This Sunday, the normally laid-back world of surfing will receive a scholarly critique and words of warning from one of its own members.
Glenn Hening, founder of the Surfrider Foundation, will deliver a free lecture Sunday at 3 p.m. in Campbell Hall about the current world of surfing in its three incarnations: as a business, a contact sport and as a religion. Sponsored by the UCSB Geography Dept. and Arts & Lectures, Hening comes to Santa Barbara as a UC Regents’ Lecturer for which he will also hold campus residence for the quarter..
From what he has observed throughout his roughly three decades of surfing, Hening said the sport’s traditions and values are being lost to corporate interests, nostalgic worshipers and overly competitive wave riders who care more about catching a thrill than about sharing the experience. Such groups lack the “self-imposed sense of balance” needed for surfing – and the environment – to survive, he said.
“Surfing starts being impacted by the behavior of large corporations for whom the word ‘restraint’ doesn’t exist,” Hening said. “Surfing becomes impacted as a contact sport for people who want every wave they can get and will do anything to get it – [for them] the word ‘restraint’ doesn’t exist. … Surfing becomes a process that is almost a quasi-religious fanaticism for people who have their whole lives bound up in it at the detriment of other things of real value.”
Hening’s recently published book “Waves of Warning,” also the title of his lecture, outlines many of the problems associated with modern-day surfing while retelling parts of its thousand-year history in the setting of Polynesia and the U.S. Much of the book, like his lecture, focuses on how corporate influences can pollute the sport.
Companies that produce clothing targeted at surfers such as Billabong, Hurley and Volcom turn surfing away from its fundamental contact with nature toward a bottom line, Hening said. Because these companies are not sufficiently concerned about the environment, wearing their branded T-shirts in no way supports the sport or future of surfing, but rather can hurt it by promoting a culture that cares more about fashion, and less about sustainable practices.
“When I first heard the word ‘branding,’ [I thought about] branding cattle,” Hening said. “And why does cattle need to be branded? Because they’re not smart enough to know to whom they belong, so they need something that identifies them for marketing purposes.”
Hening said the makers of surfboards are contributing to the sport’s downfall through the use of toxic chemicals in their manufacturing process. He pointed to the recent closure of Clark Foam as an example of how little the surfing industry cares about its effect on the environment and the sustainability of the sport.
On Dec. 5, 2005, Clark Foam, which formerly produced nearly 60 percent of the world’s supply of foam “blanks” – from which surfboards are made – shocked the industry when it announced that it was shutting down. The Laguna Nigel-based manufacturer closed in part because it had difficulty conforming to environmental regulations.
In a seven-page fax to the surfboard industry explaining his move, Clark Foam owner Gordon “Grubby” Clark complained that organizations like Surfrider contributed to his company’s downfall because of their calls to increase environmental standards. Hening said Clark’s remarks and the industry’s reluctance to more actively pursue the production of boards with recyclable foam is a clear sign of an overall lack of conscience.
While he has seen the dire and disheartening challenges facing the sport, Hening said it is not too late to bring the focus of surfing back to that for which the sport once stood. Companies like Patagonia, from which Hening bought his surfboard, and organizations such as Surfrider and the Groundswell Society – recently co-founded by Hening – are a part of that effort, he said.
With about 40,000 members in 60 national chapters and five chapters abroad, Surfrider promotes the environmental protection of the oceans and seeks to decrease their pollution. The Groundswell Society, meanwhile, takes an approach of helping shape the values of surfing through supporting education, research and community involvement. The Groundswell Society will host a conference, “Surfstoke: From Your First Wave to Your Last,” at UCSB on Feb. 18.
Hening said surfers should help carry their sport into the future, as it has had such a long history and gives them such joy in the present.
“When you ride a wave, you can squint your eyes a little bit and understand that… the wave that you’re riding here on Campus Point on a given day is exactly the same wave that was breaking here in 1776 when they signed the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “It’s the same wave that was there when the Roman Empire fought off Hannibal. … Where you go surfing, there is a timeless reality there.”