Surfing for Change

cover01Local wave rider encourages Santa Cruz to bank locally, save the world
Clad in a T-shirt, shorts and sandals, Kyle Thiermann is the kind of guy one might expect to run into on Pacific Avenue. His sun-bleached, sandy hair and quintessential Santa Cruz demeanor make even more sense when he reveals that he is a professional surfer. At 19 years old, it seems that a person in his position would have few worries outside of hitting Steamer Lane and devouring Zoccoli’s chicken pesto sandwiches (his favorite). But behind Thiermann’s blue eyes there lies a worldly passion, which extends far beyond the exhilaration of catching a perfect set down at Pleasure Point.

After finishing lunch and detailing the stories behind each of his many scars—a compound fracture in his left arm from Derby Skatepark, a gash in his abdomen from a ruptured appendix in Mexico, a divot above his right eye, which he caught surfing—we get into Thiermann’s preoccupation with the environment, global economics and fractional reserve lending.

That complex debt instruments would be of interest to a guy living as carefree a life as Thiermann may come as a surprise to some. However, as this Santa Cruz native has discovered—and documented in a short video titled Claim Your Change—even surfers may be adversely affected by the actions of Wall Street titans. Worse, he says, many individuals in Santa Cruz, surfers included, are contributing to environmental degradation simply by depositing their paychecks.


Thiermann’s four-minute documentary details how money kept in multinational banks is leveraged to finance projects all over the world. One such project, a proposed coal-fired power plant in Constitución, Chile, is the subject of Claim Your Change.

The proposed plant , to be built by AES Gener along the coast of Constitución, would devastate the local community, according to Thiermann and the locals interviewed for the documentary. Coal-burning energy plants produce mercury and other toxic contaminants that permeate the air and infiltrate local fresh and ocean waters. These contaminants can cause a variety of illnesses, including asthma, lung cancer and mercury poisoning. The plant’s cooling system would also pump extremely salty heated water into sea, driving away the fish, which locals rely on for food and economic livelihood. Furthermore, it would make surfing off the shores of Constitución, which Thiermann describes as similar to the waves in Santa Cruz, hazardous.


In Curanipe, Chile, a local unloads fish. He’s one out of more than two dozen other coastal workers and fishermen, not to mention locals, that would be impacted by a proposed coal plant in the area.

Distraught by the implications of the AES Gener project, Thiermann wondered what he could do about it. “Most 19-year-olds don’t think they have the power to change the world,” he says, “so they say, ‘Why bother?’” Thiermann doesn’t see things this way. “People think things are impossible because they just don’t believe. I think the most important thing is just to believe it is possible.”

His persistent optimism drove him to action. Harnessing his cumulative resources—eco-conscious sponsors, ties at Save the Waves Coalition, the encouragement of Gaia University and a grant from the Carter Foundation—Thiermann, with photographer Ryan Craig in tow, traveled to Chile to ride the waves and get the scoop on the coal-fired plant.

The Birth of an Activist

The youngest of five, Thiermann was born in his parents’ home on Cayuga Street in Santa Cruz in 1990. He became interested in skateboarding at an early age, but it wasn’t until he moved close to The Lane on the Westside of town at 11 that he picked up surfing—a habit he scarcely could have avoided; all his brothers and sisters also surf. He attended Mission Hill Junior High School and Santa Cruz High. However, because he had always hung out with an older crowd, most of his friends had graduated by the time he was a sophomore. This, combined with Thiermann’s assertion that public school “never allowed him to follow his interests and passions,” led him to make the move to home school in his second year of high school.

Soon after leaving Santa Cruz High, Thiermann remembers writing down his life’s goals on a whiteboard. “One of them was surfing,” he recalls. Another one was to be able to help people and use my surfing to be able to help people.”

Thiermann realized that in order to use his surfing to help others he would have to get his sponsors in line with his goals. He reached out to eco-conscious Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard around the time he was learning about how fractional reserve lending—a principle banks use to leverage customers’ money and turn $1 of actual cash into $10 in lending capital—is used to finance projects such as the Constitución coal plant. The two talked and surfed down at Chouinard’s Ventura home. Shortly thereafter, Thiermann was on the team.

Although the traditional conforms of public school and higher education do not appeal to Thiermann, he nonetheless possesses a hungry mind. After completing home school, Thiermann enrolled in Gaia University—an institution, which offers accredited bachelor’s and graduate degrees to students, who earn the degrees by working on sustainability and social justice projects wherever they choose. Thiermann chose to shed light on situation in the Constitución.

Thiermann wrote a grant proposal to the Carter Foundation—an organization dedicated to advancing science education and founded by Thiermann’s family friend and X-Files creator, Chris Carter.

“I looked at what he was doing as audacious,” Carter says of Thiermann’s mission. Carter, who has been surfing since he was 12, felt that Thiermann’s project was noble and worth sponsoring. Carter says that, as a surfer, he was especially drawn to the ethos of Thiermann’s goal.

“I think being a surfer puts you at the forefront of the environmental movement by putting you in direct contact with a medium that is being adversely affected,” Carter says. “Every time you get in the water you think about the water quality, so it affects your consciousness.” The foundation footed the production bill for Claim Your Change.

The Trip of a Lifetime

Once in Constitución, Thiermann met with local Rodrigo De La O, a connection that was made possible by Josh Berry, director of Save the Waves in Chile. De La O shuttled Thiermann around, introduced him to locals and provided him with a place to stay.

“It was a pretty weird experience,” Thiermann says of visiting the proposed site for the plant. “It becomes a lot less theoretical. It’s not just another story that you hear about.”

“There must some reason why they are putting this in,” Thiermann recalls thinking. “They can’t just be disregarding everybody there.” Thiermann dug for controversy and opposing views in his interviews with local community members, but found none. He came to the conclusion that “AES straight up does not care what the locals think. Bank of America really does not care what the money they are giving AES is going to be doing.”



In Curanipe, Chile, Thiermann greets local school children in between shoots.

The young surfer says he was surprised to find that most locals he spoke with were very educated about the proposed plant and that none of the locals he talked with was in favor of the project. Thiermann doesn’t blame them. “These are fourth-generation fisherman who won’t be able to fish when this plant goes in,” he says.

Beyond the havoc the plant would wreak on the surrounding community, Thiermann was disappointed as a surfer. “The waves are so good,” he says. “I surfed some of the best waves in my life down there.”

Thiermann was also dismayed to discover that at the proposed site of the plant southern winds blow year round. “In this particular spot, there is huge potential for wind energy,” he says in Claim Your Change.

Britney Sheehan, a Bank of America media relations spokeswoman says that Thiermann’s video is “disappointing, in that it is misleading and an over simplification of many issues.” Sheehan explains in an e-mail statement that Bank of America is committed to addressing climate change through lending investments and has a 10-year, $20 million initiative in the works to do just that.



This small Chilean coastal area resides about five miles south of a proposed coal plant.

Nonetheless, Sheehan adds, the bank believes that in the mean time fossil-fuel power sources will have to continue being used as green energies emerge. “While we invest in renewable and other clean technologies,” she continues, “the fact remains that for the time being, fossil fuels, and coal in particular, will continue to supply a significant amount of the energy needed to power society. As such, we see coal serving as a bridge to a low-carbon future, and we continue to work closely with the environmental community, major universities, industry leaders and governments on identifying and funding emerging technology and alternative energy sources.”

A Simple Solution

The solution Thiermann proposes to stop the construction of the coal-fired plant in Constitución is perhaps most notable for its simplicity. “Instead of telling a coal company not to build a coal plant, tell a bank not to fund the coal plant,” he says. If more individuals kept money in local banks, instead of in huge national banks, that money would remain inside the community from which it originated and be used to fund local projects. “If you move $100, you’re giving them about $1,000 dollars’ worth of lending power now to fund community projects.”

“I think that a lot of subjects make people feel really helpless and really powerless,” he continues. “You oftentimes don’t know where to start. This issue of our money can really help empower people. It helps you realize that your money is actually making a difference. You can stop having your money being used to support coal projects.

“There is another positive to moving one’s money into a local bank,” Thiermann adds: “We can really make our local economies a lot more resilient by using this strategy. The coal plant is just an example.”

It is an example one of Thiermann’s sponsors has already begun acting on. LiViTY Outernational, a clothing and accessory line, which uses a mix of natural, renewable and recycled materials in the production of its gear, is in the process of moving their money out of Bank of America and into the San Francisco-based New Resource Bank.

Mary Anne Carson, director of marketing at Santa Cruz County Bank certainly supports the idea of keeping Santa Cruz money local. “We are 100 percent onboard with the entire concept,” Carson says of her bank, adding more generally: “By placing your deposits in a local institution, that institution can reinvest that money back into the community. … If you’re putting your money into a bank that is based in Detroit or North Carolina, the impact locally is nearly zero.”

While Thiermann’s video features prominent shots of Santa Cruz County Bank, he insists that it is not an endorsement of that particular establishment. He says he would encourage individuals in Santa Cruz and everywhere to keep their money in any reputable local bank available.

Thiermann’s video has had nearly 3,000 views, has been viewed in countries in South America, Africa and much of Europe, and he estimates that around $400,000 in lending power has already been moved into local banks as a direct result of the documentary.

“All our money has an effect whether or not we know it,” Thiermann says. “If you have a bank account, you’re an activist whether or not you know it. … And if an hour of your time is going to make a difference, I think it’s the least that you can do. It’s so easy.”

To watch the video and learn more about Kyle Thiermann’s cause, visit claimyourchange.org


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