Over the past 15 years I have been researching what sustainable development and sustainability mean and how these terms are translated into real world programs, initiatives and policies.  I have done this at the United Nations, at the national and local government level. I’ve looked at the sustainability of 2012 Olympics in London this year as well as exploring community and individual responses to risks such as climate change.  As a surfer of over 20 years, mostly in the cold and fickle waves of the South West of England, it was only a matter of time before I started exploring sustainable development in the surfing world. What follows is a small introduction to sustainable development, surfing, and an emerging area of research.

Sustainable development remains a contested and ambiguous concept. It has been described as an oxymoron — that no development, by its very nature, can be sustainable. Others say that it means all things to all people and so, ultimately, means nothing.  Perhaps the most serious accusation is that it is a term that does nothing more than legitimise existing modes or production and consumption, and as we all know, they don’t really work.

Considering all that, I am still a proponent of sustainable development. I believe it is the most important term of the 21st Century and provides a focal point around which different cultures, different religions, and different sectors can come together and discuss the multiple and complex impacts humanity is having on our planet.  Its basic definition, from the Bruntland Commission’s 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’ (WCED 1987) says it is “development that meets the needs of current populations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition was again enforced at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.  It was at this summit that Agenda 21 (UN 1992) was borne, considered by many to be the blueprint for sustainable development.

In the 20 years between the first Rio summit in 1992 and its most recent incarnation, the meaning and context of the concept has altered significantly.  Initially focused on the environment, now the term is broader and focused on three pillars: “the triple bottom line” of environment, society and the economy. Recent work, including my own, now emphasises the complexity of the definitions and focuses on a “systems approach” to sustainable development exploring governance and the role of multiple stakeholders.

With this heavily abbreviated history, definition and emerging perspectives on sustainable development established, let’s talk a bit about the fusion of surfing and sustainable development.  With an estimated 10 million surfers in 120 countries and an industry worth in excess of six billion dollars, surfing is a significant player on the international stage in many different areas.  Its effects range from impacts on local communities living close to world class waves, through the rapid rise of surf tourism, to the impact of the production and consumption of surfing related products, shorts, wetsuits boards etc.  As with other sector of society the language of sustainability is being used to grapple with the multiple issues that relate to surfing.

Of course, what the term means within the surfing world will inevitably change depending on what area is being looked at, and so it should. Considering this, I want to urge an interrogation of the term and what it’s being applied to.  This interrogation starts with a very simple question: How is sustainability being used and in what context? It means looking very carefully at ‘sustainability claims’. It means understanding, for example, what is meant by “sustainable surf tourism,” understanding the impacts and processes, asking the right questions and challenging the established status quo. It’s about accommodating diversity, conflict and different visions. What it absolutely should not mean (and this refers back to the most serious criticisms of sustainable development) is business as usual under
a shiny new label.

I have only begun to explore these questions and I start modestly.  But I cautiously see some genuine and exciting changes within the surfing world.  There are a number of internal and external variables I could point to but I’ll leave you with two of the strongest examples. Firstly, the mediums for the serious exchange of ideas, thought, and commentary within the surfing world have significantly evolved and/or grown up. The creation of the website, The Greener Blue, with a specific focus on surfing and sustainability is a good example of this.  Secondly, a very visible change is the increasing effectiveness of non-profit organisations that specifically focus on sustainability.  The organization, Sustainable Surf, in particular and  its programs related to market transformation within the surfing industry is an example of changing towards a more sustainable model of doing business.  Their Waste to Waves program has been successful not only from a recycling perspective but also in moving the debates around recycling and pollution in surfing into the mainstream media, eg: Forbes.  The greening of the San Francisco
Rip Curl Pro and the subsequent partnership with the Association of  Surfing Professional leading to the sustainability initiatives at the Volcom Fiji Pro through the Deep Blue Surfing initiative are yet more examples.

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