I am North Fistral

William Cooper is a lifelong surfer, open water swimmer and cross-country runner living between Cornwall and Scotland’s frigid north. He consults big businesses and is a big proponent of sustainable business development. In this article, he explores the relationship between corporations, people and the environment to propose radical new legal thinking to truly protect the waves we love.

Words & photo by William Cooper

The most over-considered, under-addressed question highlighted in surf and other environmental media is: “How do we protect our beaches and waves in ways that ensure future generations can enjoy their unspoilt value?”

The environmental debate is complex to navigate as the term ‘environment’ has come to represent so much. It includes environmental assets like oceans, challenges like climate change, initiatives like recycling, technologies like electric vehicles, political partisanship, ways of life and more. When discussing environmentalism, we’re often discussing a murky combination of all these factors. This murkiness leads to a lack of consensus on what matters, and lack of consensus limits collective action as stakeholders struggle to rally to a single cause or argument, which in turn leaves room for environmental exploitation. Why is this?

Environmental issues are addressed from an often human-centric standpoint such as the right to breathe fresh air, the quiet enjoyment of an unspoilt mountain view or the surfability of a perfect point break. A development threatening an environmental asset will sprout numerous grass-root causes; think of the classic slogans such as let us breathe, protect the mountains, save our waves.

As well-intended as these groups are, their success hinges on a few time- and resource-limited groups pitted against better organised and resourced corporations who can afford to wait it out or will take on multiple development opportunities knowing some will inevitably succeed. The fight isn’t fair. The more fundamental weakness of these groups is they are often required to frame their defence of an environmental asset from a human-centric point, meaning someone has to step up and demonstrate how they will be disadvantaged.

The reason we defend the environment in a human-centric way is that the law readily protects our use of these assets. If drinking water is polluted, those that use or are poisoned by the water can attempt to sue for damages or loss of convenience. If a sea wall damages a surf break, a local surf school may attempt to claim compensation for lost business.

In summary, the key questions asked in the event of a disaster or planned development are “who has been or will be impacted, and what are the reactive or prospective damages in $ terms”.

It makes sense, right? Wrong!

What happens when no communities or businesses exist to suffer loss from corporate action toward environmental assets? What happens when the environmental asset in question is far away from the attention of campaigners or is considered not worth fighting for? The truth is, these lands, assets and ecosystems are up for grabs and vulnerable, very vulnerable. Consider the deep Amazon, Patagonia, the Antarctic, the seabed or a Tibetan mountain range. Despite these wild places making up so much of the world and contributing so much to the planet, they are threatened. These places deserve rights.

There is a second side to the human-centric nature of redress that is the rights of corporations. Think about it for a second: a corporation has rights very much like a person. It’s called legal personhood. A corporation has the right to exist enshrined in law, it has the right to open a bank account, save money, buy property, employ people, take risks, invest and, above all, pursue its interests of survival, growth and profit.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, it is often a good thing. Corporations drive innovation to feed and clothe us, provide (in many cases) meaningful work and a decent living. Corporations have for the most part raised living standards across the globe. Yet, the balance is off kilter, something fundamental is missing.

The legal status, or personhood, of corporations and people in environmental matters creates an interesting tension. When disagreement occurs, the law enables the legal rights and obligations of each party to be weighed, measured and where necessary redress is provided through courts and other systems and processes.

This two-way tension misses one critical component – the right of the environmental asset itself to exist, quite separately from human or corporate interest. To put it another way, environmental assets have no legal personhood meaning. This means that in the eyes of the law, environmental assets only appear ‘legally’ at a point in time where either a person’s or corporation’s enjoyment or use of it is requested, threatened or interrupted.

Environmental personhood is a real thing. It greatly extends existing frameworks like national parks or ANOBs prescribing that an environmental asset, be it a river, hillside, mountain, beach or reef, has the right to exist unto itself, not merely through its monetary, general use, ecological or other value to a community or corporation. It in fact grants ‘legal personality’ to such assets which is a specific term in international law that denotes clear rights and, interestingly, obligations.

This way of thinking fundamentally challenges the status quo by giving environmental assets the right to exist, just as you or I have the right to simply live. But will this radical thinking ever catch on? Truth is, it already has a steady tailwind.

In 2017, New Zealand granted legal personhood to the Whanganui River. A linchpin to implementation was a Maori saying “I am the river, the river is me”. In essence, harming the river would harm the Maori people which gave cause to level-up the river’s right to personhood – to that of people. New Zealand has also strengthened what was the Te Urewera national park by endowing it with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person”.

Further, in 2008, Ecuador changed its constitution citing rights for nature “to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles”. Bolivia has also made some interesting strides in this direction as has Columbia, stating (it is) “human populations that are interdependent of the natural world – and not the opposite”.

But can this apply to surf breaks? Yes, and so should it. To be clear, we are not seeking to protect the right to surf. Rather, we seek to assign the right to our beaches, reefs and surrounding areas to exist free from harmful interference, including from surfers. This means so long as surfers don’t cause harm, all is well.

The most substantive impact of such legislation would be the reframing of development discussions. In place of the debate between developer and other stakeholders with the greatest need winning, the discussion would be held purely from the perspective of the environmental asset. To use an analogy – just as someone cannot be tattooed without granting their permission, a hotel cannot be built on a beach unless ‘the beach’ agrees to it.

In practice this means informed, accountable and trusted representatives deciding whether the proposed development furthers the cause and improves, for example, the existence, persistence, ecological health and regenerative systems of the said beach.

How do we get there? For coastal environments, surfers must lead the charge. Surfing has a distinct culture, common values, is accessible to all and occurs at readily definable geographic, ecologically sensitive locations.

Following the Maori’s argument, could we claim our culture is damaged if surf spots are harmed? Probably. Could we claim that we as surfers themselves are harmed if our spots are damaged? Perhaps – stranger things have happened. I’ll leave that last one to the anthropologists and philosophers, but for now, all I’m saying is…

I am North Fistral, North Fistral is me…


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Additional photographs by Thomas Horig, Michele Roux, Cameron Venti, and Jeff Hester – courtesy of the Ocean Image Bank. 

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