Muddy water’s taking back the land

I grew up in Boston, Lincolnshire. It’s in the middle of the Lincolnshire fens: uniformly flat, “reclaimed” land that is intensively farmed. Childhood staples, such as wandering through muddy creeks in the nearby marshes, and the ubiquitous concrete sea defence “promenades” at nearby beaches, have taken on a new light as I’ve grown older and learned about the area’s ecological basics. And about climate change.

A few years ago I saw a documentary following one man—some sort of environmental manager in Essex—in his quest to get some sea defences near the mouth of a river dismantled. Incidents of flooding in towns further up-river had becoming increasingly frequent and destructive, and the only solution, this guy proposed, was to take the tidal pressure down a notch or two basically by enlarging the mouth of the river. Sea defences would be take down, and a new tidal lake would be created. He faced stiff opposition from locals, especially cockle farmers who were worried that the inrush of silt from the dismantling of the defences would ruin their harvest. Eventually, he won people over, and the walls came down.

Since watching documentaries and reading about global warming as a teen, I’ve been convinced that I may one day see my hometown underwater. Seeing this documentary I realised that while it might be turned into marshland rather than completely submerged, and despite the fact that there’s always been some wishful thinking in there from my teenage resentment of the stultifying aspect of that region, my intuition was onto something. That sea defence coming down in Essex was the first in this country to go. It seemed obvious that it wouldn’t be the last.

It wasn’t, however, with this in mind that this morning I clicked on the BBC News link titled ‘UK’s “biggest” wetland created’. But this is indeed the nub of the story:

Work has begun to breach 300m of a sea wall to create the UK’s largest man-made marine wetland. Almost 115 hectares will be flooded at Wallasea Island, Essex, creating wetland, mudflats, saline lagoons and seven artificial islands. The £7.5m government-funded project aims to replace bird habitats lost to development, improve flood defences, and create leisure opportunities.

While it seems admirable to face this humbling slow-motion disaster for coastal civilization with such creative bravado, it would take a wildly naive reader not to sense the government spin on this use of public money to concede so pragmatically that our economy is not omnipotent in the face of nature. We are reassured that we’re not losing our fight against the sea, we’re “creating leisure opportunities”. The implicit loss of human power is subverted by the idea that we are providing for nature. Bird habitats are ours to give, and take away.

Of course, that’s the cynical take. There’s also some truth in the idea that a large amount of people do accept our inability to control nature, and welcome sea defence breaches as the obviously sane measure that they are.

Further, the aggressive, heroic ego of our culture has such a problem with accepting positions of humility that this acceptance is usually seen as a disastrous, wholly negative calamity. The apologists for infinite economic growth and belligerent anthropocentrism automatically frame any call for humility before nature in negative terms (the phrases “hand-wringing” and “hairshirt-wearing” can almost be guaranteed star roles). Such humility need not be blown out of proportion into loathsome self-denial by the paranoid tendencies so deeply ingrained in civilization. While positivity shouldn’t be used as a whitewash, we will need to find the silver linings to the dark clouds ahead.

Still, let’s brace ourselves for the stories of “Holland’s new pleasure boating boom” and “Romantic Brighton to become ‘New Venice'”…

UPDATE: Via a little nod this way over at The Quiet Road, I’ve discovered the handy and alarming Flood Maps, which uses the Google Maps API to overlay projected sea level rises. Regarding my hometown, look at this.