At last month’s surf research symposium, writer Steve Barilotti described surfers as “innovative” and “adaptable.” These are just a couple of the ethics I alluded to in my last post. When Polynesian surfing came to California, “innovative and adaptable” combined with “oceanic literacy” and created a new ethos, an ethos that continues today, where surfers are not riding on the underbelly of cultural hegemony; surfing quite certainly is not a reaction to society. Where it comes to societal placement, surfers are out in front, just like they are out in front of the waves they ride. And, I believe this is true of those making strides for a sustainable surf tourism, as well.
But here’s the rub. There were a few elephants in the room that day. I think I’ll just take them one at a time here. The first is best unveiled by this statement, made by one member of the non-profit CEOs panel, in answer to the question of what had motivated him to start his non-profit? “We were surfing in this village where all they had was this subsistence fishery, and we thought, ‘What can we do about that?’”
Mine seemed to be the only jaw in the room to hit the floor.
Here we were, in the middle of the day, in a massive, air-conditioned, artificially lit university building, gathered to discuss sustainability, each with our individual plastic water bottles--who knows what our collective “footprint” was for those five hours alone--and one premise around which much of the discourse focused was this: it is such a shame that the locals could actually subsist in their environment that someone ought to create a non-profit devoted to changing that. Hmmmm.
To be fair, what people do, what people hope to do, and especially, who they are, is rarely contained by one or two statements. Still, that was his answer. To me, that answer betrayed a cultural-centrity that, I believe, has us (Westerners) headed down our own unsustainable path. Elephant number one. We (in the United States) haven’t wrapped our collective heads around our abiding expectation that our diligent, human economic activity will rightfully lead to economic growth, if only properly carried out. Therefore we haven’t wrapped our heads around the true meaning of sustainability. If we look to our most-recent selves as the model, we are in trouble. We need to begin to see the relationship between subsistence and sustainability, where subsistence isn’t a dirty word.
When, in our youth, my brother and I traveled to Punta Eugenia at the tip of the Vizcaino, we marveled at the finely tuned abalone and lobster co-op in which the local, natural resources were carefully stewarded by the local community—not to mention the desalinization plant locally built and operated that allowed the village a great deal of political autonomy. Walking the surrounding reefs of their town was like stepping back into SoCal yesteryear. Abalones peeked from every crevice, and species of fish, like sheephead and white sea bass, indigenous but rare on the Alta California coast, were swimming to and fro, right in our sight. My brother turned to me, “This must be the California that Al (Nelson) and Carl (Ekstrom) used to talk about.”
Perhaps I wasn't the only one who noticed this particular elephant in the room. Perhaps I wasn't the only one to politely pick my jaw up off the floor either. Serge Dedina of WildCoast, in working closely with fishing communities in Baja, has apparently gleaned this simple insight, and he shared it during his symposium presentation: “We have a lot to learn from them.” This is an idea that I think is worth repeating. I hope to revisit it in coming posts.