In my last post, when briefly discussing population growth, I mistakenly referred to The World In Balance. Instead, the film I had recently watched and had intended to highlight was How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth?. I've corrected my mistake and added some statistics. I'm glad I had occasion to revisit the film.
An important part of the premise of my graduate research is that classing surfing as a sub-culture or counter-culture (stock-standard critical and popular approach) is wrong. There is a long-perpetuated myth that choosing one’s passion (waves) must come at an irreconcilable cost and requires the surfer to "drop out." The myth is perpetuated by even the more lucid and perceptive of surf writers.
One key to understanding why surfers were, and still are, cast as drop outs is this: the most itinerant members of the culture--uncoupled (usually) young males--were also the most visible during their free (non-surfing) time; they did a lot of conspicuous hanging out and looking fairly disengaged from the mainstream. But these "juvenile males" can be found anywhere--they are not unique to surf culture. The rest of the surfers, when they were not in the water, were busy at home or at work, raising their families, and went under the public radar so-to-speak. This is as true today as it was at the beginning for surfers in California. The drop out story is a romantic (sometimes tragically so--think Mike Hynson) one. Reminds me of this cartoon. Even courage in service of overcoming really bad decisions sells, or tugs at the heart strings (mine anyway) at the very least. I think that is why the myth gets so much play. We tend not to notice the more normative examples of *anything*, including surfers.
In choosing to see surf-life as impossible for the responsible, here is what gets missed. Choice is not the same as trade-off. One implies equally viable paths, the other, some kind of loss or deficit. Choosing to arrange one's life around surf does not preclude having a work-life. The fact is, most surfers manage to nurture a surf-life while maintaining a robust work-life and could actually be counted as the more highly functioning members of American society. One does not need to "drop out" in order to "drop in."
So why does it matter? The matter is twofold, as I see it. Twofold, at least.
1) The American work-centric cult(ure) has gone off-track, and in a bad way. Industrial countries "remain responsible for the bulk of the world's resource consumption." Chronic disease (against which modern medicine is, so far, somewhat less efficacious than it has been against infectious disease), including diseases that respond to lifestyle change such as diabetes and coronary artery disease, are fast bankrupting the American economy. The irony? The more we work, the more material wealth we accumulate, the more chronic disease we create, the more we can't work enough to keep up with the health costs of that work. Vicious. Not sustainable.
2) One thing that early California surfers had going was they had, as a general rule, found a way to live full, rich lives within the local environment, making escape from it (via travel and stuff) less necessary. Very sustainable.
At last month's Surf Research Symposium, there was one person who pulled no punches with regard to our local roles in sustainability. Apparently not beholden to social norms that, perhaps, kept others from saying it, Fernando Aguerre pronounced “We are not sustainable!” There was some visible squirming in the room. Aguerre’s statement was followed by the suggestion that the conversation be kept on track. But I thought this was on track exactly.
In the United States, consumption is, generally speaking, a function of work-life. The more we work, the more we consume—whether directly with over-sized homes and much needed vacations, or indirectly with staggering healthcare and, many times, unnecessary, ineffective, or only marginally-life-extending medical costs. In addition, our consumption patterns, and our subsequent impacts on the planet's overall natural resources, far outweigh those of our less consumptive, even if higher-birth-rate counterparts in less developed areas of the world.
"To have a state of sustainability where we remain within the productive capacity of the planet means that people in the industrialized countries are going to have to give up consumption of a great deal in order to create the ecological space for needed growth in the Third World. If we don't make those kinds of compromises, then we are going to continue to erode the resource base of the planet to the point where we all suffer" (Reese, From How Many People Can Live On the Planet?, 30:50).
Americans today, many surfers included, need to rethink their individual relationships with locality as it pertains to consumption. Any surfing that depends on air travel in, say a Boeing 747, has some obvious problems with sustainability. And while partnerships like that of the Surui and Google Earth Outreach attest that globalization is here to stay, that we all must participate thoughtfully and positively (or else!), there is still much to be said of what goes on at home--that other side of the coin.
We would do well to rethink what it was that local, community-oriented surfing of the past had over today’s satellite-predicted surf contests and surf expeditions. What are our prevailing relationships with time, locale, and work? A reordering of these, one that allowed for more days per year in the water at a local surf break, could mean less pressure on catching that perfect wave during your once-a-year, two-week vacation. It could mean less pressure that causes expensive, chronic disease. It could mean that when the time comes, a life well-lived will help in being a little more ready to go. It could mean less pressure on world resources as whole.
In the midst of the onslaught of the consumptive, industrial culture of the 20th century, surfers were already at the fore, leading us out of that unsustainable way of life. Having passed, via heritage and culture, a particular ethos—an ethos not of “dropping out,” but rather of balancing work- locale- and surf-life priorities, surfers and their children are poised to take up where the eldest generation of California surfers are now leaving off.