THE BLOG
04/02/2015 05:38 GMT | Updated 04/04/2015 06:59 BST

Don't Tell Me You Know What Sustainability Is, It Won't Be Pretty!

After spending 18 years exploring various dimensions of sustainable development, and its less specific cousin sustainability I adhere to the old adage - the more you know the less you understand. What I will say about sustainable development is this. It is a contested, ambiguous and fuzzy concept, it means different things to different people, communities, regions and nations - and in a wonderfully and sometimes tragically diverse world - so it should. This is both its strength and its biggest flaw, I personally like the term, constructive ambiguity and let's leave it at that.

And with that in mind I am forever weary of the person that comes to me professing to know what sustainability is and even more weary of those that tell me what it should be. This type of prescription is a dangerous precedent to set and history repeatedly supports this assertion.

But with that necessarily sceptical assessment behind us there is little doubt that sustainable development has become one of the 21st century's most important issues and if it does nothing else it identifies that the current path of development that we are on is most certainly not sustainable. And as we move through 2015 and wave goodbye to the Millennium Development Goals and firmly shake the hand of the Sustainable Development Goals, the concept will be increasingly in the spotlight, as, and forgive me for repeating myself - it should be.

Indeed, the starting point to building solutions around the principles of sustainable development is to ask the simple question, what does it mean in any particular context? I have asked this question a number of times. I asked this question within the context of the United Nations - the organisation that has been central to embedding the concept in the global cultural zegeist. I have asked this question in local government and community levels and now I ask that same question of the surfing industry. Yes you heard correctly surfing - So for a moment set aside your preconceptions and your stereotypes, dismiss the image of the blond haired teenager and the WV Camper Van. But what am I saying I know this audience is more sophisticated than that! And consider this:

Surfing sells a dream of a simpler life, one connected to the ocean, connected to nature and once it's sold you that it's going to sell you a t-shirt, some board shorts, pair of shoes, a car, a holiday, some interesting smelling after shave, insurance and my personal favourite - a pint of Guinness. This list is far from exhaustive. And you will notice I have not included a surfboard or a wetsuit, and that is because the majority of surfing goods are not bought by those who actually surf.

The surfing industry is a multi Billion dollar selling machine. Estimates have put it at US$ 8 billion in the States alone and recent academic studies have estimated that overall economic, environmental and social impacts closer to 130 billion. To our South West economy the figure is conservatively £100 million.

And like any industry it has many social and environment negatives none of which I am going to talk about now. But the surfing industry is beginning to reflect on its own practices and the term sustainability is beginning to emerge from within it.

So again I have asked the question what does sustainability actually mean in the surfing world? I asked this question of over 40 of the surfing world's leading minds from CEOs of multinational corporations, heads of surfing NGOs, politicians, activists, celebrities, journalists, entrepreneurs and more. The answers to this question are contained in a book due to be published late next month by University Plymouth Press, 'Sustainable Stoke: Transitions to Sustainability in the Surfing World'. This is the first time so many different voices, in the surfing world have come together to discuss a single topic. But this is not definitive, nothing relating to sustainability can be, it is the beginning of a conversation, the way I see it the first of many that will help set this particular industry on a more sustainable path.

This work has been translated into an educational output here at Plymouth with a new module on the BSc (Hons) Public Management and Business Programme in the School of Government that has already received endorsements from many of the people included in the book. And expanding this I am now in the process of writing two more books for Routledge titled Sustainability and Surfing and Surfing and Sustainability respectively, so whether the surfing world likes it or not - I'm going to be asking that question a few more times.

Oh and don't forget, if you see me walking around campus - Don't tell me you know what sustainability is, it won't be pretty!

this blog appeared initially at the Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research