Wave Scarcity

Scenics-Lineups_winter2014-15_brentbielmann020Hawaii, looking scarce. Photo: Brent Bielmann

The swell was dying. The tide was dropping fast. A one-wave set arose — an opportunity — and I paddled for it. So did some kid. Probably 16-years old. He was on my inside, had “priority.” But I paddled first, I thought. And had been surfing that spot since he was in diapers. And I surfed better than him. And shit, this might be the last decent wave of the swell. I put my head down and went, and so did he, and I roasted him like a Thanksgiving bird.

This ruined the ride for both of us, of course. He couldn’t surf the wave that was rightfully his. I was disappointed in myself for being a dick and also worried that I’d collide with him if I cut back so I outran the section, into the channel. Basically, it went how it always goes — with someone feeling violated and someone else feeling guilty.

And yet, we still do it. Still hassle, burn, bark and act in ways that are unjustifiable in almost anywhere else modern society. Why?

I’ve had this idea for a while, and have even referenced it a couple of times in SURFING, but never really flushed it out. It’s the theory that we act so shitty in the water because of scarcity. You remember scarcity. The economic term you learned in middle school to explain that there aren’t enough resources to satisfy all human wants and needs. People often use is to justify monetary greed, like, Hey there’s only so much money out there so I’m going to beg, borrow and steal to get mine. But let’s think about it for a moment in terms of waves.

Good waves are scarce. The swell, wind and tide all need to align — during daylight hours — during a time that works with your personal schedule. And even with all of that, you then need to compete with other people that want the same thing, and are in a hurry “get theirs” out of fear that any of the aforementioned variables will change unfavorably and their opportunity will be gone. So we hassle. We burn. We bark.

In the book The Soul Of Money, Lynne Twist explains that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a beggar in India or a millionaire broker on Wall Street, the feeling of scarcity still consumes us. She writes, “This internal condition of scarcity lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life…In the mind-set of scarcity, we grow more and more distanced from our core values.”

Core values like sharing and being nice to people. How many times have you watched someone who’s a decent person on land turn into the Patrick Bateman once they hit the water? It happens because when we approach a session with a panicked sense of “I might not get enough,” it changes our behavior.

_B8A7939Lowers, AKA Surfing’s Wall Street. Photo: Peter Taras

I Googled “the psychology of scarcity” to see if there was any science to back this up, and there is. Most notably Princeton X Harvard collab by Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan, showing that when we feel a sense of scarcity we are more short sighted, weaker willed and make bad decisions. (Their book is Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. I haven’t read it.) So whether those bad decisions come in the form of a high-interest payday loan or snaking a guy you’re going to have to see when you paddle back out, it doesn’t matter. When there isn’t enough, we’re willing to do anything to get it.

Solutions? (Don’t you dare say wave pools.)

Admitting you’re asshole in the water is the first step. Not sure how to tell? Ask yourself, “Would I do this on land?” when backpaddling, hassling, burning or yelling at someone that gets in your way. If you say no and do it anyway, you’re an asshole in the water.

Then it’s a matter of changing the way you approach a session. I’ve always found it helpful to set extremely low expectations. Aspiring to “one good wave” or “one good turn” makes your goals easier to reach, so it’s harder to justify shitty, fear-induced behavior. Lynne Twist explains the benefits of approaching life with a perspective of “sufficiency” through her experience with an Ecuadorian tribe (Achuar) that didn’t use money in their society. “Instead of seeking more, they treasure and steward thoughtfully what is already there…For the Achuar, wealth means being present to the fullness and richness of the moment and sharing that with one another.”

Which, I’ll admit, is a bit kumbaya and idealistic. Convincing millions of surfers to share and be nice and approach waves from a place of sufficiency is about as likely as getting Wall Street to cut executive salaries and fly coach. The good news, however, is that you don’t need everyone to do it. You just need you to do it. Give it a try. Watch the angst slip away. Watch the waves and the fun flood in.

—Communist Correspondent Taylor Paul