what’s sustainable about sustainable surf tourism?

by: Tara Ruttenberg

“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

“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

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.

See what I mean about not making many friends here?

Sustainable Surf Tourism for Development: Surfing meets Neocolonialism

At this point, most of us agree that surf tourism as a global phenomenon is a significant force to be reckoned with in surfing’s hotspots around the world, leaving a plethora of complex social and environmental challenges in its wake. Surf tourism has been repeatedly criticized as a process of neocolonialism, with local cultures and livelihoods increasingly marginalized by foreign-owned surf tourism businesses operating in a free-for-all atmosphere of market-based, neoliberal competition. Born of the desire to do things better, sustainable surf tourism has emerged valiant in its intention to save local people and their environments from the destructive impacts of unregulated surf tourism. And while useful in its diagnosis of surf tourism within neoliberal governance structures as a neocolonial process of social exploitation, marginalization and environmental devastation, sustainable surf tourism, as we know it, is unfortunately remiss in its proposed solutions to these challenges. Quite the contrary, in fact: by seeking to harness local economic growth generated through surf tourism as a mechanism for promoting Western models of socioeconomic development, sustainable surf tourism invariably reproduces the very same processes of both neoliberalism and neocolonialism that it purports to resolve. Good intentions and all.

From our position in the “developed” world, sustainable surf tourism is seen as a noble cause we can all understand, and a solution-oriented project many of us want to support, not least given our intrinsic and/or media-driven obsession with traveling to surf. Not to mention the current trend of jumping on the all-things-sustainable bandwagon as the means of doing our part to save the world we’re destroying by doing all of the other things we do and don’t do. Yet when we shift our lens and examine the ins-and-outs of what sustainable surf tourism is really sustaining, its image becomes blurred, forcing us to question its very objectives and our own roles in sustaining all of it.

In the past few years, scholars and practitioners of the emerging field of sustainable surf tourism have gone even further in their pursuit of surf-tourism-for-development, wanting surf tourism to do things like alleviate poverty, protect coastlines, provide jobs and contribute to local community wellbeing through projects like building health clinics and schools and promoting local entrepreneurship; in effect, taking on the global-to-local project of mainstream international development and applying it to surf tourism spaces. In so doing, we have also taken on mainstream development’s perverse manifestations born of the self-righteous mindset, or what eco-feminist Vandana Shiva refers to as the mono-culturalizing meta-narrative, that what I know as best for me in my Western mind and my modern-materialist world view must also be best for you, uneducated backwards natives of the impoverished, undeveloped coastland, and it is therefore my duty as your superior to help you develop into modernity. Never mind culture and spiritual cosmovision, you need hospitals selling Western medicine and schools teaching scientific knowledge, and more money and jobs so you can live a decent life and be more like me, because the way we do things is not only the right way, it’s the only way to live a dignified life. With very few exceptions, this is the mindset and message defining international development today, as the premise behind the Millennium Development Goals setting global strategies for economic and community development, along with poverty alleviation strategies pursued by organizations like Oxfam International, UN Development Program, and even many small-scale local development non-profits who focus on community economy-building through things like microcredit, education, health, and eco-tourism, for example. Interestingly, and unfortunately, we are now seeing this same Western-modern mindset and its underlying message as the driving ideology in much of sustainable surf tourism’s discourse and practice.

And by aligning its solutions with Western modes of development, trampling local cultures, values and world views in the process, the field of sustainable surf tourism can no longer be seen as a values-neutral undertaking but must instead be understood as a seductive experiment in the innately political processes of international development, neocolonial at their core. And in so doing, it joins mainstream development in deepening systems of oppression that have been sustained for centuries, by the consent and conformity of people with power and their ability to colonize minds and hearts with ideas, wages and promises rather than with weapons, whips and chains. And by labeling it “sustainable” and appealing to the “white surfer’s burden,” sustainable surf tourism has flown under the radar of much-needed and well-overdue critique, enjoying a sort of privileged space in the minds and hearts of surfers with even a vague interest in saving the world, and all of her non-white people living in “poverty,” too.

And that’s exactly where the many well-intentioned researchers and practitioners in the field of sustainable surf tourism have gone awry, misinterpreting the task at hand in crossing into territory that threatens to entrench surf tourism of all kinds, “sustainable” or not, as a colonizing activity and discourse, rather than strengthening its potential to transform historical-turned-contemporary practices of dominance and exploitation into meaningful experiments in cross-cultural engagement and alternatives to development for truly sustainable futures in the places where surf tourism happens.

I recognize that it’s inconvenient to self-reflect at this point, with sustainability certification frameworks and educational surf travel programs and all of this sustainable surf tourism infrastructure already created around a singular narrative of what we mean when we say the word “sustainable,” which unfortunately finds itself increasingly out of touch with the lived realities of the people and places it purports to save or, at the very least, help a little bit.

Inconvenient, indeed. But even more impossible to ignore.

Which is why I write this today, not as a game of blame-and-shame, but as an initial step in drawing deeper awareness to the realities we can change by bringing different perspectives to the table, and working together as a community to ensure our actions transform systems of dominance and oppression, rather than entrenching them beyond a point of no return. And while my words may be received as an aggressive “calling out” of those whose philosophies and practices I disagree with, my intention is that they be read as a “calling in” for all of us who care deeply about doing surf tourism better, learning from the decades of mistakes in international development and seeking alternatives outside the mainstream as the means to replace neocolonialism with respect for diversity of cultures, lifestyles and world views, as well as appreciation for subjective experiences of social well being, and the rich multiplicity of ways of being in the world that make traveling, and living, so special, indeed.

Decolonizing Sustainable Surf Tourism

As it’s being practiced today, sustainable surf tourism lets us live the illusion that we’re contributing toward a sustainability we’re comfortable with in our world view and lifestyle practices, while actually deepening oppression and sustaining social injustice on a global scale, preventing truly sustainable futures from happening in the places we love to travel to surf. There’s a difference between romanticizing poverty and embracing cultural diversity in ways of living, being, seeing and doing in the world. If sustainable surf tourism can’t see that and start re-evaluating its approach to sustainability, I fear its relevance and utility is all but dead in the water.

So this is my plea for decolonizing sustainable surf tourism. It starts with engaging ourselves in a process of serious self-reflection, both individually and collectively, around what it means to respect cultural diversity, acknowledging the implications of those realizations for the projects we’re involved in today. How can we shift our approach away from universalizing, one-size-fits-all strategies that sideline local possibilities and ways of living? How can we stop imposing Western modes of seeing, being and doing on communities whose cultures are so beautifully different from our own? How can we stop assuming we know better than?

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? What does it look like and feel like? How might existing modes of community interaction support non-capitalist approaches to surf tourism? How might they enrich our cross-cultural experiences as both surf tourists and local residents, while shifting the dynamic away from neoliberal approaches to (un)sustainability? How might we as surf tourists start traveling to surf differently?

Why aren’t we asking these kinds of questions? Why don’t we start?

I believe in our ability to see beyond the social conditions that inform our actions, our mentalities. And when it comes to sustainability, I believe we can do things differently. I believe we can do sustainable surf tourism a whole lot better.

And if we can dance on water every day, I believe that we, as a global surf community, can do anything we set our hearts to.

 


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