After seeing Kyle Thiermann’s presentation at the recent TEDx Santa Cruz event, I realized a few things about myself. First among them is that I’m a classic over-complicater. I spent the past decade writing articles, planning events, I even opened a store (selling reusable products) all of which sprung from my devotion to delivering my message to the world. I realized now that my message, consistent with the issue of environmentalism itself, was unequivocally overcomplicated.

Kyle Thiermann SurfingThis seemed perfectly normal to me since everything else I’ve encountered on the subject has ranged from complex to controversial, all of it scary. Yet here was Kyle up on stage with no charts, no graphs, no shirt and no shoes –and in five short minutes he delivered a message that was clearly heard and understood by everyone in the audience. I was awestruck in equal parts by both the simplicity of the message and its inherent approachability, but you’ll just have to read the interview to hear the rest…


EB: You’ve raised an incredible amount of awareness and money, and you’re 21. How old were you when you started?

KT: I was 17 when I learned about the banking system. I went to public school and then during my junior year of high school, I decided to do home school – I just wasn’t happy with what I was learning, it wasn’t helping me to achieve my potential. Home school inspired me to recognize my interests and I began studying banking.
Local finance in particular drew my attention because it’s so leveraged. It’s an area that not many people recognize as one with the biggest potential to create change around. When you stop funding banks with agendas you don’t support and you stop funding the problem. It’s the easiest most impactful, thing that people can do – it’s a one-time move that keeps money recirculating within your community.

EB: Simple, right? So, you’re a young guy, with some celebrity status through your surfing but pretty much a regular person, and you singlehandedly initiated a campaign asking people to move their accounts out of Bank of America and into their local banks. What gave you the courage and motivation to be able to do that?

KT: I realized that as customers, the banks rely on all of us. We withdraw our support and while it might seem like they’re too big to be stopped, big things can definitely change when enough of us see them from a new point of view. We are the ones in the driver’s seat. It’s been really rewarding to help people see through the veil of corporate advertising, it helps them to open their eyes. To make change in the world it’s necessary be a critical thinker.

EB: Surfing and ocean conservation are a natural fit, but I’ve noticed you’re not solely focused on ocean conservation. What is the heart of your message and mission?

KT: It’s really asking people to think about their daily decisions. You have the power to change your community and the lives of others too. Whoever you are, you have an influence on the world – it’s about understanding that and tweaking it so your influence is used to create the world you want to see. My demographic group reflects the kids who won’t sit through a 92 minute documentary, so I made a 4-minute video that they’ll be more likely to resonate with.

Films like Avatar do a great job of enlightening people through entertainment. I’m really inspired by things that bridge that gap between information and action. Not everyone who sees my films will be on board, but they don’t have to – you don’t need your quit your day job to move your money, you don’t need you don’t need your quit your day to buy locally, you don’t need to quit your day job to make a difference.

EB: So true! I loved your video with one of my personal eco-heroes, Annie Leonard. I see a lot of similarity between her work style and yours, both very inspiring. Who inspires you?

KT: Annie is very inspiring – I like her because she frames heavy issues in a light, fun way. It’s really important as an activist – the previous generations used scare tactics to try to reach people, but that’s not really as effective as inviting them to engage in an issue because it’s fun and inviting. Same as with Jack Johnson – he frames things in a positive way and makes it sound fun to get involved, it draws people in. I also really respect my surf sponsors. Patagonia, Sector 9, FCS, and Pacific Wave are some of the best run companies in the world and I’m stoked they support me to do my activism.

EB: Despite our reputation for nonchalance, activists sometimes have certain pet peeves – cases of Dasani piled in the back of a Hummer headed for the beach might be one of mine. How about you?

Kyle in recycling factoryKT: I definitely get annoyed with things like Bank of America’s campaigns talking about how green they are. I recently saw a plastic water bottle, it had a green label on it, it said Smaller Bottle Caps = Less Plastic, and meanwhile the entire bottle was made of plastic. It’s cool though because that stuff doesn’t work as well as it used to, a lot of it is being exposed through social media and people don’t trust corporations like they used to.

EB: If you could impose one specific environmental change on society designed to make things better, like create a new law banning plastic bags, what would it be and why?

KT: I really wouldn’t impose a law – I have a big problem with imposing laws on the public. It’s an interesting thing about creating laws without democracy – every one of them was imposed by someone who though it was good – I’m way more into educating the public and when a group of people believe that something needs to be changed, they’ll change it. The Patriot Act, which took away a lot of freedoms, was imposed on us.

Should certain forms of plastic be banned? Yes, because they’re harming people and the planet, so yes. But then again should the FDA have the power to ban homeopathic remedies? It’s a double edged sword. I think the solution is educate people to help to create shifts in the world. The reason bags have been banned in some places is because the community organized and demanded it. Those are the shifts that can happen when people are educated and work to create change.

Kyle GoodTimes CoverEB: What are some favorite places in SC?

KT: I really like Harbor Beach – I love surfing out of the harbor and coming in to play volleyball. I love the skate park and I really love the Santa Cruz waves.

EB: What was it like to meet Jack Johnson?

KT: It was very normal – he’s not some big hair band leather jacket guy. He’s really just a guy using whatever influence he has to make a better world. Celebrities have a big influence and they can reach a big group, but you can reach a different group he can’t reach. Each of us had our own sphere of influence – it’s necessary for all of us to use our it to help make the changes we want to see, and have a good time doing it.

EB: What’s next for you?

KT: Right now I’m planning Video movie number 5 in the Surfing For Change series. I’m going to South Africa to work raising awareness about a proposed nuclear power plant.

EB: Amazing! What can we do here in Santa Cruz do to support your work?

KT: Share the movies with your friends and help to get the message out there – go to Facebook and type in and get involved.

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