Is Surfing Sustainable? - Stab Mag



Is Surfing Sustainable?

We asked someone with a PhD in the field

news // Jul 25, 2017
Words by Interview
Reading Time: 4 minutes

If you had to choose, gun to your head, whether surfing – the act and everything that surrounds it – has a net positive or negative impact on the world, what would you say? 

For the sake of avoiding a widespread existential crisis, I’ll frame the question within very specific boundaries: in terms of economic, environmental, and social impact, is surfing a force of good or evil? Is it sustainable?

Dr Leon Mach III, who claims no connection to razor brand Gillette, has an opinion on the matter. Considering Leon touts a PhD in Energy and Environmental Policy, and his dissertation focused on surf tourism and sustainability, it’s probably worth hearing him out.

Stab: So what’s the deal, Dr Leon? Are we totally screwed? Is our favourite pastime responsible for murdering the environment, diminishing social equality and causing widespread economic despair?
Leon: I wouldn’t put it like that. While surfing certainly has negative effects on society – like toxic emissions from surfboards, an archaic social structure in lineups, and has some neocolonial tendencies – it’s my belief that surfing has a net positive impact on the world. 

Really? How is that possible? I feel like everything we do equates to killing the reefs, enabling child labour, or staining once-paradisiacal regions with surf camps and tiki bars.
But you’re overlooking all the great things surfing brings to the world! Economically, surfing has given life to hundreds, if not thousands of micro surfing hubs across the globe, helping small towns thrive in areas with few other outlets for economic development. Environmentally, surfers lead many of the biggest and most successful crusades against ecosystem destruction and ocean pollution. Socially, surfing helps unite people in ways that are nothing short of remarkable. Take, for instance, the recent conflict in Bocas del Toro, Panama over a proposed structure at Playa Paunch.

Oh yeah, you’ve been living there for almost a year now – right? What’s your take on that whole situation? Are you pro or anti-pier?
Yes, I’ve been over there since January of this year and have had such an incredible learning experience. The pier situation is very intricate, but the short answer is that I’m anti-construction. 

Jules makes a case to protect the Paunch surfing experience. Photo: Struntz

Jules strikes a compelling case to protect the Paunch surfing experience. Photo: Struntz

How about the long answer?
First of all, I think surfers have been conditioned to act like we’re conserving one thing (the reef), when in reality we’re conserving something entirely different — that being our overall surfing experience. I think, if you look at it long term, there is a case to be made that the pier could have a  positive impact on the oceanic ecosystem. The construction stage would certainly be negative, but once the structure was built, it would allow thousands of surfers per year to avoid stepping directly on a wide swath of coral – a practice that has been and will continue to kill the reef. There are also clear economic advantages to the pier, though most would accrue to the developers.

But couldn’t it affect the wave?
That’s the thing. There’s no real science to back up whether or not such a structure will impact a wave before it’s built. In most cases, you need to actually construct the wall to discern if a wave will be better, worse, or completely unchanged by the artificial addition. In that sense, building a pier is riskier than not, which is why I am in favour of the precautionary principle and lean toward protectionism. However, I feel it’s important to be honest about the basis of your beliefs. I don’t want to risk losing my surfing experience at Playa Paunch, so if there is a 1% chance that the development will impact the experience, I don’t want to risk it. I think surfers need to articulate this without feeling it is shallow. Protecting the surf experience protects a lot of other things.

So you just penned a chapter for a new book, Sustainable Surfing. What’s that all about?
It’s basically the first book to consider the sustainability of surfing from an academic standpoint. My chapter looks at the blind acceptance of technological advances through the lens of surfing. Nowadays, it seems as though people overlook the most meaningful parts of life – human connection, appreciation for natural beauty and the environment – thanks to efficiency based technology. There’s no such thing as a “surf check” anymore, you just click an app and look at the current forecast or cam. Even the experience of surfing, something that was once a rhythmic dance between man and nature, has been corrupted by the use of self-filming devices, among other things. There is a technological wedge being driven between humans and the environment, and I think it’s time we stop to consider what devices truly enrich our lives, and which ones detach us from simple pleasures.

So you just wrote a whole chapter condemning GoPros?
Not really. But it is a big part of it.

Ok, here’s a real thinker… considering the number of surfers across the world is increasing, and the number of waves is (theoretically) finite, isn’t surfing, by definition, unsustainable?
I know what you’re saying, in that sense that you can’t run infinite growth on a finite system, but the thing with surfing is that – and it’s probably hard to wrap your head around this, as it is for myself – the idea of waves being “crowded” is a social construct. For instance, if you look at guys surfing Malibu in the 1930s, there were probably 14 guys in the water and all of them would ride the same wave. Only in recent times have we created this individualistic nature of surfing, where it’s one-person-one-wave, and all of that built around a unique meritocracy. Social constructs can (and do) change, so I feel that with increasing crowds, eventually surfing will be forced to take on a different social atmosphere and with it different rules of engagement.

You mean like, two-plus people per wave? Oh dear. 
In reality, I don’t know if that is the solution, but surely different approaches to allocating access to waves must emerge and surfers need new methods for cooperating as waves become busier. It may not seem ideal at the moment, but remember that perceptions change over time. Multiple riders per wave is a fairly logical solution to the issue you posed. What… you don’t like to party wave? 


Comments are a Stab Premium feature. Gotta join to talk shop.

Already a member? Sign In

Want to join? Sign Up


Most Recent

Live Now: Finals Day At Stab High Japan Presented By Monster Energy

The freshwater feud for Pro, Ladybird, and Bottle Rocket champion starts now.

Jun 22, 2024

Albee Layer Reluctantly Escapes Sudden-Death Round On Final Wave Of The Day, Advances to Day 2 of Stab High Japan 

“I just want to do my fucking wave, and then go home”

Jun 22, 2024

“Relax, It’s A Surf Contest In A Swimming Pool”

Our attempt at an unbiased comp wrap from afar, on Day One of Stab High…

Jun 22, 2024

Rasta Robb Gutter Stomps Backside Full-Rote, Scores a 3/50

Why wasn’t the reigning champ rewarded in heat 1 of Stab High Japan?

Jun 22, 2024

Full Replay: Day 1 of Stab High Japan Presented By Monster Energy

Click to watch (or rewatch) today's Qualifier and Sudden Death rounds.

Jun 21, 2024

Everything You Need to Know About The Most ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ Wave in the Mentawais

Tips from longtime HTs devotee, Liam Turner.

Jun 21, 2024

“You’re An Elite Freesurfer, I’m Just A Vlogger, Surely You Can Take Me Out”

King of Waco calls out Aussie freesurfers on Stab High live stream.

Jun 21, 2024

Please Don’t Do A Superman At Stab High Japan, Presented By Monster Energy 

Breaking down the best and worst airs, according to the stats. 

Jun 20, 2024

355 Days Later, We Still Don’t Know What Elo Did In Brazil

But here's your 2024 Rio Pro preview.

Jun 20, 2024

JJF + Medina To Continue Rampages In Brazil?

12x CT event winner and previous SITD pilot Taj Burrow says 'yes'.

Jun 19, 2024

Allow Us To Introduce The YETI Ladybirds And Bottle Rockets Of Stab High Japan Presented By Monster Energy

Here's our schoolyard pick for teams; who will win the most cred at the lunch…

Jun 17, 2024

Prediction: Moving The WSL Finals To Fiji Will Kill Off Two More Surfing Superstars

Is this JJF's time to collect his titles? We checked the stats.

Jun 17, 2024

Confirmed: Fiji To Host 2025 WSL Finals

Cloudbreak will remain on tour until 2026.

Jun 17, 2024

What’s The Secret To Powersurfing?

Taylor Knox, Kyuss King, and Jessi Miley-Dyer tackle a trio of questions in our third…

Jun 16, 2024

How To Win Stab High Japan, Presented By Monster Energy

A statistical analysis of the 493 airs attempted in previous chlorinated editions.

Jun 16, 2024

Watch: An Intimate Portrait Of The Wave, Village, And People At The End Of The Road

Oxbow’s ‘Children of Teahupo’o’ is playing exclusively on Stab Premium for the next two weeks. 

Jun 15, 2024

Fuck It, Run The Entire CT In Indo

A historic beginning to the Indonesian dry season.

Jun 14, 2024

Ferrari Boyz: Holly Wawn

"I've had 4, 5, maybe 6 cars... I'm a car dealer I reckon."

Jun 13, 2024
JUNE 22 & 23
-2 Days
19 Hours
41 Minutes
26 Seconds
Join Stab Premium