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'You can't resist the sea': Evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon


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In 2000-2001 the coastal shingle ridge at Slapton Ley was damaged by wave erosion, severing the road link which runs along the ridge, and threatening a National Nature Reserve. Surveys of local attitudes towards this event revealed environmental meanings relating to narratives about nature and a sense of place. There were also discourses about responsibility for policies and actions. As well as predictably different initial responses-from interest groups, there was considerable subsequent evolution and negotiation of views. This study provides an insight into the ongoing human responses to contemporary coastal erosion.
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‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
evolving attitudes and
responses to coastal
erosion at Slapton,
South Devon
Stephen Trudgill
ABSTRACT: In 2000-2001 the coastal shingle ridge at
Slapton Ley was damaged by wave erosion, severing the
road link which runs along the ridge, and threatening a
National Nature Reserve. Surveys of local attitudes
towards this event revealed environmental meanings
relating to narratives about nature and a sense of
place. There were also discourses about responsibility
for policies and actions. As well as predictably different
initial responses from interest groups, there was
considerable subsequent evolution and negotiation of
views. This study provides an insight into the ongoing
human responses to contemporary coastal erosion.
‘The world is disgracefully managed, one hardly
knows to whom to complain’
(Firbank, 1915, p. 119).
When natural events occur which have an adverse
impact on human activity, there is a natural tendency
to seek someone to blame. This is so even if the
events themselves are completely beyond the
inuence of humankind – such as volcanic eruptions or
earthquakes. Even then, we still seek to lay
responsibility for the consequences on someone. For
example, if houses collapse during an earthquake,
somebody must be responsible for the fact that the
houses were not built to withstand such events. During
post-event discussions, narratives – or story-lines –
abound. These can be in two groups – those
concerning ‘the power of nature’ and those about
responsibility for actions. These narratives range from
‘it is not possible to defy the power of nature’ to ‘our
civilisation should be able to cope better with such
events’ – and the latter concerns assessments of both
past and possible future actions.
The general public and the relevant statutory bodies
tend to use a variety of narratives to justify positions
and decisions about actions. The narratives can
become entrenched – adopted and re-iterated
subsequent to an event – or they may change. A
change of view may involve some realisation about the
nature of an event and a possible negotiation of
contrasting views by people listening to each other.
Exactly why the narratives might remain or change
provides a challenging subject for investigation.
In the literature, the people involved in decision
making are often termed ‘actors’ or ‘players’ and the
discussion of the narratives which are used to justify
attitudes and actions can be referred to as
‘discourses’. In The Politics of Environmental
Discourse, Hajer (1995) writes that ‘actors are not
totally free, [they are] holders of specic positions,
entangled in webs of meaning … [and] once having
taken up a particular position … a person inevitably
sees the world from a vantage point of that position
and in terms of the particular images, metaphors,
story-lines and concepts [associated with that
position].’ Hajer also observed that ‘political change
may … well take place through the emergence of new
story-lines that re-order understandings’ and indeed,
Whatmore and Boucher (1993) see ‘the planning
system as a bargaining process’.
It is suggested here that the positions taken can
relate to understandings derived from a sense of
place. Subsequent re-negotiations of understanding
involved a learning process which included not only the
assimilation of new information but also the exposure
to, and adoption of, narratives repeated by others.
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009 © Geography 2009
The erosion at Slapton Ley
The material of this article stems from the author’s 25
years’ experience of eldwork and nature reserve
management at the National Nature Reserve (NNR) at
Slapton Ley in South Devon (Figure 1). Here, a
freshwater lake is separated from the sea by a shingle
ridge. The lake, other freshwater habitats, woodland
and the ridge itself make up the nature reserve owned
by the Whitley Wildlife Trust (WWT). The Trust is
administered by the Field Studies Council (FSC), who
have a Field Centre there, and by the former English
Nature (EN), now called Natural England (NE).
A main road, the A379, originally constructed in 1850,
runs along the shingle ridge and is regarded as a vital
lifeline by local inhabitants. The ridge has been
retreating, leading to the undermining of the road on
the coastal side. In December 2000 and January 2001
the beach at Slapton was eroded by the sea so that
the road (locally called ‘Slapton Line’) was damaged
and became impassable (Figure 2). The situation led
to a direct conict between those local people who
would preserve the road for social and economic
interests and those who saw nature and natural
processes as a priority. The latter often reiterated the
narrative of ‘letting nature take its course’, with the
attendant implication that the road could be lost. At
the level of the statutory bodies, there emerged a
potential conict between those who had a duty to
maintain the road and those who were charged with
responsibility for nature conservation.
The contrasting ideas were brought into very sharp
focus by the media. Inability to drive along the coast
road caused considerable anger among the locals:
‘Loss of coast road would cut trade in half’
(Kingsbridge Gazette, 9 February 2001). In letters to
the local press, such terms as ‘damage’ were used,
and the sea was described as ‘a powerful enemy’ and
‘powerful element’. In the case for road restoration,
terms such as ‘vital tourist corridor’ and ‘save our
heritage’ were used, and the local MP, Anthony Steen,
referred to duties to protect habitats, the costs of
coastal protection and the fact that ‘the electorate
want their road back’ (Hansard, 2001).
The scientic arguments were relatively simple:
beaches do move and erode. However, the ‘letting
nature take its course’ stance provoked further anger.
‘Environmentalists’, including the Field Centre, EN and
WWT, were represented as ‘Let the sea win’ (Herald
Express, 5 February 2001). The South Hams Gazette
ran a letters page (16 February 2001) where ‘managed
retreat’ was reviled as ‘ludicrous’, ‘straight out of the
Polytechnic guidebook’ and ‘political claptrap’.
Reference was made to holiday memories and the
‘sight, the space and the wonderment of natural
enjoyment’, with simply re-laying the road offered as a
solution – and if it gets disturbed, then lay it again.
Reference was also made to earlier dredging in Start
Bay as a disturbance that triggered off the disruption.
There was mention of mis-spent lottery money (£700m
plus on the Millennium Dome in London) which could
have been better spent on the area’s struggle with the
sea. 49
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009
© Geography 2009
Tor cr os s
Slapton village
0 500 1000 metres
Old road
Shingle ridge
20 km
Figure 2: Coastal road
closure, January 2001.
Photo: Stephen Trudgill.
Figure 1: Map of Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve, Devon.
The stance by FSC and EN was dismissed by one
correspondent as follows: ‘Once these
environmentalists get involved … it’s usually the kiss
of death and common sense evaporates … These
people are not conservationists if they are prepared to
let nature take its course and eventually wipe out the
Ley and Torcross’. Writing of ‘scaremongering tactics’
and the ‘in-phrase global warming’ the writer asks
‘Who are these eccentric bofns?’. The discourse
continues: ‘Seas have risen and fallen before … and
there is little these so-called protectors of the planet
can do about it’. The solution is seen as ‘men with
shovels, bulldozers and lots of ready mixed concrete to
get on with the job now – and if it brings the demise of
the long-toed, lesser spotted, tree-creeping
grasshopper, then so be it’.
Thus, after the road was damaged in December
2000/January 2001, discussions between the public,
scientists and individuals employed by the statutory
bodies revealed a range of different ‘world views’
(Demeritt, 2002). Some local people asked: ‘When is
the beach going to recover?’, revealing an inherently
benign view of nature. Geomorphological scientists
replied that it would not, and that the beach would
progressively erode. This was uncomfortable as it
challenged a local view of nature, but many eventually
adopted this realisation as awareness of
geomorphological processes spread. Despite this,
there was a resolve to do something for the immediate
future and a petition was launched to preserve the
road, which was signed by some thousand people.
Soon after the road breached, a sample survey of
residents (every tenth on the electoral roll) undertaken
in a Field Centre project revealed that 5% of
respondents thought that the road should be
abandoned while 90% thought it should be protected.
Of this 90%, 35% thought that the protection should
be provided by a sea wall, 28% by sheet piling and
27% by beach nourishment (importing shingle). Thus,
initially, there emerged a very clear local view of what
might be called ‘mastery over nature’. It was only
subsequently that an adoption of the narrative of long-
term inevitability occurred, with the balance being
found in the stance of the imperative at least to ‘have
a go’ before giving up. It was evident that the narrative
of inevitability was adopted reluctantly and also
‘learned’ during discussion and dialogue.
In the short term, Devon County Council (DCC) and
South Hams District Council (SHDC), who have a
statutory responsibility to maintain the road, sought to
protect it by dumping boulders on the seaward side of
the shingle ridge (Figure 3). This tted very much with
the initial local narratives. However, in a counter-move,
supported by a counter-narrative, English Nature, which
was responsible for the natural state of the shingle
ridge, subsequently had the boulders removed. In his
justicatory narrative, Dr Simon Dunsford, English
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009 © Geography 2009
Figure 3: Road destruction
and seaward boulders,
January 2001. Photo:
Stephen Trudgill.
Nature conservation ofcer, said that further loss of
coastline is bound to happen: ‘It's inevitable that the
shingle bar is under threat. Our argument was that the
boulders were more likely to increase the rate of
erosion. The removal of the boulders means that the
bar will retreat in a natural way.’ The phrase:
‘preserving the integrity of natural processes’ was
cited. He then saw three alternatives: build a sea wall;
build a new road behind Slapton Ley on the basis that
the existing road will continue to be under threat; and
do nothing, i.e. let nature take its course.
These moves rather divided opinion. As one
respondent put it, ‘people are either “green” or
“techno”’ – they either want to preserve nature or ght
it with technical solutions. In his book on attitudes to
nature, The Ecology of Eden, Eisenberg (1998)
characterises these stances as belonging to ‘Planet
Fetishers’, who wish to restore nature, and ‘Planet
Managers’, who wish to control nature for the well-
being of humankind (p. xv). EN clearly had a leaning
towards the former, with DCC adopting the latter
position. In such a polarised situation, which the press
made much of, the inevitable questions were ‘Who is
right?’ and ‘Who is going to judge what is right?’ When
an economically and socially signicant road has been
built on a geomorphologically unstable feature, with an
ecologically valued ora specically associated with
unstable shingle, what indeed is the best policy, and
what should guide it?
The political solution from the local MP went with the
dominant local view, revealed by the survey cited
above, and favoured defending the road (Hansard,
2001). There followed wide-ranging investigations of
the desirability of all the options. What actually
happened was that the road was closed until April
2001 when a single carriageway with temporary trafc
lights was opened. In 2002 there was a re-alignment
of the damaged section of road a few metres inland,
allowing trafc to pass freely once more (Figure 4).
This satised those involved and the situation has
been stable to date.
From these particular events it becomes clear that the
readily practicable solution of re-building the road
somewhat back from the sea was enacted without
either involving expensive defences or ‘giving up’ and
yielding to the sea. However, since it is predicted that
it is only a matter of time before another storm leads
to further erosion, it will be useful to see what might
be learned with hindsight. Therefore, while the
‘problem’ and the ‘solution’ will still be subject to
debate, in order to give insight into future possible
responses to coastal erosion, what is investigated
here is the range of contextual environmental
understandings associated with a sense of place and
how these might be negotiable.
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009
© Geography 2009
Figure 4: The 2002
realigned (inland) coast
road (mid-left), and the
remnant old road (centre).
Photo: Stephen Trudgill.
understandings and
evolving attitudes
Environmental understanding and attitudes vary with
differing world views and senses of emotional
attachment to place (Milton, 2002). The
differentiations between individuals involve
perceptions, which in turn are based on learned
responses and experience, and those between
institutions involve their remits and rationales.
Contrasting understandings and attitudes suggest that
each player could be seeing a different place at the
same time (Opie, 1998; Penning-Rowsell and
Lowenthal, 1986) – and hence they each may propose
their own particular recipes for future actions.
To provide an example of a link between understanding
of place and proposed actions, the author (2001)
undertook a sample survey in the year 2000 to
investigate how the public value the Slapton Ley
National Nature Reserve. This showed that the
dominant view of the Reserve was as a place of peace
and tranquillity rather than one of ecological value and
rarity. Institutionally, EN policy was driven by almost the
inverse view, with their action plans based primarily on
the need to address the ecological diversity and rarity
value of the Reserve. There was thus a clear
differentiation between the public’s generalised
appreciation of nature and the specic institutional
remit of ecological value. In terms of proposals for
action, it was therefore not unremarkable that the
public and institutional concerns led to understandably
differing recommendations.
In the context of coastal erosion, the views held by the
statutory bodies became evident during the post-event
discussion: EN tended to reiterate natural beauty and
wildlife narratives while DCC repeated narratives
associated with the economy and the need for travel.
Some of the individual views were evident from a study
involving a self-selected group of people attending a
public meeting. This was offered early in 2001 so that
people could hear more from Field Centre staff about
the background science, and 60 people attended. The
Field Centre staff explained the history of post-glacial
sea level rise, with diagrams measuring how far the
shingle ridge has retreated in the last 20–30 years
(see Slapton Field Centre website; the more recent
data are more systematic and comprehensive than the
earlier data). There were also eld visits to the site
(Figure 5) where geomorphologists pointed out earlier
back-ridge deposits that were now exposed at the front
of the ridge, thus conrming the barrier retreat
mechanism by the ‘overthrow’ of the beach front to
the back (Figure 6).
The group of attendees was given a questionnaire
after the meeting. It contained some questions which
allowed for open-ended responses and others with a
constrained choice, inviting respondents to select one
from the options of ‘agree’, ‘disagree’ or ‘maybe’.
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009 © Geography 2009
Figure 5: Part of field visit
held after the public
meeting, 2001. Photo:
Stephen Trudgill.
While the attendees can be seen as both self-selected
and open to receiving scientic information, the
responses to the questionnaire contrasted with those
of the earlier, wider sample survey of residents who
almost universally adopted the singular stance of
‘preserve the road’.
The responses to the open question about ‘how do
you feel’ about the coastal erosion (see Figure 7)
revealed a series of emotional responses (‘dramatic
… sad’) combined with a sense of inevitability (‘bound
to happen … natural’). This inevitability then
translated into action in terms of accommodating the
erosion by moving the road inland or by building a
bridge or viaduct along the ridge. There were no
positive responses to the use of boulders, which was
seen as futile in the face of inevitability. The ‘not every
effort to protect’ response was common. Thus,
following the receipt of scientic information about the
geomorphological processes involved in shingle ridge
construction, movement and retreat, the polarisation
between the ‘preserve the road’ OR ‘let nature take its
course’ narratives more or less evaporated. The
responses following the meeting thus reected the
dual viewpoint that the road is important and that the
erosion is inevitable, and combined both the
narratives of ‘you can’t stop the power of the sea’ with
‘we must have a road somehow’. However, the latter
was much more tempered and considered than initially
and before the meeting.
For the constrained choice questions (see Figure 7)
the ranking in order of frequency of response (from 1
high to 11 low) shows a specic denial of the
imperative of protecting the uniqueness of the fresh
water habitat. This in itself is interesting as it has
often been cited as a raison d’être for the nature
reserve by EN because of the relative rarity of that type
of habitat in south-west England. It was predicted
during the meeting that if the sea did break through
then an estuary habitat, found elsewhere in Devon,
could develop. However, this possible loss of a habitat
did not gure very highly. It was noted, however, that a
new salt water lagoon could become fresh-water if the
shingle ridge re-formed, as had happened in 980 BC
(as shown from dated peat deposits in the Ley
It seems that the information on sea level rise and
shingle retreat had led directly to the dominance of the
narrative of inevitability and agreement that ‘nature
should take its course’. This strong sense of
inevitability is also evidenced by the high rankings of
‘yes’ responses involving global warming and sea level
rise as causative factors. Any future road building
would thus have to ‘adapt’ to the sea rather than ‘try
to resist’ it.
Thus, this group of people, who had voluntarily
attended the meeting to hear more about the
geomorphological science behind the problem, began 53
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009
© Geography 2009
Figure 6: Part of field visit
held after the public
meeting, 2001. The eroded
beach front with the road
remnant above (the sea is
behind the photographer).
The person shown standing
on the section is pointing
to a layer of brown
coloured deposit which was
formed behind the barrier
when the ridge was further
seaward. Photo: Stephen
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
proclaiming a learnt set of narratives which was
absent from the earlier survey of opinion. It was
evident from the discussion that many were not
predisposed to accept the scientic arguments and
the inevitability. However, while most had gone into the
meeting saying that ‘the road must be preserved’, this
attitude changed to one much more in sympathy with
the inevitability of nature. Thus, it is clear that
understanding can be changed as a result of receiving
new information: change the knowledge and the
justicatory narratives change. This vindicates Hajer’s
(1995) point that ‘political change may … well take
place through the emergence of new story-lines that
re-order understandings’.
What became abundantly clear from the 2001
discussion process was the fragmented nature of
environmental policy making. Different statutory policy
makers, with their own limited remits, almost inevitably
came to different conclusions about the right thing to
do. Some stressed the importance of community and
transport networks while others stressed tourism,
peace and quiet, agriculture or wildlife. EN look after
nature, County Councils look after roads – no single
authority has a complete overview. Thus policy making
led to conict because the attitude of each body was
constrained by its own remit. Again, though, as with
the individual attitudes and understandings, there
were negotiations, with institutions adopting and
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009 © Geography 2009
Attitudes to natural processes
Survey conducted at a public
Responses given to open-ended questions
How do you feel about what happened to Slapton
Ranged from: ‘Dramatic, excited, fascinating’ and
‘Disaster, upset, sad’ to ‘Bound to happen,
expected, inevitable, natural’.
What do you think should be done?
Mostly the response was immediate temporary
replacement of road slightly inland from where it
was, then think about it; range of views on what to
do then, including building a bridge/viaduct and
moving the road further inland.
What do you think of the use of boulders to protect
the coastline?
Universally negative: ‘Pointless, waste of time and
money, eyesore, must be removed, useless, ugly,
diabolical, unsightly, unnecessary, won’t provide
protection, won’t work, ineffective’.
Should we make every effort to protect the Line? If
yes, is this because of the road? Is this whatever
the cost?
Most responses tended to: Not every effort and
not whatever the cost but we should do better at
making some kind of road connection.
Specific questions posed to respondents
1. If the sea does break through and Slapton Ley
becomes salt water, does this matter?
2. Do you agree that nature should be allowed to
take its course?
3. Do you think that the beach will recover if we do
nothing more?
4. Do you think that there is a rise in sea level due
to global warming?
Options given: YES NO MAYBE
Responses to questions, ranked in decreasing order of
numbers of responses
1. (60%) If the sea does break through and
Slapton Ley becomes salt water, does
this matter? NO
2. (58%) Do you agree that nature should
be allowed to take its course? YES
3. (55%) Do you think that the beach will
recover if we do nothing more? NO
4. (50%) Do you think that there is a rise in
sea level due to global warming? YES
5. (10%) Do you think that the beach will
recover if we do nothing more? MAYBE
6. (10%) Do you think that there is a rise
in sea level due to global warming? MAYBE
7. (10%) Do you agree that nature should
be allowed to take its course? MAYBE
8. (5%) Do you agree that nature should
be allowed to take its course? NO
Zero responses
9. If the sea does break through and
Slapton Ley becomes salt water, does this
matter? YES
10.Do you think that there is a rise in
sea level due to global warming? NO
11.Do you think that the beach will recover
if we do nothing more? YES
Figure 7: Slapton Line
adapting the narratives of others. Given this, the
different remits perhaps do not matter. This is
especially so as the shingle ridge can (and will) still
move and the road was (and still can be – somewhere)
rebuilt. What does matter, however, is that the
institutions listened to each others’ narratives and, by
adopting them, showed that they respected them.
In 2004, three years after the 2000-2001 events,
further in-depth interviews were held with a range of
local people and representatives of statutory bodies.
The interest now lay in how far the narratives had
consolidated or evolved and whether the statutory
bodies had re-negotiated their views.
These interviews revealed that the whole course of
events had brought some to a new awareness:
‘So the break up of the shingle ridge set up a kind
of shock wave, and it showed that the nature
reserve management had to be much more
outward looking rather than managed as an
“island”. It had to stand back and look at the
bigger picture and work with the surrounding
communities and other organisations. I think this is
a really important change’ (Devon County Council
Heritage Coast employee).
A sense of inevitability seemed to have hardened
among those who might be termed conservationists:
‘There is not much one can do, nature is going to
change the place over the years, I think it is rather
arrogant of us to think we can stop or change it’
(Field Centre employee).
‘You can’t resist the sea without incredible
expense; concrete itself is not unerodable’ (Former
Field Centre employee).
‘The shingle ridge is a mobile thing, a
geomorphological feature; changes lie in its nature.
I would like to see the road being put inland’
(English Nature employee).
Local farmers expressed a range of views. Some, in
contrast to the earlier survey at the public meeting, did
now stress the uniqueness of the fresh water lake and
the fact that if the sea did break in, for example, it
would be: ‘just another salt marsh and we have plenty
of them already’. There was also a dual sense of
inevitability in terms of both the erosion and potential
‘The sea is going to breach again and then they
are just going to get the bulldozers out and move
the shingle back and rebuild the road. Building an
alternative road is too far fetched at the moment.
Only when the road cannot be repaired because of
an extreme breach will a new road be built’ (Local
Such opinions indicate that the debates had resulted
in a wider appreciation of other people’s narratives. In
a few cases, the reverse had happened: newly learned
narratives were voiced which reinforced pre-existing,
narrow views (especially with a minority of individuals
who still rejected ‘letting nature take its course’ as a
denial of human technological capability). More
commonly, however, the newly learned narratives were
adopted and repeated, evidencing a changed and
wider view. For example, EN staff, whilst continuing to
stress conservation, also recognised the importance
of social factors; DCC staff rehearsed the point that
‘you can’t stop the power of the sea’ and local
hoteliers and traders stressed the value of nature as a
source of tourist income. It was almost as though they
were reading each other’s scripts! This had the effect
of minimising the rather obvious ‘well they would say
that wouldn’t they’ sort of deconstruction. There was
some evidence in 2001 that people’s views changed
through negotiation; what was signicant in 2004 was
the subsequent consolidation of the wider set of
This identication with views expressed by others
meant that rather than arguing about which was ‘right’
(Owens, 1994; Wynne, 1996), many attitudes changed
and widened. This did not mean that all views could
necessarily be allowed, but there were signicant
negotiations between them.
Discussion and wider
The interpretation of the available evidence in different
ways and the subsequent negotiation of multiple
environmental understandings during the policy-making
process have resonances in the literature. Anderson et
al. (1998), in a paper on accommodating conicting
interests, write that pluralism (allowing for as many
agendas as possible) is not a matter of seeing who is
‘right’, with perhaps insiders or ‘locals’ being ‘right’
rather than outsiders, but in establishing dialogues
between all the players. This admits that there are
several alternative management plans which are
consistent with the available scientic evidence, and 55
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009
© Geography 2009
thus that the science does not predicate the reactions
to a situation – it is the interpretation of the situation
which matters (Kingdon, 1984; Majone, 1989). Indeed,
Forsyth (2003) concludes that ‘environmental science
is not an a priori basis for environmental politics’ and
he stresses the ‘political factors that underlie
competing definitions and explanations of
environmental reality’ (author’s italics). The negotiation
of views thus looks at competing claims, ideas,
constructs and values (Macnaghten and Urry, 1998)
and then expands the range of possibilities and
justicatory narratives.
If we are to seek an understanding of a range of
different world views, and the negotiation between
them as shown for Slapton, we might usefully reect
on writings about nature and culture. Some writers
attack what can be called an elitist ‘ecology’ which
separates nature and culture while others see nature
and culture as intertwined. In this context, what is
interesting is the way that professional nature
protection often expresses itself not so much through
the psychological appeal of ‘untouched’ spaces and a
human need for contact with nature (Takacs, 1996)
but as scientic constructs such as ecology,
conservation and rarity. This can easily be seen as an
alienating elitist approach or speciesism (O’Neill,
1997) rather than an ‘ecology for people’, since it
views nature as separated from culture and as having
to be conserved for its own, rather than for our sake.
However, as Proctor and Pincetl (1996) state in their
study of the American spotted owl, it is precisely the
recognition of ‘nature-culture intertwining … that will
prove central to the creation of sustaining habitats for
non-human life’. They observe that nature is often
seen as ‘a biophysical reality under siege by humans’.
The aw of contemporary biodiversity conservation,
they maintain, is ‘the attempt to inscribe a
puricationist logic on landscapes without
acknowledging the larger hybrid context in which these
landscapes are situated’. In a parallel situation,
Mason (1997) questions the political legitimacy of
deep ecology in wilderness preservation, asking for
more democratic participation, as echoed by Sillitoe
(1998). Braun and Castree (1998) sum up the general
issue with: ‘society and nature are inextricably knotted
together’. Thus it can be argued that acknowledging
the intertwining of nature and culture is fundamental
to policy negotiations in situations where natural
processes and human needs are putatively opposed.
In the last analysis, whether it be the socio-economic
importance of a road or the conservation of nature, in
both cases we are dealing with something that has
meaning to people, and both these meanings should
be a key part of policy formulation.
In a signal paper in this context, Harvey (1974), writing
under the heading ‘What kind of geography for what
kind of public policy?’, started by asking: ‘Can
geographers contribute successfully, meaningfully and
effectively to the formulation of public policy?’ He
concludes that ‘The moral obligation of the geographer
becomes a social necessity. We are human beings
struggling, like all other human beings, to control and
enhance the social conditions of our own existence.
He adds: ‘Only struggles which overcome the
parochialisms inherent in the geography of our
situation and in the situation of geography hold out any
prospect for success.’ What Harvey acknowledges is
that everyone involved in policy formulation and
enactment is prone to some kind of parochialism and
that this has to be understood and overcome before
meaningful dialogues and negotiations can take place
and policies can be formulated. Additionally, Davies
(1999) states that we have to offer ‘feelings of place
(emotions, reactions, values) as well as knowledge
about a place (information)’ and that there are many
‘senses of place’.
If an approach to policy formulation at Slapton is to
acknowledge people‘s different feelings and senses of
place, it would be predictable that pluralism would
present itself as a ‘solution’. Yet, tensions and
conicts still arise when competing claims for limited
spaces are made, or when the claims of special
interest groups would exclude other possibilities.
However, what seems to be the case at Slapton is that
presentation in terms of ‘stakeholders’ and players is
inadequate. Referring to people and groups in this way
actually pre-judges the issue, predicating the problems
and the solutions. The situation is far more uid than
that. Perceived differences can be comforting
assumptions which enable individuals to take on an
identity. This inevitably involves some form of rejection
of others and the conrmation of the self. This applies
to like-minded groups of people as much as to
individuals. However, the academic discourse which
ascribes environmental meanings to different players
can ascribe a formality and a precision of meaning
where it does not necessarily exist.
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009 © Geography 2009
I would like to thank Andy Pratt, Nigel Coles, Tim Burt,
Marika Zai, Susan Owens, Keith Richards and Jean
Hannah for help in various ways and to acknowledge
the contribution of the late Keith Chell, Warden of
Slapton Ley Field Centre 1984-2006.
Anderson, J., Clement, J. and Crowder, L.V. (1998)
‘Accommodating conflicting interests in forestry –
concepts emerging from pluralism’, Unasylva, 49, pp. 3-
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Hansard (2001) Flood Defences (South Devon). 114WH. 14
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Majone, G. (1989) Evidence, Argument and Persuasion in the
Policy Process. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Mason, M. (1997) ‘Democratising nature? The political
morality of wilderness preservationists’, Environmental
Values, 6, pp. 281-306.
Milton, K. (2002) Loving Nature: Towards an ecology of
emotion. Abingdon: Routledge.
O’Neill, O. (1997) ‘Environmental values, anthropocentrism
and speciesism’, Environmental Values, 6, pp. 127-42.
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Geographical Review, 88, 2, pp. 241-58.
Owens, S. (1994) ‘Land, limits and sustainability: a. A
conceptual framework and some dilemmas for the
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Owens, S. and Rayner, T. (1999) ‘“When knowledge
matters”: the role and influence of the Royal Commission
on Environmental Pollution’, Journal of Environmental
Policy and Planning, 1, pp. 7-24.
Penning-Rowsell, E. and Lowenthal, D. (1986) Landscape
Meaning and Values. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Proctor, J.D. and Pincetl, S. (1996) ‘Nature and the
reproduction of endangered space: the spotted owl in the
Pacific Northwest and southern California’, Environment
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paradise. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Trudgill, S.T. (2001) ‘Psychobiogeography: meanings of
nature and motivations for a democratised conservation
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Whatmore, S. and Boucher, S. (1993) ‘Bargaining with
nature: the discourse and practice of environmental
planning gain’, Transactions of the Institute of British
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Wynne, B. (1996) ‘May the sheep safely graze? A reflexive
view of the expert-lay knowledge divide’, in Lash, S.,
Szeszynski, B. and Wynne, B. (eds) Risk, Environment and
Modernity: Towards a new ecology. London: Sage.
General site for Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve
Coastal data:
Local news including 2001-2 news items about road damage:, click on ‘News and local
English Nature remove boulders and lay out options:
Record of 14 Feb 2001 parliamentary proceedings:
South Hams District Council websites with details of the
Devon County Council
For road diversion plans and updates. Click on link to
Slapton Line Partnership to see consultation documents.
Compare with the attitudes to coastal erosion in north Norfolk
at Happisburgh:
‘You can’t resist
the sea’:
attitudes and
responses to
coastal erosion
Geography Vol 94 Part 1 Spring 2009
© Geography 2009
Stephen Trudgill is in the Department of Geography,
University of Cambridge (e-mail:
... A 200-m long section of the road was subsequently re-built 20 m landward of its previous position, but there is now a real concern for the long-term stability of the barrier (Trudgill, 2009). Of particular concern is the possibility that the barrier may be breached during an extreme storm event, which would establish a connection between the sea and the lagoon, thereby, compromising the freshwater status of Slapton Ley. ...
... During the January 2001 storm (referred to in Section 2), barrier overtopping occurred and the road running along the barrier crest was undermined (Trudgill, 2009). The easterly storm was not exceptional in terms of wave energy and water-level conditions. ...
Continuous Argus video data and fortnightly measurements of subaerial morphology were obtained over a 3-year period from a steep macrotidal gravel beach on the southwest coast of the U.K. Concurrent wave and water-level data were also collected, enabling the correlation of the observed morphological changes to the hydrodynamic forcing. Wave conditions are generally low (Hs ≈ 0.5–1 m), but the beach is affected by frequent storm wave activity (c. 15 storms per year with Hs ≈ 2–4 m) with waves either approaching from the south (swell waves) or from the east (wind waves). An assessment of the three-dimensional morphological response of the beach to the two typical storm types was carried out by analysing the impact of 27 storms that occurred from April 2007 to April 2009. Southerly storms cause accretion of the supratidal zone and erosion of the intertidal zone, and a significant loss in overall beach volume. Easterly storms, on the other hand, induce supratidal erosion and intertidal accretion, and a significant gain in overall beach volume. During the intervening calm periods a small supratidal berm is constructed and a modest gain in overall beach volume occurs. Wave modelling indicated that opposing longshore energy fluxes occur for the different storm types with a northerly energy flux during southerly storms and a southerly flux during easterly storms. Weekly shorelines derived from the Argus images revealed that the northern end of the beach widened by c. 30 m and the middle beach receded by c. 40 m over a relatively brief period (a few months). The occurrence of this beach rotation event is attributed to a higher frequency of southerly storms and/or a lower frequency of easterly storms over this period. Thus, the development and stability of the beach on annual time scales depend on the relative contributions of the two storm types, and their sequencing. Longshore sediment transport (LST) rates derived from the data on beach morphological change were compared with several littoral drift formulae previously applied to gravel beaches. The CERC equation, with a proportionality factor k between littoral drift rate Il and longshore wave energy flux Pl of k = 0.054, yielded the best results.
... This delivery gap was demonstrated along the Slapton Ley coastal road in Devon, which was at high risk of erosion. Residents were concerned that the 'loss of coast road would cut trade in half' (Kingsbridge Gazette, 2001, 9 February 2001 as cited by Trudgill, 2009) and the local member of Parliament quoted that 'the electorate want their road back' (Hansard, 2001) -the plan for this coastal road in SMP2 was managed realignment (South Devon and Dorset Advisory Group, 2011). After the devastating storms of winter 2013/14 (Masselink et al., 2016) the planned realignment was stalled as the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, made postflood recovery funds available for continued defence rather than supporting long term policies, even where communities had been prepared for realignment. ...
Full-text available
Coastal defences have long provided protection from erosion and flooding to cities, towns and villages. In many parts of the world, continued defence is being questioned due to both environmental, sustainability and economic considerations. This is exemplified in England and Wales, where strategic Shoreline Management Plans envisage realignment of many protected coasts, often with low population densities, over the coming decades. The policy transition from protection to realignment is often resisted by affected communities and can have high political costs. Whilst some preparations for such transitions have been made, the communities affected are often not fully aware of the implications of policy change, and this brings the potential for blight. In this paper, we investigate the challenges of implementing transitions in coastal policy within England and Wales. The analysis is based on data obtained from three workshops held in 2019 that were attended by council members, engineers, planners, scientists and other relevant professionals. Five conditions are found to promote contention: (i) policy actors with competing priorities and different decision making time frames (immediate to decadal to a century); (ii) divergence between regulations and ad hoc political decisions (e.g. in relation to the demand for new housing); (iii) limited or non-existent funding to support policy transition; (iv) community expectation that protection is forever; and (v) a disconnection between people and ongoing coastal change. Our research indicates that transitions can be better supported through: (1) integrated multi-scalar preparedness for coastal change; (2) an accessible evidence base and future vision to nurture political confidence in adaptation; and (3) defined, time-bound and accessible diverse funding streams to achieve transitions. Critically, these generic actions need to be embedded within the local political and planning system to facilitate transition to more sustainable coasts and their communities.
... Recently, erosion is regarded as one of important hazards due to it can displace public infrastructure and disturb marine ecosystem. It has undermined the road on the coastal side of Slapton beach in South Devon U.K. and made that vital tourist corridor became impassable (Trudgill 2009). In U.S., coastal erosion has also undermined waterfront houses, offices and public facilities, and brought the Cape Hateras lighthouse in North Carolina closer to the sea (Dunn et al. 2000). ...
Full-text available
Coastal hazards now become major problem especially for archipelago country like Indonesia. The Regency of Karawang along the North-Coast of West Java Province faces the issues of coastal flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusion. About 13 thousand, 16 thousand and 15 thousand hectares of coastal productive areas below 15 km from the shoreline were inundated during the 2007, 2008 and 2013 floods, respectively. Coastal erosion has made area lost about 14 ha/year and caused coastline retreat at average rates of 4 m/year. Total area loss during 27-year period has reached more than 400 ha and maximum retreat was found in the order of 400 m. Saltwater intrusion has contaminated the groundwater with salinity above 0.5 and 1.8 ppt at coastal area below 15 km and 7 km from the shoreline, respectively. Coastal hazard management should be adopted to prevent more resulting damages to the region by constructing hard protection measures, restoring wetland ecosystem and applying other required approaches.
... Government health and environmental strategies and initiatives should include people reconnecting with our coastal areas. Being involved in a coastal action group strengthens positive narratives of the natural environment [65]. Research has shown that oceans are preferenced by humans and therefore are a relatively positive place for social, health and wellbeing practices [29]. ...
Citizen science monitoring programs in the marine environment frequently focus on volunteer collected data precision for conservation and resource use of marine biota. Few studies have examined the social science aspects of volunteer engagement in marine monitoring programs in a quantifiable manner. This research focuses on emotional attitudes of Sea Search volunteers who monitor Marine National Parks and Marine Sanctuaries in Victoria, Australia. Volunteers responded that their participation in Sea Search activities made them feel good emotionally and mentally, with active learning, such as remembering names of marine biota, stimulating brain activity and memory. Volunteer monitoring efforts generated personal satisfaction through their contributions, feelings of enjoyment, and socialising with others. Sea Search volunteers gain a sense of want to protect and conserve the marine environment through positive behaviour change. By understanding and having a sense of meaning towards the marine environment, the volunteers felt a sense of pride in themselves. The concepts of volunteer connection to the natural environment and positive mental and emotional health are important for any citizen science monitoring program and should be used in the program’s aims and strategies as an effective means to attract volunteers. A functional framework which clearly communicates and assesses not only the scientific expectations from a citizen science program, but also the health and wellbeing connections to nature, need to be addressed in Government marine and coastal strategies.
How we view nature transforms the world around us. People rehearse stories about nature which make sense to them. If we ask the question 'why conserve nature?', and the answers are based on myths, then are these good myths to have? Scientific knowledge about the environment is fundamental to ideas about how nature works. It is essential to the conservation endeavour. However, any conservation motivation is nested within a society's meanings of nature and the way society values it. Given the therapeutic and psychological significance of nature for us and our culture, this book considers the meanings derived from the poetic and emotional attachment to a sense of place, which is arguably just as important as scientific evidence. The functional significance of species is important, but so too is the therapeutic value of nature, together with the historic and spiritual meanings entwined in a human feeling for landscape and wildlife.
There is a strong case today for a specific focus on mental public health and its relation to social and physical environments. From a public health perspective, we now appreciate the enormous significance of mental distress and illness as causes of disability and impairment. Stress and anxiety, and other mental illnesses are linked to risks in the environment. This book questions how and why the social and physical environment matters for mental health and psychological wellbeing in human populations. While putting forward a number of different points of view, there is a particular emphasis on ideas and research from health geography, which conceptualises space and place in ways that provide a distinctive focus on the interactions between people and their social and physical environment. The book begins with an overview of a rich body of theory and research from sociology, psychology, social epidemiology, social psychiatry and neuroscience, considering arguments concerning 'mind-body dualism', and presenting a conceptual framework for studying how attributes of 'space' and 'place' are associated with human mental wellbeing. It goes on to look in detail at how our mental health is associated with material, or physical, aspects of our environment (such as 'natural' and built landscapes), with social environments (involving social relationships in communities), and with symbolic and imagined spaces (representing the personal, cultural and spiritual meanings of places). These relationships are shown to be complex, with potential to be beneficial or hazardous for mental health. The final chapters of the book consider spaces of care and the implications of space and place for public mental health policy, offering a broader view of how mental health might be improved at the population level. With boxed case studies of specific research ideas and methods, chapter summaries and suggestions for introductory reading, this book offers a comprehensive introduction which will be valuable for students of health geography, public health, sociology and anthropology of health and illness. It also provides an interdisciplinary review of the literature, by the author and by other writers, to frame a discussion of issues that challenge more advanced researchers in these fields.
In climate change discourse the concept of anticipatory adaptation has emerged to refer to proactive strategies for preparing communities for future change. This paper makes a proposal for what might be called anticipatory history. At designated heritage sites prevailing narratives tend to project long-term conservation indefinitely forward into the future. These narrative formulations fall short when confronted with the impending transformation, or even disappearance, of landscapes and artefacts of cultural heritage – a process that is likely to become increasingly common with the acceleration of environmental change in coastal and other contexts. Might it be possible to experiment with other ways of storying landscape, framing histories around movement rather than stasis, and drawing connections between past dynamism and future process? At the core of this paper is an experimental narration of the history of a Cornish harbour. The narrative presents a reverse chronology of moments gleaned from diverse sources ranging over three centuries, looking to a fractured landscape past to find resources for encountering a future unmaking.
The book identifies the emergence and increasing political importance of ?ecological modernization? as a new language in environmental politics. In this conceptual language, environmental management appears as a ?positive sum game?. Combining social theory with detailed empirical analysis, the book illustrates the social and political dynamics of ecological modernization through a study of the acid rain controversies in Great Britain and the Netherlands. The book concludes with a reflection on the institutional challenge of environmental politics in the years to come. The book is not only seen as a ?modern classic? in the literature on environmental politics but is also renowned for its application of discourse analysis to the study of the policy process.
In order to accommodate conflicting interests in forestry, some concepts from pluralism can be used, such as understanding the dynamics of sustainable forestry and rural development. Meanwhile, pluralism recognizes the inevitable existence of differing, often conflicting, positions on any question of substance, from politics to ecosystem management. In forestry, since they are increasingly being characterized by different types of organizations and group, they often act independently and sometimes in conflict with each other. Pluralism has arrived in different places in the forestry world, including Eastern and Central Europe. It is due to the collapse of central planning and entrance of different claiming groups. As a result, these groups are independent where there is no more single, absolute and permanent solution to any substantive natural resource management problem. In pluralism, however, no group can claim a superior or absolute scenario and that sustainable forestry and rural development decision-making is no longer the sole mandate of expert authorities. Conflicts are inevitable and cannot be resolved, but can be managed. Equity decision-making is now distant, while consensus is unlikely but progress can be achieved without it. Therefore, communication is essential and helps participants understand their differences better.
question of whether we can change, fundamentally, our relationship with nature becomes increasingly urgent. Just as important as an understanding of our environment, is an understanding of ourselves, of the kinds of beings we are and why we act as we do. In Loving Nature Kay Milton considers why some people in Western societies grow up to be nature lovers, actively concerned about the welfare and future of plants, animals, ecosystems and nature in general, while others seem indifferent or intent on destroying these things. Drawing on findings and ideas from anthropology, psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, the author discusses how we come to understand nature as we do, and above all, how we develop emotional commitments to it. Anthropologists, in recent years, have tended to suggest that our understanding of the world is shaped solely by the culture in which we live. Controversially Kay Milton argues that it is shaped by direct experience in which emotion plays an essential role. The author argues that the conventional opposition between emotion and rationality in western culture is a myth. The effect of this myth has been to support a market economy which systematically destroys nature, and to exclude from public decision making the kinds of emotional attachments that support more environmentally sensitive ways of living. A better understanding of ourselves, as fundamentally emotional beings, could give such ways of living the respect they need.
Challenges the common assumption that policy analysts engage in a purely objective technical assessment of policy alternatives. This book argues that what analysts really do is produce policy arguments that are based on value judgements and are used by policymakers in the course of public debate.
Before geographers commit themselves to public policy, they need to pose two questions: what kind of geography and what kind of public policy. The evolution of the discipline, in terms both of its aims and its professional organization, must be seen as an adaptation to external conditions, particularly to the development of the corporate state with its emphasis on the 'national interest'. The corporate state forces education to be seen purely as investment in manpower and academic research becomes subservient to the state and is used to preserve and strengthen the status quo. There is here a potential conflict with the academic's sense of moral obligation, but in practice the conflict is resolved by the parochialism and élitism of the humanistic tradition. To help to move away from the corporate state and towards the 'incorporated state' in which men can control the social conditions of their own existence, geographers need to address their efforts towards understanding the tension between the humanistic tradition and the pervasive needs of the corporate state and thereby to learn how to exploit the contradictions within the corporate state itself.
In this paper we explore the role of planning discourse and practice in the social construction of nature through the example of recent debates about the use of planning gain mechanisms to generate environmental 'benefits', such as nature reserves and country parks. This idea gained currency in British planning policy circles in the late 1980s at a time of intense economic and political pressures to release more rural land for development. The significance of 'environmental planning gain' rests, we argue, in its powerfulness as an idea rather than as a practice. As such, it can be seen as a strategic representation of the planning system as a bargaining process and of the 'natural environment' as a 'product' in the land development process.
This paper explores the opportunities and contradictions in applying concepts of sustainable development to land use policy. The conceptual framework is provided by 'stock maintenance' models of sustainability and a distinction is made between material, postmaterial and non-instrumental dimensions of sustainability which relate in complex ways to the use and development of land. Though concepts of sustainability are gaining ground in planning and related disciplines, translating theory into policy remains problematic. Principles of sustainability challenge the presumption in favour of development and sit uneasily with the utilitarian notion of 'balance'. They require an alternative ethical basis and, especially in the postmaterial realm, are inherently bound up with value theory. These issues are illustrated by the problem of defining 'critical natural capital'. Political commitments to sustainability were made, and to some extent encoded in planning policies, before the challenge to a demand-led economy was fully grasped. Far from effecting reconciliation, defining what is sustainable will expose conflict more starkly and at an earlier stage in the planning process. As environment-led plans and decisions are challenged by development interests, there will be opportunities to test these conclusions in specific empirical contexts. The sum total of decisions in the planning field, as elsewhere, should not deny future generations the best of today's environment. (Department of the Environment 1992b, para 3) The picture is a particularly confusing one, because some aspects of the argument involve . . . life threat-ening considerations at a global scale whereas others are matters of qualitative judgement at a local level.
This text analyzes what biodiversity represents to the biologists who operate in broader society on its behalf, drawing on interviews with the scientists most active today in the mission to preserve biodiversity, including Peter Raven, Thomas Lovejoy, Jane Lubchenco and Paul Ehrlich. The author explores how and why these biologists shaped the concept of biodiversity and promoted it to society at large - examining their definitions of biodiversity; their opinions about spirituality and its role in scientific work; the notion of biodiversity as something of intrinsic value; and their views on biophilia, E.O. Wilson's idea that humans are genetically predisposed to love nature. He also looks at the work of 20th-century forerunners of today's conservation biologists - Aldo Leopold, Charles S, Elton, Rachel Carson, David Ehrenfeld - and points out their contributions to the current debates. The book takes readers to Costa Rica, where a group of scientists is using biodiversity to remake nature and society. An extended section profiles the thoughts and work of E.O. Wilson.