Surfing as status laden and more

In The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Matt Warshaw  states, “the vast majority of surfers have proven to be dormant environmentalists at best, supporting the movement in abstract, but for the most part roused to action only for a pressing local concern that might despoil their beach.” Environmentalists within the surf industry, such as Patagonia founder Yvon Chouniard, has criticized surfboard makers, surf clothing manufacturers, and surfers in general for “their lack of environmental leadership and independent thought” (Latourrette 2004). Within the last decade small movements among the surfing community have begun adopting more environmentally sensitive surfboard materials and incorporating organic options into their clothing lines, though not on an industry-wide scale.

While mainstream representations of surfers in the mid to late 20th century focused on social deviancy (think Spicoli or any number of stereotypical representations of surfers as druggies, hippies or noble savages), the 21st century has ushered in new perceptions: 

“Surf’s Up, and Upscale, as Sport Reverses Its Beach Bum Image”

This article, printed in The New York Times in 2007 deals with the changing face of surfing worldwide and the emergence of surfing as a status sport. That is, surfing and surf sessions as prime opportunities for negotiating business deals or networking.
The article explains, “this new species of surfer contributes to a booming market for vacation packages, instruction, equipment and real estate near some of the world’s best surf breaks. Like golf, surfing has become an ideal activity around which to discuss business. Surfers find plenty of time for talk while driving in search of good spots, while changing into and out of wetsuits in the parking lot, and especially while waiting between sets of waves.”
Surf schools and lessons have become viable business ventures in their own right. I work for one on occasion. To my disappointment, perhaps, even with two college degrees, teaching surfing is still the most lucrative thing that I know how to do!

While this isn’t necessarily obviously connected to environmental concerns, the implications of such booming growth in the surfing population (like population growth in general) are.  For example, as the article mentions, “surfing’s popularity has helped drive international real estate sales, with property along remote coastlines being bought and developed into resorts and vacation homes. Parts of Costa Rica are considered so crowded that some surfers have pushed north to Nicaragua.” 

Surfing Real Estate Excursion— This article discuss something truly novel, a surf/ real estate trip. The article outlines how “participants on the Surf & Turf tour will combine comprehensive information about Nicaragua’s burgeoning real estate market with surfing tips from Holly Beck, one of the world’s premiere female surf pros.” 

There’s a lot of talk about surfers as inherently “environmentalist” or attuned to nature. I mean a whole lot. Open any magazine and you’ll read about the zen-like, awe-inspiring, in-touch with nature moments to be found while surfing. And I’m not denying those at all. I 100% believe in those moments. But, if we’re so “tuned-in,” how do we reconcile the real estate market that surfing has driven along remote coasts around the world? I understand that most people want to live in concrete structures, and that travel is part of the surfing dream, but it seems like we could be a bit more conscious of how we’re impacting not only local economies, but also local ecologies at the destinations that we as a culture frequent. I’m not saying that travel, surfing, or moving abroad is bad, I’m just trying to show how surfing is, at times, not consistent with the “eco-friendly” image that it often gets. 
While representations of surfing often emphasize the sport as environmentally sound (we all want to believe that surfing is as simple and pure as the romantic ‘one board, one wave, one surfer’ vision, but it’s rarely that simple or sustainable anymore–we ALL want a suitable quiver and lots of warm, tropical waves all over the world), the surf industry and surf culture present complications that can be viewed as inconsistent with these representations. The 2005 closure of Clark Foam, due to their breaching EPA standards for toxic emissions, is one example of the inherently destructive externalities of the global surfing industry .  While riding waves is not destructive, purchasing a traditional surfboard inevitably pollutes, albeit without overt intention by the consumer. More sustainable surfboard construction materials exist, including bamboo, for example, though to relatively little mainstream popularity. Additionally, the global manufacturing process that mass-produces surf apparel and the plethora of accessories for surfboards, including fins, leashes, and wax, raises questions as to whether surfing can actually be viewed as wholly environmentally sensitive. And the quiver! Who has just one surfboard anymore? Apparently, most people use to just have one surfboard, but now we all have boards to suit every condition. I’m not saying that this is inherently bad, just that we value surfboards differently than we use to, and they seem to be much more disposable than they use to be, which implies that we’re creating more and more surf related waste. Similar to the issue of surfboard construction, surf wax serves as a symbolic representation of the lack of critical thinking about surfing products that seems to be commonplace. If you scour the sands at many surfing beaches around the world, you will find chunks of discarded surf wax, litter that is unnecessarily potentially environmentally degrading. The vast majority of surf wax is made from petroleum products, and though we do not know the exact effect that discarded surf wax has on marine ecosystems, we do know some of the harmful effects of petroleum in the ocean, as well as the threats of synthetic materials as choking hazards for marine life. The surfing lifestyle—requiring equipment, with the possibility of extensive travel, and fashion accoutrements all its own—entails consumerism that works counter to principles of environmental sustainability. 


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