Writer / Grad Student
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Photo:  Trevor Murphy

“What if we started asking different questions, like how do different people define a good life in their communities and natural environments? What does sustainability mean to them?” Photo: Trevor Murphy


The Inertia

What’s sustainable about sustainable surf tourism? This isn’t a question that’s going to make me very many friends. Especially in a world where everything from supporting Walmart’s corporate social responsibility program to using “green” Clorox bleach, to living off the grid in a permaculture eco-community and shitting in a composting toilet every day, all fall under the same spectrum of what we’re willing to accept as “sustainable.” Even when we’re well aware that not all things that call themselves sustainable actually are, and that often the very use of the word masks darker, more complex realities we haven’t yet been willing to shed any light on. When it would require re-examining our own practices, lifestyles and efforts at “doing good” in the systems and structures that make up our world, many are hesitant to really examine themselves honestly. But as conscientious surfers across the globe jump on the sustainable surf tourism bandwagon as our way to give back and support the communities and environments in the places we go to surf, it is exactly this sort of self-interrogation that is needed to prevent the deepening of social, cultural and environmental devastation under the sexy veil of sustainable surf tourism.

In our lives of privilege in the so-called developed world, we find ourselves in a unique position to want to help others less fortunate than us, particularly non-white people in small, income-poor communities in the developing world. William Easterly refers to this phenomenon as the “white man’s burden” – our innate service-and/or-guilt-laden desire to help or protect others in places foreign to us, who we perceive to be less privileged or facing a threat we believe we can help them overcome. The white man’s burden, he says, is one of the main factors driving small-scale interventions under the larger umbrella of international socioeconomic development. As surfers whose media-inspired nirvana-seeking travels have taken us to remote corners of the world and beyond, we understand this deepening desire to help or give back to the communities where we travel to surf, the majority of which are income-poor villages of non-white peoples whose lifestyles we refer to as “poverty.”

As a well-traveled, well-intentioned global surfer community, we’ve added a twist to Easterly’s category, taking up the “white surfer’s burden” by taking on small-scale projects similar to those implemented by international development workers for decades now. In our case, our particular sort of well-intentioned burden has become the driving impetus justifying the need for sustainable surf tourism in its many forms, from surf philanthropy and surf voluntourism to surf tourism management frameworks, educational surf travel, surfer-run non-profit organizations, and for-profit certification schemes for resorts and surf tourism providers. Unfortunately, however, where surfers’ burdens are concerned, the results aren’t always pretty, and despite our best efforts and righteous will to act in the name of all things decent and good, our charitable deeds often validate and reproduce systems of neocolonial dominance and exploitation, all the while allowing us to feel good in our philanthropic acts of misdirected good deed-doing.

We’ve all heard the warning, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” For sustainable surf tourism, we’d do well to reflect on that warning and make some serious adjustments in our approach.

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