Hugo Tagholm – Waves Of Hope
Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), is a true visionary. He has a dream of a preferred future and is working tirelessly to see it become a reality every single day. I recently grabbed half an hour of Hugo’s precious time, Skyping between my lounge at home and his ocean-side office in St Agnes, Cornwall. We chatted surfing, his impressive career of charity work, climate care and North London football derbies, amongst many other things. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring conversation.
Originally from Camden in North London, Hugo studied at the University of Exeter before spending time in SW France, and then London where he worked for many years before moving to the South West eleven years ago, to Cornwall. I was intrigued to find out though that Hugo’s London roots were the somewhat surprising breeding ground for his love affair with the ocean.
“My father used to take me and my brother down to the banks of the Thames on a regular basis for a spot of mudlarking – looking for coins, clay pipes or anything of any value that we could unearth from the mud. People don’t really think about it, but London is our most renowned coastal city in the UK, connected to the tides in just the same way that we are here in St Agnes, Cornwall.”
“I’ve always been an environmentalist I think. I certainly can’t remember a time when I didn’t love and value our natural surroundings and I have been fascinated by nature and animals from a very early age. My wife Sarah and I have tried to pass this same curiosity and adventurous spirit down to our son Darwin who, amongst many things, loves surfing and nature.”
Another passion for Hugo throughout his life has been sport, particularly surfing. To this day, he can often be found catching some waves before work and he can see the ocean from his desk (as was obvious from his occasional and longing sideways glances during our Skype interview). He remarked,
“SAS really combines the two things that I love – sports and the environment. By caring for the oceans and fighting for their preservation and their inhabitants, we in turn create better, cleaner and safer surfing habitats.”
With a background in the charity sector before joining SAS, Hugo worked with Sarah Brown (Gordon Brown’s wife) and helped to run her children’s charity. He first came across SAS though in 1991 when he competed in a surfing competition in Polzeath and met some of the founders of SAS who were partnering with the event. After a large time-gap in between, he has then given the opportunity just over ten years ago to come and be a part of the re-inventing process for SAS, turning it from a not-for-profit into a charity and building a structure and a plan for sustainable growth. He has now been running the charity as Chief Executive for over 10 years.
Set up in May 1990, SAS has changed significantly over the years. From initially focusing on sewage pollution and water quality issues, they now have four key pillars of work – Climate Change, Plastic Pollution, Water Quality and Marine Protected Areas. Each of these focal points for SAS have clear ten-year objectives attached to them too, with the next decade absolutely vital in halting some of the worrying environmental trends that we see in the world around us.
Of course, they can’t solve the problem alone, but their operational model is to equip and empower large numbers of everyday heroes to go and make a large-scale difference. The amazing SAS team that Hugo has been gathering is now 27-strong and that team mobilise over 100,000 volunteers each year to give their time, energy and passion to the four key areas that the charity focuses on.
“How do we live more sustainably, with less impact on the planet? How do we do good things, make a difference and inspire people? These are all questions at the forefront of my mind every day. Our mission at SAS is to empower people and make ocean activists everywhere – an overwhelmingly positive goal and one that we work hard towards achieving every single day. It is an interconnected vision of a thriving ocean and thriving people around it. A happier planet, with happier people inhabiting it.”
Hugo has lived in Cornwall for eleven years now and is in London a couple of times per week to lobby government, meet with funders and fulfil media obligations. Both he and SAS have considerable spheres of influence, with charitable connections to the Royal Family, as well as establishing the Ocean Conservation All-Party Parliamentary Group – connecting charities, businesses, regulators, academics and scientists to discuss and explore ways to protect the ocean.
“If you look at any significant change to national behaviour (for example, the smoking ban or the widespread use of seatbelts) there is both a legislative change and a moral drive for change. There are several similar environmental equivalents which are happening right now. The drastic reduction of plastic bag usage in the UK, the imminent deposit return system for plastic bottles and the upcoming ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton bud sticks. We have played an important part in creating the conversations, lobbying government and campaigning for legislative change on these issues.”
I quizzed Hugo on how he manages to maintain a positive activist approach within environmental work which, so often now, is heavily coloured with fearmongering and negativity. He commented
“There is nothing wrong with verbalising the environmental challenges that we face in 2020. From the eight million tonnes of plastic that is dumped into the ocean each year around the world to the number of sewage overflows that run into our rivers and oceans on a daily basis. That said, the one thing that you have to offer people is hope. The problem is almost immeasurably large but if we lose hope then the battle itself is lost. Hope is the ultimate seed for positive change – the belief that we can do something. That we can make a change. That has to be at the core of everything that we do.”
“One single action won’t solve the problem but a lot of single actions joined together makes a significant impact. We believe that this multiplied activist model for change creates a really strong voice which can be used to lobby government, affect the behaviour of big businesses in our nation and make a real positive difference.”
And this is really starting to happen. From transport and energy supply to food provision and shopping habits, a collective voice is rising in our country (and beyond) which is starting to make a difference – from the bottom up and from the top down.
“This is a really exciting time to be alive and to be doing the sort of work that I do. The last thing that we can do though is to be complacent and think that the little we have achieved is enough.”
“All of the science is telling us that we have ten years left to save our oceans. At the beginning of a new decade this really focuses the mind, particularly as it has been declared the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development as well as the UN Decade for Habitat Restoration. Now is the time for optimism, realism and a renewed commitment and energy to make a lasting and positive change to the world we live in.”
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos supplied by Surfers Against Sewage copyright of Andy Hughes and Ian Lean