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When it comes to the topics of sustainability, environmentalism and the climate crisis, the great Hugo Tagholm is a true visionary.
Hugo has been leading from the front for two decades now, whether as Chief Executive at Surfers Against Sewage, or in his current role as Executive Director and Vice President at Oceana, the largest international advocacy organisation focused solely on ocean conservation.
And Hugo’s latest move is typical of his agenda-setting approach. Not content with simply drawing attention to the scandalous state of Britain’s waterways, he has joined forces with the Good Law Project to take the UK government to court - and force them to act.
In this week’s Open Thread, open to free and paid subscribers, Hugo has generously agreed to answer questions about this and anything else you want to ask him about the climate crisis, activism, and environmentalism. He’s currently in Santiago with Oceana, so will be looking at these questions on Thursday 20th - which gives you a couple of days to get your questions in.
My friends at Danner have also offered a brand new pair of their amazing boots as prize for the best question in the comments! I’ll pick a winner once the Thread is finished. (This contest is only open to paid subscribers, as will all future Open Thread contests featuring prizes from my pals at Yeti, Danner,, Db, Patagonia, Finisterre and Goodrays).
Thanks again for all the amazing questions. I look forward to seeing you all in the water soon. For the Ocean. Hugo 🙏🤙🌎🌊✊
Hey Hugo, my question is slightly similar to Tim's previously but I'm interested to know how, when there is so much more to do in this space than it's possible for one individual or organisation to achieve, do you select the issues that you are going to campaign on (whether for SAS or with Oceana)? Do you have to balance impact with engagement, and have there been issues that you wanted to get your teeth stuck into but were unable to? What does that decision-making process entail at the level that you're working at?
Thanks for keeping up the fight, and your visionary work.
In some recent environmental protest cases the courts have cracked down on defendants who seek to explain the reasons they’re protesting, so the jury are just deciding on whether or not they’re guilty of public nuisance (or worse) regardless of the very relevant justifications.
If jurors aren’t allowed to hear the claims of defendants, it’s going to lead to increased sentences, which for younger protestors, or those of less financial means, is especially detrimental.
Given that, is there anything that can be done to reverse this precedent?
Thanks for everything you do!
My question is do you believe we can improve our waters in a system where GDP and growth are the dominant measures?
Yes! Great point. I agree as I get older I tend to circulate the local haunts. Even venturing to a break 20-30 minutes away from my house can be challenging, when there is a fun point break that turns on in the right moment 7 minutes door to door from my house. And excellent point regarding privilege. More and more, we are aware that the privilege of A) being able to fly somewhere, on top of it to slide some fun waves and / or B) live near or on the beach is a massive privilege only experienced by a few. I agree with Chris' comment that the benefits of travel and culture are immense and connect us so much to other cultures, creating real empathy to those who are not directly around us. A conundrum for sure. I could make similar comments about the cost / benefit analysis of a chairlift or grooming machine for a ski / snowboard mountain.
First of all, a massive thank you, for everything.
I remember buying ‘Save the Earth' by Jonathan Porritt about 20+ years ago which inspired a lifelong interest in environmentalism. I still have the book, although it feels more of a sad irony to look at it now.
My question is, what are your must-read books to inspire the next generation?
this may be on or off topic. I was thinking of matt's recent conversation with Chris Burkard (a good one), and the question re airplane travel and wrestling with the environmental impacts. as a frequent traveler over the years for work and fun, it weights on me. matt's conversations with the Big C boys also have had me thinking of our role as outdoors adventurers and businesspersons and "green washing" especially as my children become more aware and engaged in our sports.
i'd be curious your thoughts from your experience and POV. is airplane travel a necessary evil? when calculated, is it better than an automobile? as surfers and outdoor adventurers, what is the best path forward?
maybe a lot to respond to, but I am curious.
Thanks for having me and for the very flattering introduction. I'll be forever grateful to work on the issues that I care about so much, at the intersect of ocean conservation, ocean sports and the creative space. I'll also be forever grateful to work alongside amazing, talented and committed individuals striving for a better way, a thriving planet and a better deal for all humans. From the brilliant volunteers and activists I've had the good fortune to work with at the beach front over the last two decades to the policy & campaign experts working tirelessly to deliver positive change.
Thanks to each and every one of you. Fighting to restore some sort of natural equilibrium on this planet will require us all in a monumental team effort to shift the axis to how we live regeneratively on Planet Ocean.
I'm writing this from far-flung Chilean Patagonia, where I'm working with Oceana's Chile team who are leading incredible work on Marine Protected Areas among other big ocean issues. It's wild to see how much they're delivering to restore and protect this incredible place. Inspirational. It's a big trip and I hope that my experience and insight has also been impactful.
I'll be at the big protests in London this weekend before returning to my home in Cornwall. Amazing to see the spring in full flow - waves and sunshine. May and June are undoubtedly some of the best months of the year.
I'm stoked to be building a new team of Oceana activists and campaigners from Cornwall to work on some of the big issues. The ocean needs as many of us as possible. It needs all the brilliant NGOs out there. It needs everything that we can throw at the big industries at the the forefront of decimating this planet. Some businesses will be able to reform and we'll need to put others out of business.
I hope to see you all in the lineup soon.
For the ocean - Hugo
Hi Hugo, a question from the Outdoor Swimming Society: a few of us have chatted to the makers of The Big Sea, and it seems the big companies are not acting quickly on neoprene alternatives. Why has it taken so long for this to emerge as a key environmental/human rights issue? What will significant change involve?
Hugo, can you tell us how you think about behavioural science when you are devising campaigns? Matt has talked about the values gap in the last few episodes. The idea that there’s a gap between what people say they believe in and how they actually act. Is this something you factor in when planning campaigns and how to communicate them?’ Also, how do you sustain and look after yourself, apart from the surfing? 😜
Inevitably there’s going to be a time when it’s all said and done and you look back in detail on your career. Maybe not soon, but eventually.
You’ve achieved a lot, galvanised change, moved things forward enormously. But I want to ask about the other side. What is your single biggest frustration or regret about the career you’ve had and why?
In particular, I’d love to hear what that “thorn in the side” has been for you in your career as it relates to achieving more.
Good morning Brother.
Stoked to see you continuing the awesome work at OCEANA.
Loved Tim’s question and keen to hear your answer.
Feels like their is currently no opportunity to affect change on sewage pollution given recent government decisions and the continual CSO discharges in (what feels like) higher volumes than ever before. What’s the play?
Hope to see you in the water soon.
Activism has become more needed than ever especially when talking about well being for planet and people. Activists have always brought a voice to topics that are silenced, and have raised awareness on both social and environmental issues. As we move forward how does activism have to evolve, as we see purpose driven brands like Finisterre and Patagonia step into the realm of activism, is there lessons to be learned more widely across business and industry and do they need to engage with activism, in a a way we’ve never seen before, where industry collaborate’s with activists to impact and contribute to change. Dare I say it, but moving forward will we see activists in the board room, in the same way we’ve seen skater and surfer creatives join big brands as creative directors?
Which ocean based species are prioritised for protection? Does this include plant life?
And so to 'Whataboutery'... you must have been confronted by a lot of it during your time at SAS - people not wanting to engage with an awkward or inconvenient issue and instead countering it with the well worn, 'yeah but what about XYZ*...' (*insert every other related or unrelated issue that's ever existed) as a means of avoidance. What have you found is the best way to deal with this , to motivate others to act and to stay motivated yourself?
This is probably just a combination of all the other questions. You and SAS were always strongest when campaigning specifically for a change in legislation (Bathing water directives, plastic bag tax, DRS etc), becuase the objectives and results were clear for activists and politicians to get behind and to communicate.
That seems even more vital now. I want to demand something that MPs can make law.
So given that (A) there's no credible legislation in the pipeline that we can campaign for, and (B) that environmental activism has become very noisy, fractured, unfocussed and to be honest, devisive, what should we be focussing on? What are we demanding that the government does first?
What should I put on my placard for the XR protest?
Hey Hugo, now that you have your feet under the desk at Oceana... What are the main challenges you and the rest of the team are faced with, apart from the obvious?!
Hey Hugo, hope you're well. The British public are rightly up in arms about sewage pollution thanks to the tireless campaigning (and protesting, in response to Matt's point about protests not seeming to make a difference…) of you/Surfers Against Sewage/SOS Whitstable/Feargal Sharkey and countless others. How can we use this wholly justified concern to get more people to care about the wider health of our oceans (eg the crazy damage to seabeds from bottom trawling, rapid global heating of oceans) or are some of these problems too seemingly abstract for people to engage as deeply with?
Your work has centred on the health of our oceans, and with SAS it captured the attention of progressive, tuned-in, young(er), and proactive water lovers. Of course, the state of our oceans and our rivers is inextricably linked, but of all the river-focussed action groups in the UK, I've found none that achieve the same level of progressive engagement. Instead they seem very stagnant, tired, and ill-equipped to communicate with those most likely to stand up and make noise. What can existing, and any emerging, river action groups learn from SAS to better reach those who will bring community action to the cause?
Two long winded questions really:
1. Given that the cost estimates by the UK government of fully upgrading the UK sewage network to separate wastewater and rainwater (eliminating combined sewers and CSOs) are in the region of £350 billion and £600 billion, I realise these figures are arguable however the sums involved will be large in every scenario. The system of privatised water companies wouldn't withstand the financial pressure under current water rates, not would a publicly owned system without increased cash injection. So ultimately people will have to pay more for their waste water through general taxation or increased water rates. There needs to be a fundamental shift in people's attitude to their own waste, i.e. it's everyone's problem not flushed and forgotten. There's also measures that can be taken to reduce CSO frequency by asking (or paying, or forcing) the public to do things like not pave over their driveways with impermeable surfaces and to use things like water butts to slow water runoff. Again that's about personal ownership of the problem.
How do you think that could be sold to the public and achieved? Or disagree with my points, either will be interesting!
2. Due to decades of underfunding the Environment Agency, and their water quality sampling reducing in frequency, there's currently a significant lack of evidence to identify exactly why many rivers are not meeting water quality standards. There's is evidence that the most significant cause is diffuse pollution from agriculture and urban runoff, more so than sewage in many rivers. Before we spend a raft load of cash on a thing that's the current headline pollution issue (not to minimise the excellent work people like yourself have been doing for many years!), surely we should prioritise asking the government to gather better evidence on sources of pollution to enable us to make evidence based decisions on river water quality improvements?
Won't we risk being in the situation where there's still crap water quality in certain areas and we haven't spent the money in the right place?
Hugo how did you know it was time to leave SAS?
I’m going to start us off this week. Hugo - how are water companies in the UK getting away with this, and what can ordinary people do to try and change things? Protests seem to make no difference.