Book Review – Surfing With Sartre

Surfing with Sartre by Aaron James

Did you know that one of the first casualties of climate change might be surfing as we know it? Desert Point could be the first to go. Even at current sea levels it only works on a low tide. Many other breaks could follow as rising oceans swamp reefs. What greater cataclysm could befall surfers than the end of surfing as we know it?

This and many other late-night-debate-worthy gems are in Aaron James’ book Surfing with Sartre. The author, a Lower Trestles local and philosophy professor, explains that in advanced countries, growth in capitalist wealth released many from a seven day work week, allowing people to work a shorter, forty hour week, which in turn made room for leisure time which began to include surfing.


Unfortunately the unintended consequence of capitalist growth is carbon emissions and climate change, so while we now have the benefit of the weekend to surf, if James is right, we face the spectre of nothing to surf  in the future.

But have no fear, fellow frothers. All is not lost. James proposes that surfers might know a few helpful things. He examines what philosophers know, concepts like freedom, control, flow, nature, work, even the so-called meaning of life, and measures them against what surfers know.

Take flow for example. Surfers go with the flow. James describes this essence of surfing as being “adaptively attuned to a changing phenomenon beyond oneself.” The surfer is attuned to the caprice of the changing wave, and adapts to it as she surfs, going with the flow. How does this help climate change?

The surfer knows she needs to be attuned, mindful of the changing wave, and adapt accordingly. Similarly, says James, the surfer attuned to environmental changes around her, must adapt by working less and surfing more. By working less (and being content with less), the surfer reduces carbon emissions.  The consequence might be a smaller house or car, but also less anxiety, a green conscience, more time with family, yet still more time to surf.

You may scoff at this idea of leisure capitalism, but reflect for a minute on the freedom it allows. Sartre, an existentialist with whom James ‘argues’ in the opening chapters of the book, asserted that water skiing is the epitome of freedom, because you impress your will upon the water without leaving tracks.

The freedom of surfing however, in James’ opinion,  is unmatched. While the surfer also leaves no trace of her presence on the water, she, unlike a water skier, doesn’t need a boat for speed. And because she is adapting all the time, her consciousness flows freely. While the surfer cannot impress her will upon the water, she is still free, because she is flowing, adaptively attuned. And, unlike a mountain climber who ‘conquers’ Everest, the surfer feels, not appropriation, but “joy, or momentous gratitude, for great fortune” after riding a monster wave.

James thus concludes that surfing is the “‘ideal limit of aquatic sports’… the fullest expression of the free human’s natural state of being.”

So, if you still think the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42, you should read Surfing with Sartre. It unpacks many other things surfers know, that philosophers pontificate. For example, why don’t surfers fight as much as they could in the crowded breaks of Southern California?

The author, Aaron James, holds a PhD from Harvard and is a professor of philosophy at the Universtiy of California, Irvine. Surfing with Sartre is his fourth book. James has surfed all his life and lives in Southern California.

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