less of a cult. And it diversified. On any given day in the water now I’ll meet three generations of surfers, male and female, everyone sporting a different craft. I started surfing in the 60s and I can tell you it’s infinitely more diverse. It might be more crowded but it’s also more interesting.
SAS: Which writers have best tackled surfing to date?
Tim Winton: I like the way Daniel Duane wrote about it in Caught Inside. Bill Finnegan is good. Kem Nunn has carved out his own space, I think, and Thomas Farber has written some poetic fiction featuring surfing. Once upon a time you’d be stuck thinking of Gidget and maybe Jack London, but I think there’s a bit to choose from these days and I’d bet there’s great stuff by people I’ve never even heard of.
SAS: To what extent do prevailing cultural cliches about surfing – bleached blonde dudes, babes in bikinis, everyone saying ‘sick, man’ or its historical equivalent – inhibit literary writing about surfing?
Tim Winton: Oh I don’t think it’s people’s utterances that limit the writing. It’s the activity itself. It’s actually pretty hard to convey to someone who’s not a surfer. The sensation is the thing. And it’s tough to describe without resorting to clichés or mystical nonsense.
SAS: In Breath, there’s the wonderful line about the protagonist still surfing at the end, to show his daughters that “their father is a man who dances”. Similarly, the notion of surfing being a means of finding those “brief, rare moments of grace” and: “How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant…” This seems as perfect a distillation of what surfing is, and yet it’s tinged with melancholy, with a sense of it being but a fleeting recapture of lost innocence. Is this what surfing is, for you personally? To go further – is this inevitably what surfing is, for all of us?
Tim Winton: Surfing is sensual. It’s a real-time engagement with the forces of nature, which happen to be echoes of the past (which after all, is all a wave really is). Briefly we defy gravity and ride the energy of storms from elsewhere. We are intensely alone as we do it and yet completely swallowed by something larger that enforces a sense of perspective and connectedness to the natural world. It’s an experience we yearn to repeat so we go searching for it again and again and we spend years sitting in the water waiting for these radiating lines to come in across the event horizon. And we’ll do it for as long as the sinews allow. When we can’t we still shuffle down to beach to watch and wince and marvel. Strikes me as a fair metaphor for human existence.
SAS: Have you had any waves recently?
Tim Winton: I must confess I have. I’m lucky to live where I do. Some days the biggest hassle is having to weave through the turtles.
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And truly brave people accept that they may not see victory in their own lifetime. You just keep at it for the sake of those who come after you. You might not win but you stand a better chance by doing something. Doing nothing is making certain you lose. Which is just gutless.
Tim Winton on environmental campaigning.