Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday October 1st 2014

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Back to the Beach

By Jessica Forbes

For the fourth consecutive year, Pensacola Beach will be one of dozens of locations where people will join hands in support of the Hands Across the Sand (HATS) initiative, which became a truly global movement after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The action seems simple enough:  once a year, people join hands for 15 minutes on the beach, forming a literal line in the sand.

The larger goal is a bit more complex.

“It’s about opening up awareness of clean energy options and ways to end our dependence on dirty fuels,” explained Seaside restaurateur and Hands Across the Sand (HATS) creator Dave Rauschkolb, “not for any other reason than it makes an immense amount of sense to do that for humanity and for all the creatures that live on the earth.”

Rauschkolb founded HATS in 2009 after the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill to lift the ban on near shore drilling.

The thought of oil exploration less than 10 miles offshore, “frankly, horrified me,” recalled Rauschkolb, “because I’m familiar with the oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana and how their ecosystem has been affected by the industrialization there.”

A self-described “out-of-the-box thinker,” Rauschkolb says the idea for the HATS action occurred to him while considering what he could do beyond writing letters to politicians, “I kept saying to myself, ‘We need to draw a line in the sand.’” As that image continued crossing his mind Rauschkolb remembers, “I said, ‘I know what we can do!’ and I sort of blurted out this idea.”

A Man with a Plan

Publicized through the organization’s website, the first HATS event took place on February 13, 2010. An estimated 10,000 Floridians organized themselves, printed posters, and joined hands on beaches across the state to demonstrate their objection to the bill. In March, the State Senate did not pursue further legislation. On April 10, the State House tabled the bill, 10 days before the BP oil spill began.

Only weeks before the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, President Obama had announced plans to lift the ban on drilling in several restricted areas off the coast of the U.S. Feeling the effects of an oil spill first hand and being “worried sick” about the future of his business and over 220 employees, Rauschkolb decided to attempt HATS on a national level.

Traveling to D.C. to meet with leaders of the Sierra Club and Surf Rider Foundation among others, Rauschkolb garnered support “to join hands metaphorically and literally and say, ‘We don’t want offshore drilling or inshore drilling off the coast of America.’”

On June 26, 2010, the second HATS event went global, with gatherings in all 50 states and 42 countries outside the U.S.

HATS in Pensacola

During the BP oil spill, Gulf Breeze-based artist Margaret Biggs remembers, “I couldn’t keep myself away off of the computer, watching the spill move. I had to do something.”

UWF’s Chasidy Hobbs, who had organized the February 2010 HATS, asked Biggs if she would plan the June 2010 event, and Biggs said, “I jumped on board.”

With the help of her two sons and a few friends, Biggs organized the largest HATS to date, with an estimated 800 people joining hands on Pensacola Beach, including then Florida Governor Charlie Crist.

Similarly compelled to take action, Elaine Sargent assisted in founding 350 Pensacola, the local chapter of 350.org, in the summer of 2010. The organization joined the planning committee for the 2011 Pensacola Beach HATS, and when Biggs decided to step down as the organizer 350 Pensacola and Sustainable Gulf Coast took over as co-organizers for the August 2012 HATS.

“This event is one that brings people together who share a common love for our Gulf of Mexico, for oceans and beaches everywhere,” said Sargent.

Sargent, along with Sustainable Gulf Coast’s Christian Wagley, is organizing the upcoming HATS event on Pensacola Beach.

With climate change a central concern of both organizations, 350 Pensacola and Sustainable Gulf Coast partner throughout the year to bring programming—Rauschkolb among past speakers—to their monthly meetings, and special events like a recent 350.org Climate Leadership and Organizing Workshop that drew over 30 participants from the Gulf Coast region.

Wagley regards HATS as “a calm, positive, wonderful event,” and credits the inherent peacefulness of the action to the movement’s success.

“I’ve been an environmentalist all of my life, but have never been much of a protestor or one for standing on street corners shouting. There is nothing negative about [HATS],” Wagley said, “and I think that’s what draws so many people.”

Sargent agrees, stating most participants “see the event as one of solidarity, raising awareness and instilling hope for a sustainable future.”

Both Sargent and Wagley estimate a couple hundred people were in attendance during last August’s event, and are hoping for a similar turnout this year, if not larger.

Gulf Coast-based folk duo Sassafrass will play at the Beach Pavilion beginning at 11 a.m., their second Pensacola Beach HATS event. Joining them will be multi-instrumentalist and four-time Grammy nominee Michael Brant DeMaria. A Pensacola resident and New Age chart topper, DeMaria will lead participants to the shore at noon.  “We’re calling him our environmentalist pied piper,” joked Sargent.

Keeping the Momentum

Though the Pensacola HATS crowds have consistently numbered in the hundreds, Sargent says a downturn in attendance since 2010 signals to a need to continue raising awareness.

In addition to his work with HATS, Rauschkolb strives to raise awareness in leading by example in his daily life. “It’s important that somebody like me isn’t just preaching,” he said, adding “I’m nobody special. [Alternatives are] available to everybody.”

As a business owner, Rauschkolb has also actively eliminated the use of petroleum based plastics in his restaurant, replacing items with corn-based materials for drinking cups and to-go packaging.

Having purchased two electric vehicles, a Tesla and a Nissan Leaf, Rauschkolb says he has not pumped gas for over a year, noting, “It’s a wonderful thing, the fact that we now have the technology to move beyond dirty fuels.”

Like Rauschkolb, Biggs advocates for small changes—such as recycling, eating locally, remembering reusable shopping bags, etc.—that gradually reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Bringing up notoriously oily beaches in Texas, Biggs asks, as Floridians, “Do we really think we can have tourism and oil drilling, too and keep our beautiful quartz sand clean?”

The Mission Continues

When discussing the future of fuels and moving toward clean energy sources, Rauschkolb hopes that adjustments will be made for those employed in the fossil fuel industries.

“I have friends in the oil industry. There are a lot of wonderful, hardworking, dedicated people in the drilling industry,” said Rauschkolb. “I’m not saying they’re bad people, I’m just hoping those industries begin to transition and do everything they can to limit the damage they’re doing.”

As HATS participants seek to turn increasingly to alternative energy sources, the fossil fuel industry in turn continues to expand use of their existing technologies in new frontiers, including drilling in the Arctic Ocean and the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the U.S. and abroad.

“We as citizens must stay ever more vigilant,” said Sargent, particularly in light of recent attempts to drill in Blackwater River State Forest and proposals to begin fracking in Florida. “We do not need another large-scale disaster to remind us of the importance of using our voices to grow a real movement for change.”

HANDS ACROSS THE SAND PENSACOLA BEACH
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Saturday, May 18 (Join hands at noon for 15 minutes)
WHERE: Casino Beach, near Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier
COST: Free
DETAILS: local.350.org/events/227/