Localism: managing the Commons?

Posted by: on February 1st, 2009

David Bollier is an editor at onthecommons.org and he’s interested in the way people manage common resources – including surf breaks. He opens his essay entitled “A Surfing Commons in Hawaii: The Wolfpak of Oahu manages access to the biggest waves in the world.” thusly:

You can find a commons in the most unlikely places. Case in point: the clan of surfers at the Banzai Pipeline beach on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. A motley tribe of musclemen maintain order and respect among the crowds of surfers vying to catch the big waves there. This social community based around a shared resource even has a name, “The Wolfpak,” and has been the subject of a documentary film, Bustin’ Down the Door, recently released on DVD.

Why would a commons form around legendary surfing waves? Because top surfers from around the world make pilgrimages to the Pipeline to test themselves against the waves. The Pipeline has been likened to the Mount Everest of surfing – a place where the best go to prove their mettle and talent. Not surprisingly, there is enormous competition in the water over who is entitled to ride which waves…. and resentment against outsiders who don’t respect the social protocols that the local surfing crowd has developed over time.

Bollier’s piece seems to be at least partly inspired by an interesting feature about the Wolfpak (why no “c”? And what’s Hawaiian about wolfpa(c)ks anyway?) which appeared in the New York Times sports section on 23 January 2009. Entitled Rough Waves, Tougher Beaches , it profiles the group of blokes who’ve somehow become the (current), er, managers of Pipeline and thereabouts.

According to writer Matt Higgins, these chaps (no mention of any chapettes) mostly come from Kauai, which kind of suggests that geographic origin and localness is a reasonably elastic relationship. Anyway, we learn something of one Kala Alexander who is quoted thusly: ““The code is to respect other people,” Alexander, 39, said. “People come over here and don’t respect other people. You’re going to run into problems if you do that.””

The subtext isn’t (or maybe wasn’t) too sub with Mr A. Apparently there are videos of him on YouTube in which he may be viewed dispensing “problems” to those who failed to meet his exacting standards with regard to respect.

Happily it appears that Mr. A and his compatriots have mellowed in recent years. Possibly taking a leaf out of the bikies PR book, the article notes that the Wolfpak has taken to participating in annual beach clean ups and even visits sick kids in hospital. As well, a spokeswoman from Honolulu PD is quoted as saying that “surf-related assaults are very rare” these days. That’s a fine thing, although just why is open to some conjecture. Lawsuits are raised as one possible factor. The commons getting enclosed by the law perhaps?

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