Surfing and Sustainability

The jury is still out on whether sustainability can be achieved within surfing. But I wonder if there's something about surfing and surfers that will make this transition possible.

Let's go surfing now everyone is learning how - you know the rest. But a great deal has changed since the Beach Boys projected the image of the surfing lifestyle representing freedom, engagement with nature and a much simpler way of life as an alternative to the mainstream industrial culture. Whilst this image persists a more sophisticated understanding of surfing as a sport, lifestyle, meditation, I am simply going to describe it as an activity, is beginning to emerge.

With an estimated 10 million surfers in 120 countries and an industry worth in excess of six billion dollars with estimates of this increasing to 13billion by 2017, surfing as with any big business has a significant impact both globally and locally. Its effects range from impacts on local communities, through the rapid rise of surf tourism, to the impact of the production and consumption of surfing related products, shorts, wetsuits, surfboards and more. The six billion dollars does not take into account broader social, economic and environmental issues. But these broader factors are coming into play and as with other sectors of society the language of sustainability and sustainable development is being used to grapple with these multiple, complex and uncertain issues.

But of course, what the term means within the surfing world, as is the case everywhere else, will inevitably change depending on what area is being looked at and who you talk to, and so it should. But in order to create and implement the policies, programmes and even legislation needed to achieve a transition to sustainability, first it needs to be understood.

What is essential is a continued interrogation of the term and what it's being applied to. It means looking very carefully at sustainability claims. It means understanding, for example, what is meant by sustainable surf tourism, scrutinizing corporate social responsibility policies that include sustainability in their plans, understanding the impacts and processes, asking the right questions, challenging the established status quo, seeing through the glitz of surf magazines and advertising. And, whilst this slippery and fuzzy concept is difficult to pin down there is one thing that it absolutely should not mean. Sustainability must not be allowed to represent a business as usual model. It has to be more than a PR exercise for increasing market share and perpetuating destructive practices. And, whilst I am a strong supporter of sustainable development and believe it to be one of the most powerful concepts of the 21st Century, after more than 15 years of exploring what it means in various contexts I reserve the right to be sceptical whenever I hear the term used.

With that said it has advantages - not least of which is an acknowledgement that the way we operate now is not sustainable. And importantly, because it is so vague it has the ability to draw disparate voices together in a constructive and sometime explosive dialogue. Plymouth Sustainability and Surfing Research Group at Plymouth University and the Center for Surf Research headed by Jess Ponting at San Diego State University have pushed this discussion forward by asking the very direct question; What does sustainability mean in the surfing world? In fact this has been asked of over forty of surfing's leading minds. This includes surfing world champions, an ex US state senator, the founder and ex CEO of Quiksilver. Nev Hyman founder of Firewire Surfboards who has turned years of experience in creating eco friendly surfboards into his new NevHouse initiative. Also the founders of seminal surfing organisations such as Surfers Against Sewage and the Surfrider Foundation. New organisation's such as Sustainable Surf who are working with the industry to catalyse a transition to a more sustainable operating model.

Also groups that are working directly with local communities and indigenous peoples to affect positive change and improve lives around the globe. These voices have all come together in one book that is due to be published later this year by University of Plymouth Press. Sustainable Stoke: Transitions to Sustainability in the Surfing World represents a significant step forward in this conversation. It presents a narrative between similar, disparate and sometimes conflicting voices to offer a unique insight into what sustainability means for surfing.

But this is just the beginning, a snapshot of what sustainability means for surfing and it is far from definitive. What has become clear is that this discussion needs to continue and more voices need to be heard. The jury is still out on whether sustainability can be achieved within surfing. But I wonder if there's something about surfing and surfers that will make this transition possible. After reading and collating the contributions to the book and for the first time in 15 years I am not quite so sceptical.


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