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Behind the scenes of What We Got: DJ Spooky’s Journey to the Commons

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Commons Rise With The Tide — Surf’s UP!

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A Surfing Commons in Hawaii

The Wolfpak of Oahu manages access to the biggest waves in the world.

This is from  David Bollier, editor of onthecommons.org and author of the just released book, Viral Spiral:  How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own.

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.


Photo by Kanaka’s Paradise Life, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

“It’s a dangerous environment, and without a self-governing control pattern, it would just be chaos out there,” Randy Rarick, executive director of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing competition, told Matt Higgins, a reporter for The New York Times. Another surfer pointed out that “there are serious consequences if you drop in on somebody and they got hurt, or if you wipe out and hurt yourself.”

The Wolkpak constitutes a commons because it is a social collective that manages usage of this scarce local resource that its members cherish and use themselves. They are protective of it and each other, and have evolved their own rules for the orderly, fair use of the resource and community stability. According to Higgins’ article in the New York Times sports section (January 23, 2009), members of the Wolfpak “determine which waves go to whom, and punish those who breach their code of respect for local residents and the waves.”

The Wolfpak formed about ten years ago when surfers using the beach, particularly Kala Alexander, realized there was a dangerous void of self-governance in the water. “It was crowded when I came here,” he said. “A lot of people in the water, not much respect. Where I grew up on Kauai, you respect everybody in the water, especially your elders. Don’t step out of line. We just brought that mentality over here….The code is to respect other people. People come over here and don’t respect other people. You’re going to run into problems if you do that.”

Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, a history professor who has written about the surfing culture on North Shore, noted, “For the Hawaiians, respect is an important concept, particularly when it comes to being in the ocean.” When surfers from Australia and South Africa arrived on the beach, boasting of their prowess, the locals at the Pipeline didn’t take it very well.

It is here – in the enforcement and sanctions to protect the commons – that controversy arises. Who is the more legitimate steward of the Pipeline, the local surfing fans or the state authorities who legally have the authority to manage the beach? Should the concerns of local surfers be allowed to trump those of outsiders? Whose commons is it, anyway? And what means can be used to protect the commons?

According to one surfing trade publication, a professional surfer from California came to the Pipeline and cut off a local surfer while riding a wave. The Wolfpak banished him to the beach and one of them reportedly hit him in the head. The enforcement mechanisms have at times gotten a bit out of control, with outside surfers claiming that they’ve been physically threatened and punched. “It’s kind of like mafia control in the surf,” said Randy Rarick.

In recent years, according to reporter Higgins, the Wolfpak has cleaned up its act. It has hosted an annual beach cleanup day and visited children in a nearby hospital. It apparently does not want to revel in violent episodes of its past. The Wolfpak has apparently found a way to peaceably manage usage of the Pipeline while respecting the interests of visiting surfers and conventional law and police enforcement. One might even consider the Wolfpak, in its grownup stage, as an example of how the commons and law can work together to their mutual advantage.