Interview with James Pribram

2010-08-24 16:24:13
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The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster that Americans have had to live with all summer and is only now beginning to creep from the public spotlight. Despite broad outrage, it can often seem a world away from the Southern California coast, only a nightmare piped into our TV sets each night.

Pro surfer and owner of Aloha School of Surfing James Pribram had to do more than watch. After starting his Eco Warrior Project in 2006, he focused his energies on the idea of teaching surfers and others to “save a wave, clean up the water where they live and make a difference in their own backyard.” The project, which has taken him around the world, will become a documentary in 2011.

The 39-year-old Laguna Beach native has now put together an ongoing series of trips with fellow surfers to see firsthand what is happening in the gulf and help raise awareness and funds for the gulf region. His most recent was a stand up paddle trip with surfers Mary Osborne and Chuck Patterson, paddling in hazmat suits and respirators through the bayou. His next trip will be in October for his People of Sound fundraiser in Mississippi.

Even though this is still a water issue, it seems a big jump for an Orange County surfer to pack up his paddleboard and go to the site of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. This was no surf trip. Why did you decide to do it?
I don’t have some fantastic answer other than to say, I care. When you grow up on the beach, it’s everything. The ocean has always been my first love.

When I was there with a friend in February on a canoe trip for Reader’s Digest, I got a glimpse of what was happening [after Katrina] and that Southern hospitality. I knew after the first trip I had to make a statement and stand up for those people. When you feel someone’s sadness, you can’t not help. Hope was high after Katrina, but the stories go on forever and you hear how the residents want to help and be part of the cleanup but are being turned back. Just testing the boundaries one day, I walked up to a cleanup crew member. The guy just said to me, “I’m on the phone.” They should hire the residents there. They care. I can’t imagine an oil spill closing our beaches and being told you can’t go out.

If you go down there, it’s something out of "The Twilight Zone." When they [BP] should be serving these people breakfast, you have crews that are so standoffish, it’s awful. To say it’s complicated is an understatement. It’s something you can’t really explain. You have to go. It’s not Grand Isle anymore, it’s Grand Oil.

The people I met remind me of the people I grew up with in Laguna Beach. The people who are generations of shrimpers there are like generations of surfers here. I think the least I can do is everything I can, so I came up with the idea of doing a stand up paddle in hazmat suits and respirators. [Fellow Southern California surfers] Chuck Patterson and Mary Osborne joined me and went down for the Save the Sound [fundraiser] in Mississippi.

So now the well is sealed, hopefully for good, and some experts are saying the oil is disappearing. Based on your experience, what do you believe?

How can you believe a company that has proven again and again to be a liar? That oil is somewhere, most likely on the bottom of the ocean. I’ve seen it firsthand and I’m going back. It doesn’t just disappear.

Let’s take the opportunity here to explain what you intend this to be.
It’s not really about me getting exposure. It’s about shining a light on people dealing with major environmental issues. These people are trying to put food on the table. If I can tell their stories, then it’s more about their story than mine. And about empowering them and helping them solve problems in their own communities and finding better solutions. With Katrina, these people are getting kicked in the teeth again. When we had bad things happen in Laguna, we had people rally around. That’s what America is all about. If this happened on the West Coast it wouldn’t have turned out this way, so why is it being handled like that out there?

The environmental movement continues to evolve into sub-groups with their own missions. Do you consider yourself a conservationist, a “water-firster?” How would you describe yourself?
I would say I’m more blue than green. My passion, my niche, has always been about preserving our oceans. That’s what I know. That’s what I fight for. I view them as playgrounds. Collectively, we should be doing all we can. Together we can all make a difference. A united front with a big voice is something people can’t turn away from.

I know so many surfers, with rare exceptions, who consider themselves environmentalists of some sort or other. What do you think it is that makes that so?
I can’t speak for others. But growing up in Laguna Beach, the ocean has always been my sanctuary. Not one day will I ever take it for granted. When you’re lucky enough to grow up on the beach, it’s only natural to give back to something that’s given you so much.

Tell me about the Eco Warrior Project.
I started that in 2006. I would travel around the world, going to areas with various environmental issues. Then I’d research what’s happening and meet with both sides. In Chicago, they’ve been trying to get surfing legalized. I met Jack Flynn, who was arrested for surfing. He shared a cell with three bank robbers. Within six months we changed that and now you can surf legally in Chicago.

It’s about compromise for better solutions. To do that, both sides have to be treated with respect. I don’t like the word activist, but maybe I’m an ambassador. You think about the guy strapping himself to a tree and living a completely different way. These stereotypes slow down the process. Whatever you want to call them, listen to their message and don’t judge a book by its cover.

How has your project fueled further adventures?
You certainly don’t get rich by doing what I do. I live check by check. I had a dream [of] growing up to be a pro surfer. I want to make sure that every generation has that option. We have to take care of our environment for those kids. Money is always an issue. I get by on very little to be honest. It’s really the dreams of the next generation I’m trying to keep alive.

There is never any shortage of things to discuss when it comes to the environment. So what are things you’d like to make films about?
I’ve been pretty focused on the gulf. But the one thing that is always shocking to me is that nonprofits don’t reach out. My whole thing is about working with people to find solutions, whether it’s here or Malibu or wherever. Also, I don’t think beaches should be privatized or closed.

I’m probably going back to the gulf next week. This story is not going away even if the media will. Not for 10 or 15 years. That oil is still out there. It hasn’t hit yet, but it will. Oil and water don’t mix. In every issue I’ve been involved in, there is a path to the end of it. In the gulf, there isn’t, and that’s [what's] so sad.

For the sake of optimism, has the disaster in the gulf allowed us to see a possible turning point for environmentalism?
I absolutely think it’s a turning point for the environmental movement. They’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest. We can’t get off oil tomorrow, but we can ask for stricter guidelines to be put in place so this won’t happen again. It’s the least we can do. We don’t want this to happen again. [The question is]: How can we do that?

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