Representation, Identity, and Environmental Action among Florida Surfers

Article excerpt

The identity of surfers and the surfing industry is intimately connected with romantic conceptions of nature linked to the ocean. Representations of surfers, such as those from deep ecology, recent scholarly work, the Surfrider Foundation, and within countless surfing media sources tend to include a keen sense of environmental awareness and developed environmental ethics. To investigate the surfer-environmentalist connection, specifically aiming to uncover if surfing inspires environmental action, we question Florida surfers about how nature plays into their surfing experience and how surfing may influence their roles as ecological actors. Using a two phase, mixed methods approach, we find that surfers generally self-identify as ecologically aware and socially active for environmental protection, reflecting the popular representations of the surfing community. In contrast, analysis of respondents' activities reveals lifestyles often incongruent with environmentally progressive ideologies and practice.

KEY WORDS: Surfing, surf culture, environmentalism, sustainability


Popular conceptions of surfing tend to represent the pastime as a force aligned with nature, its participants uniquely environmentally aware. A glimpse into al most any surfing magazine, for example, will recount the environmental awareness and harmony achieved through surfing, communicated through advertising campaigns and surfer testimonials. Many surf scholars have supported this representation too, perpetuating a romanticized vision of surfing cultures. Religious studies scholar Bron Taylor, for example, paints a flattering picture of biocentric "soul surfers" and the ways in which surfing "enjoins reverence for and protection of nature" (Taylor 2007, p 923). While this may be a valid representation for a subset of surfers, it cannot be an accurate characterization of the entire surfing community.

Even those surfers whose identity is based on a strong affinity for nature might habitually act in environmentally irresponsible ways. International travel and consumption of surf products that create pollution and excessive usage of natural resources are part and parcel of the surfing experience, but, further, many surfers even fail adopt a moderately, environmentally progressive lifestyle.

This research examines the surfing communities in and around Saint Augustine, Florida and qualifies the identity projected by surfers as environmentally responsible subjects, as well as the actions possibly inspired by their self-representation. More specifically, we use a two-phase survey and key informant interviews to investigate the extent to which surfers prioritize environmental responsibility in their words and contrast this with their habits to unearth contradictions among representation and action. We believe that surfers' expressions in dialog regarding environmental responsibility, individually and for the surfing community, will not coincide with a proportionate degree of environmentally progressive activity. Most likely subjects will act on environmental principles insofar as they are not contradictory to self-interest. While investigating the possibility of surfers as contradictory ecological beings, we also critique specific elements of surfing in terms of ecological sustainability, which are more fully explored by Hill and Abbott (2009) elsewhere.


Environmentalism is a slippery term warranting clarification for our work. Many people consider themselves to be environmentalists, but the meaning of this label includes a spectrum of ideas and varying levels of intensity, from people who think recycling is a good idea to radical animal rights activists. So where do we draw the boundaries for such a discussion? For our project we distinguish between environmental attitudes and environmental action. Opinions expressing the general responsibility of individuals and groups to maintain the quality and function of ecological systems are environmental attitudes. …