Movers & Shakers Interesting People

Lauren Hill talks India’s trashed beaches and ecofeminism

The passionate environmental and human activist explains the connection between how we treat people and the planet

All photos courtesy of Lauren Hill

All photos courtesy of Lauren Hill

Environmentalist. Humanitarian. Feminist. Activist. To give Lauren Hill just one label is to seriously misunderstand her—the Florida-born surfer, who splits her time between the U.S. and Bryon Bay, Australia, is instead a product of her own deep-seated passion for improving the world as a whole. Her career? As diverse as her interests—she’s a writer, educator, and editor of her own online magazine while knee-deep in a film project she’s been involved with since April called “Beyond the Surface.” (She traveled to India with Liz Clark, Emi Koch, Kate Baldwin and director Crytsal Thornburg-Homcy to explore the usage of surfing as a tool for social development).

All of her “do good” work sounds like—well—work, but Hill insists her pursuits are just part of the ebb and flow of her life. Maybe that’s why, when Hill starts to speak, we’re sucked right in.

You have a lot on your plate right now—what does your daily routine look like?

An ideal day starts with the sun, straight to the ocean for a few hours of surfing before it gets too hot. The middle of the day is for writing, research, crafting, or a siesta if I’ve had a long surf. The cool of the late afternoon often allows for gardening or hanging with friends who drop by. Then back to the ocean for a sunset slide at the Pass, one of the most spectacular sunset spots in the world.

Tell me about some of the cultural nuances you’ve noticed as you split your time between the United States and Australia.

Generally speaking, Americans could teach Australians a thing or two about efficiency and ambition. Australians can teach us Americans quite a lot about having fun and not getting so caught up in doing-ness. Also, I love language, so it’s one of the first (and most consistent) differences that I notice between my two homes. Aussies are absolute foul mouths, and this tends to rub off a bit, which is fun. I love how jovial they are.

Let’s say you’re parallel parking and you almost hit the car behind you, but you stop just in time. Your Aussie mate might say, “Oh! Bee’s dick.” Meaning, of course, that there’s only a very tiny space between your car and the other car. Their slang is unbelievably hilarious; it’s quite rough and rugged. Sometimes it’s totally indecipherable, but sometimes it’s quite masterfully descriptive. Americans are so polite compared to Australians. If you hear someone say “Thank you so much!” you can almost guarantee that an American said it. I love that. There’s a sweetness in conversing with people that goes amiss sometimes in Australia.

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What was your goal in creating “Beyond the Surface”?

The trip inspired much in me, so I’ve been writing quite extensively about our experiences there and about some of the questions raised by our month-long adventure. While there were lots of really moving stories of women’s self-help groups and women like Ishita Malaviya, India’s first recognized female surfer, the most common story for women in India is all too riddled with rape, abuse, neglect, and a lack of access to education and quality healthcare.

Sixty million: that’s the number of women in India who are “missing” because they have either been aborted because of their sex, killed at birth, died of neglect and abuse because they were girls, or murdered by their husband’s family for not paying enough dowry. This happens because women are fundamentally seen as less valuable and less capable members of society. And yet, where do these people think they came from? Almost all of us are birthed and nurtured into this world by the invaluable, yet unpaid work of a woman.

Is this type of neglect reflected in the environment?

The beaches in India are often used by locals as toilets and trash dumps. These same locals might then jump into a fishing boat and earn their livelihood fishing downstream from where they’ve just defecated. It just doesn’t make any sense. We humans have this funny way of forgetting where we came from, of disrespecting the things that make life possible. We cut ourselves off from others and from nature and so we feel isolated and disconnected. And when we feel disconnected it is easy to do really stupid things, like murdering people, other beings, and ruining the kinds of resources that make life possible.

So you see a strong correlation between human rights and environmental issues?

The way we treat each other is directly linked to the way we treat our planet. Environmental issues are fundamentally human issues, so I like to work on projects that contain overt elements of both.

Do you think surfers have a responsibility to act as a voice for the environment? 

As surfers, we are canaries in the coalmine. We have the unique ability to voice the changes we see as we gather around and spend time in the ocean. Most of us have our peak life experiences in the ocean, so we have a vested interest in protecting it.

So what’s the first step for a surfer (or anyone) looking to help make a change in the environment?

It’s not as simple as picking up plastic at the beach or buying organically grown foodstuffs (those are important too!), but cultivating a sense of loving-kindness for yourself is the beginning of any sustainable activism. It will radiate outward and it might change the way you interact with the people in your life and the choices you make every day. One of the deepest ways to get environmentally active is to love where you live and show it. Get to know the place you call home—the flora and fauna, your neighbors—and take care of it. In other words, localize and connect. There’s so much work to be done, and the only way to do it is together.

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I read in an interview you did before that you are an advocate for “ecofeminism.” Can you explain what that is and why it’s so important to you?

We live in a world where the scales are significantly tipped toward the masculine. The way women have historically been treated is quite similar to the way humans in general have tended to treat nature. There’s been an assumption that women and nature exist as weaker resources to be extracted, exploited, and tamed by “stronger” (i.e. masculine) forces. The “eco” part of ecofeminism has to do with seeing how the attitudes that allow us to destroy our natural environment, our planet, are linked to the way we treat other people, especially women. The way we treat ourselves and our loved ones is intimately linked to the way we treat everything; that’s what ecofeminism is for me.

On top of everything else you do, you also run a magazine called Sea KinWho contributed to the glossy and what is your favorite story inside?

The Sea Kin ’Zine is a project that I put together based on my blog of the same name that I’ve kept for a number of years. My favorite story is called “Malama Pono,” written by Cher Pendarvis about her great friend Rell Sunn. Most surfers have heard of Rell Sunn, but hardly any have heard of Cher Pendarvis, who is a pioneering female surfer, artist, and shaper. It’s so rare to hear from female elders in our surfing culture, so it was such an honor to be able to feature the wise words of someone like Cher, and to build a friendship in the process.

You’re currently our inspiration; who do you admire?

One of the most inspiring people who I’ve met lately is Helena Norberg-Hodge. I worked with her recently on organizing her Economics of Happiness Conference. She does incredible work working toward localization. She won the Right Livelihood Award not long ago (the alternative Nobel Prize), but she’s most inspiring to me because she is able to gracefully balance her incredible intellect and activism with warmth, sweetness, and femininity; it’s a rare combination.

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And how can we check out everything you’ve told us about your work in India?

Our film Beyond the Surface will release in spring 2014. We hope you’ll support our efforts by seeing the film and maybe even getting involved with our namesake NGO, Beyond the Surface International, which is a platform for coastal youth groups worldwide who use surfing and ocean play as a medium for self-expression, freedom, and fun for underprivileged, at-risk kids in developing communities, conflicts zones, impoverished villages, or “the streets.”

What is your best advice for living a healthy and meaningful life?

Think freely, feel deeply, take risks, and be vulnerable. Minding your own business is a full-time job.

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