A new research center spread its fledgling wings. It’s called the Center for Surf Research, and it rides under the auspices of the L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University. To kick it off, Center Director Jess Ponting, Assistant Professor at SDSU, put together the Center’s inaugural symposium entitled, “Rising Tide Symposium: The Audacity of Stoke.”
Of course, I went.
The tagline for the event: An intellectual jam session on surf philanthropy and those who dare to care about surf destinations and their communities.
You might be surprised to learn that many major surf companies have well-developed philanthropic arms that are devoted to addressing the social and environmental challenges precipitated by the surf industry, Quicksilver, Rip Curl, and Billabong among them. And “sustainable surf tourism” is a rising sector, as well—an expanding industry in and of itself. Between lecturers from the likes of Fernando Aguerre, Rusty Miller, Serge Dedina, and Dr. Dave Jenkins, two panel discussions were held, the first seated by seasoned members of the surf industry, the second seated by four relatively new or up-and-coming, surf-inspired, non-profit CEOs. The program wrapped with a screening of the short film “Behind the Palms” from SurfAid International.
The essential question of the day was this: what are the social and environmental roles, responsibilities, and opportunities for surfers in the often far-flung (both culturally and geographically) destinations in which they surf? And, as if in answer to this question, Jenkins opened his presentation with this audacious statement, “Jess and I believe that surfing can save this planet.”
Add me to that list.
For the last couple years, I’ve been working on my own ideas about the pro-social roles that surfers will, and already have played on our planet. Call it cultural placement. And here is what I have come up with.
Social theorists have overwhelmingly relegated surf culture to the more easily dismissed realms of either sub-culture or counter-culture. I don’t quite see it that way. At its very origins, mainland California surf culture was not (initially) a part of the sub-cultural or counter-cultural experience. These surfers were not dropouts, nor were they reactionists. How these surfers came to be understood as such by non-surfing culture is of interest, but I digress.
First California surfers, by riding waves rather than evading them, were responding proactively to nature. First California surfers were responding proactively to an unexplored aspect of their local geography, venturing into ocean territory that had not yet been surfed. First California surfers proactively engaged in highly innovative surfboard design and constructions adapted from evolving aeronautical and war-time technologies. In fact, the first mainland California surfers were not reactionary at all but were proactive in a most profound way.
Proactivity could be considered a hallmark of the way in which this generation of surfers responded to and navigated their experience. Proactivity, as I see it, is the opposite of the reactivity that spawns counter- or sub- cultures. Through this proactivity, California’s first surfers found themselves at the leading edge of a new way of life: a new culture, a leading culture (not the Leitkultur associated with Bassam Tibi) that would come to be admired and emulated the world over.
Of course, provenance is no small deal. And “seascape epistemology” or “oceanic literacy,” thank you Karen Ingersoll, as passed (or some might argue grabbed) from Hawaiian surfers is the necessary, non-substitutable ingredient in of all of this. Still, the Californian-thing was the result of a unique set of ethics colliding at the perfect moment in time. So that what began as a hard-core hobby for a few became a lifeway for many and may actually be the ethic needed to redirect our current global trajectory.