Not every shift in nature is a sign of doom and disaster

When it comes to Planet Earth I seem to be suffering from compassion fatigue
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The Independent Online

As if to show that nothing, not even the sea itself, is excluded from the government's caring policies, a recent consultation paper from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is entitled Making Space for Water. Addressing a problem that is both ancient and sharply of the moment, wise heads at Defra have been considering how to deal with coastal erosion, particularly in East Anglia. They have concluded that we need to make a bit more space for water.

As if to show that nothing, not even the sea itself, is excluded from the government's caring policies, a recent consultation paper from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is entitled Making Space for Water. Addressing a problem that is both ancient and sharply of the moment, wise heads at Defra have been considering how to deal with coastal erosion, particularly in East Anglia. They have concluded that we need to make a bit more space for water.

Unfortunately, quite a lot of that space will be on what is currently dry land. The coastline of Norfolk and Suffolk that has changed shape down the centuries, the sea famously engulfing the city of Dunwich and making occasional forays into the mainland, is not only still shifting but global warming and geological shifts caused by the dredging of shingle off the east coast have accelerated the process. Houses have already been lost in perilously situated villages, notably Happisburgh in Norfolk, and, unless defences are built and maintained, many more will soon be plunging into the sea. According to Defra's Shoreline Management Plan, £250m worth of property could go over the next century.

The plan to make space for water will be environmentally dramatic. Once the shoreline is breached at Happisburgh, the sea will sweep inland, turning the fens into sea-water marshland. Further down the coast, Shingle Street could be lost and Aldeburgh cut off from the mainland to become an island.

In the face of protest from people likely to see their homes fall into the sea, and without compensation, Defra is taking a tough line. Sea defences, it has been pointed out, cost up to £5m a kilometre to build and cannot hold back the sea indefinitely. One part of the shoreline might be protected but will invariably cause ecological damage further up or down the coast. A priority system, described as "managed retreat", under which a small number of sites of particular social, historical or environmental importance would be protected, has been proposed. The rest of the coast would be left to its own devices.

Managed retreat: how that neat, melancholy phrase must make those coastal types howl with fury. Some of them have set up lobbying communities while a few individuals have taken unilateral action: one house-owner in Easton Bavents is said to be spending £500,000 on a half-mile defence of his property.

It is all rather heroic and sad. The sea will win, eventually. Once again, the shape of the coast will change and so will the ecology of East Anglia, its birds, mammals, insects and plants. Heartless and irresponsible as it may seem, I find it increasingly difficult to summon up the required level of dismay at this prospect, and the same goes for quite a lot of environmental news. When it comes to Planet Earth, I seem to be suffering from compassion fatigue.

This week, some conscientious and public-spirited body has decreed, is Energy Efficiency Week. Every time we casually start up our cars, thoughtlessly forget to switch off our ovens, even light one of those naughty coal-burning fires, we are supposed to consider the larger consequences of our actions. For, according to a report published to mark the week, the next 45 years will see some frightening changes in the British way of life.

Two million homes might be destroyed through floods and erosion. With climate change, daffodils, bluebells and crocuses will disappear; the village greens where people have played cricket down the years will be parched dustbowls. Even the little spruces, which provide us with Christmas trees, will be unable to grow. One headline tells the whole grim story: "Great British traditions 'face extinction'."

We are all guilty, I suppose. We should be responsible citizens, worry about the environment even more than we do, make the effort to save those daffs, village greens and Christmas trees for our kiddies. So why do I feel more irritated than alarmed by these daily warnings and scoldings?

The obsession with pollution and environmental collapse panders to a new spirit of anxiety and paranoia. It makes us all so anguished that we are losing the capacity for enjoying the pleasures of the everyday natural world. Swifts are staying longer in Britain? It must be global warming. Fieldfares are returning earlier. Climate change. Even the arrival of new plants and birds is cause for more misery.

Concern for the environment has become a weirdly static and conservative business - as if, in some gloriously unpolluted past, nothing ever changed. I am happy to criticise idiots who drive huge gas-guzzling, quasi-military four-wheel drives, and to recycle wherever possible, or even to vote for the Green Party now and then. But I am damned if I am going to become an environmental miserabilist, seeing every shift in nature as further evidence of the doom and disaster to which we are heading, looking at the world through a fug of guilt and worry.

As WG Sebald pointed out in his superb Rings of Saturn, erosion and decay, whether natural or human, is sometimes part of a process of renewal.

terblacker@aol.com

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