A Study of Surfing’s Biggest Moral Quandary

A Purely Rational Look At Localism

| posted on July 22, 2010

When surfers speak about localism, there is typically much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over thorny moral problems: If localism thins out crowds, makes things safer, then is it ethically justifiable? Isn’t regionalism in some way good for the heritage of a spot? Isn’t some control, even if violent, better than no control?

But what if all of that missed the point? What if we looked at localism from a purely rational standpoint? What if we looked at the fact that for the better part of 40 years, since crowding started becoming an issue in the post-Gidget era, surfers have steadfastly clung to a mammalian set of values that placed an emphasis on “defending” one’s territory? And what if we realized that, statistically, that approach has not only not worked, but it’s created more problems than it’s solved. And what if, further, we realized that the answer was right under noses all along, that nature and talent were the self-regulating limiters in the modern surfing stewpot, and that we don’t need to like them or believe in them, we just need to trust them.

Consider the fishery.

It is a hell of a problem, the fishery, and any commercial fisherman—or government regulator—will tell you that. The problem with the fishery is that it is a common public access point, and that fishermen themselves have no incentives to control their behavior to preserve it. Fishermen get paid by the pound, so why would they do anything but pull up a lot of poundage? This, of course, diminishes the long-term health of the fishery, but as a fisherman trying to put food on the table, even if you know that conserving a fishing zone is better for its long-term health, why throw back a fish? If you don’t pull it out, somebody else surely will.

The fishery is the same as the surf zone. Why let a wave go? If I, sitting in a packed surf-zone, start letting waves go, there is no guarantee anybody will follow my generous lead and give one back. I may be benevolent, but I will be benevolent and waveless.

The ecologist Garrett Hardin identified exactly this problem in his seminal 1968 paper “The Tragedy of the Commons,” wherein he stated that individuals, motivated purely by their own self-interest, will inevitably destroy a commonly held resource. His argument has many applications 40 years past its publication, not the least of which is the surf-zone. The cornerstone of Hardin’s argument was the example of herdsmen letting their cows graze on a common pasture, which none of the herdsmen are individually responsible for. “As a rational being,” Hardin writes, “each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

Surfers have somehow allowed themselves to at least tacitly accept, if not outright endorse, a chaotic system of violent localism.

Since all of the herdsmen stand to gain from the eventual sale of the animal (the same way that every surfer stands to gain from the riding of a wave), and none of the herdsmen is responsible for the commons (the same way that there is no tangible reward to a surfer in preserving the peacefulness of a surf-zone), Hardin continues, “the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another….” But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy.

Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit‹in a world that is limited. “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

“In a world that is limited.” Perhaps no phrase in Hardin’s paper rings more true to surfing’s current tenuous situation. Estimates vary, but the best guesses indicate that there are between 2 and 3 million surfers (possibly upward of 4 million) in the United States today, to say nothing of Australia, Europe, South Africa, Southeast Asia, and other surf populous centers. One percent of U.S. residents surf—think about that. And that number is growing.

The result? We have a world that is limited. And yet we pursue waves as limitless, often at the cost of each other, the surf culture in general, and the safety and security of our surf breaks.

All of which has led us to localism. We have become angry, underfed, hungry, hostile, and violent. We tell kids to beat it. We shoulder-hop. We burn kooks. We fight on the beach. We wax windows.