The Crumbling Coastline
Updated: Aug 10, 2021
'At Dusk, Chapman's Pool - 72cm x 54cm
"CODE RED!" screams the report released today by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is a worrying assessment of the risks confronting our planet, our communities and our individual lives. Without even digging down into its content and detail, the synopsis makes for grim reading; we are irreversibly ruining our environment and without radical shifts in understanding and behaviour, the future will be very different from what we experience today. Nations, industries and individuals will not only feel the consequences, but are also to blame for where we find ourselves. Generally, the UN's press release appears to be well thought out and carefully drafted, lacking wild claims and sensational language. The same cannot be said of the mainstream media; the pens used to write their reviews contain dark, dramatic ink - 'extreme, catastrophe, irreparable damage, existential threat' - while the hands that control them wobble with uncertainty as they detail 'estimates, forecasts, projections and modelling.'
What should you make of all this? I have spent many years appreciating and learning from the landscape and my environment, and what am I to make of this? Climate science is not an area of expertise for me and I am not qualified to hold a forceful opinion, yet I know enough to understand that this is a highly complex subject in terms of both content and consequence and so a quiet, non-partisan approach, might be helpful. Contemplation, not confrontation. The reductive reporting and commentary of mainstream media, and the hysteria and tribalism of social media are not the stones under which we should look for answers where the complexity of the debate is being trampled over in an ugly stampede for political capital and commercial expediency. The analysis of independent, expert opinion is always a good place to start, but will require dedicated reading of technical concepts that are way beyond most of our pay grades; many eminently qualified scientists will agree with the report's findings and indeed provided the foundational research for its content, while others with equal erudition (I'm not referring to the charlatans and lay-scientists with their brightly coloured, shouty YouTube accounts) have cast serious doubt over some of these issues. Previous attempts by both sides to stitch together consensuses for their positions have been threadbare, tenuous and ultimately discredited. It seems to me that the best possible way to understand such a profoundly important issue is to listen to both sides of the debate, with as much impartiality as our biases afford and then, most importantly, to weigh this up against our own experiences and observations.
The issue of coastal erosion and rising sea levels is a case in point and I've touched on this briefly in previous posts ('Cliffs and Cottages at Cuckmere Haven' and 'Winter Pines at South Beach Studland') and this just adds a little more colour to the conversation. It is an issue that helps me to take a step back from the hyperbole and attempt to find some meaning. Any casual visitor to this blog, or indeed my Instagram page, will be in no doubt that coastal scenery is a favourite subject of mine to paint. There are many reasons why I am drawn to these landscapes, but it is primarily the counter-intuitive relationship between sea and land that sustains my intrigue. Water: soft, transparent, easily spilt, evaporated and dispersed, restless, flowing, seemingly transient. Rock: heavy, solid, rough and smooth, impervious, immovable, seemingly immutable. Logic suggests that rock should have the upper hand against water; shattered coastal defences and cliff-side landslips demonstrate that quite the reverse is true. Pounded relentlessly by the tide, the coastline provides a wonderful array of ledges, beaches, stacks, caves, coves, fault-lines, shelves, shallows, deeps, pools and pinnacles for an artist, each its own testament to the sea's sculptural supremacy.
These five paintings all demonstrate the erosive quality of the sea and its impact on the land. It's a nice way to give you a quick catch-up on some recent work, and I hope you enjoy looking at them. They also serve to make a point: let's not forget the power of nature - it will do what it wants, with or without our meddling. It can look after itself.
'A Peaceful Afternoon at Mupe Bay' - 72cm x 54cm
I am troubled by our often heavy-handed treatment of the environment. I am equally troubled by our increasingly confused discussions regarding it. Our progress as a species and our advances in science since the Industrial Revolution have been spectacular, helpful and dangerous. We have allowed our successes to breed a conceited arrogance, where we view our 21st Century experience with an unhealthy degree of self-congratulation and the delusion of its perpetuity - "It won't get any better than this. We've arrived, and we cannot allow things to change," we tell ourselves. "We are masters of science, we are living longer and we have the power to make changes, positively or negatively to nature." In some ways conservation has moved on from being a sensible and important concern to a strange exercise in freezing our environmental status in the Museum of 21st Century Hubris; we just can't bring ourselves to accept that we are not the ones pulling the strings. The extent to which we have overestimated our influence as a species and misunderstood the implacable indifference of nature is evident in the phrase coined by a journalist, commenting on the IPCC report today - 'irreparable damage.' It demonstrates a simplistic and ignorant appraisal of what we have been able to witness day-in, day-out. Year-in, year out. For sure, we have been guilty of some inexcusable environmental abuses that have wrought long-lasting, detrimental changes to the natural world that must not be repeated and where possible, reversed. However, consider a well-known example, possibly the most egregious in recent history: the Chernobyl disaster.
'Sea Spray at Portland Bill' - 50cm x 34cm
We are familiar with the the devastating events in 1986 when Rector No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, spewing radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, across a large expanse of Ukraine and further into northern Europe and the Soviet Union. Consequently, the local town of Pripyat was evacuated and a 10km exclusion zone established around the site. With the thinking of today, it would be reasonable to assume that such ruinous human involvement has created a desolate environmental legacy, inhospitable to nature, stained to the core with radioactive toxins. The opposite is true and it is a powerful example of the extent to which nature takes no time at all to adjust to such significant reversals. The region has changed, that's certain, but it cannot be argued that nature, or the planet has been ruined as a result. Pripyat may not be on your retirement home short-list but for the wolves, bison and lynx it's not so bad. Contrived pine plantations have been replaced by forests with greater biodiversity and the organic process of regeneration to land and water courses is being left to nature, and it's making a rather good fist of it. Just to be clear, I'm not advocating an increase in nuclear meltdowns, suffice to say that nature knows very little about the 'irreparable damage' that our journalists and politicians seem so engaged with at present. If we took a little time to consider the extent to which our environment has been shaped, changed, then shaped again by millennia of natural and enforced events, many dwarfing Chernobyl in their magnitude, then perhaps we might find it a little easier to speak the right words, convey the right messages and formulate the requisite policies. I am unsure that the IPCC report will be viewed through such a wide angle lens, and remain concerned that it will be used and abused by those with vested and political interests, with little appreciation for nature's ever-changing, self-healing properties.
'A Winter Walk to Worbarrow Bay' - 72cm x 36cm
These landscapes are some of my favourites and 'At Dusk...' 'A Winter Walk...' and ' A Stroll Along...' have all changed significantly since I've known them. Look at the solid headland, Houns Tout, in the first painting, its footprint along the shoreline altered dramatically by a huge landslide. It reminds me of the times on the beach, where we would dig large holes in the sand, and climbing out would put a clumsy hand or foot on the top edge, dislodging a neat chunk that would settle at the bottom of the hole. The picture below shows something similar: in the middle of the distant headland, Ballard Down, is an octopus-like shape where the face of the cliff slipped down into the sea. I remember seeing this for the first time, aghast at the ugly white gash in what was a loved and familiar landscape, almost as unsettling as the dazzling conspicuity of your favourite TV star's new teeth-whitening procedure. I no longer notice it; small shrubs and coastal flora have welcomed it, cormorants and gulls enjoy its shelter and the new opportunities it has created. It is a changed landscape. It is a different landscape. Is it any worse? Increasing coastal erosion is identified as a symptom of anthropogenic climate change but will it be any more dramatic than that which the Netherlands was confronted with and for which it has repeatedly found elegant solutions? Will it be any worse than the end of the Last Glacial Period and the submergence of Doggerland that connected Britain to continental Europe? It will change. It will be different but it has always been that way. Noticing how the tides have chiselled and shaped the coastline during my own lifetime and learning how this is representative of a wider history and narrative, my conclusion has to be that sea levels may be influenced by solar events just as much as climate change and that coastal erosion will continue. It is not a catastrophe. It is natural.
'A Stroll Along the North Beach' - 50cm x 34cm
There is much more to say and no doubt much more will be said in the coming weeks. This is not the place to scramble across the scattered boulders of institutional thought on why this debate exists and what the solutions should be. Is the fatalistic, light-touch approach of the Abrahamic religions the way forward? No. Should we adopt the forced management techniques of Malthusian ideology? That won't work either. One of the landscape's most fascinating attributes is how it changes - daily, with the seasons, naturally and with our interference. It always has. It always will. The very notion of 'preventing climate change,' as the BBC suggests, is illogical, impossible and unnatural. I am convinced that as a component of our wider environment and planet we must ensure that our disturbance of the landscape and nature's way is not causing undue harm, while it is important to recognise that we will effect some change. Nature can cope with these changes, and will introduce its own with little warning, perhaps not in ways that we imagine or find convenient, nor that promotes the resale value of a $10m beach-front villa in Lyford Cay, or the international adoption of lucrative new energy technologies. Read as many expert views as you can on both sides of the conversation. Listen to the tearful school children with their drawings of thin polar bears and grey coral reefs. Consider the exhortations of the wealthy celebrities as they turn up the volume on what you and I need to do. Make sure you hear the plaintiff voices of those that will confront life-changing poverty if our approach to climate change is inadequate, or indeed over-zealous and misguided. Most of all, take time to reflect on your own experience and observations. Learn from the landscape and explore the lessons that nature has taught and continues to teach, then set those against what you are being told.
I'll leave you with this quote from the excellent Ron Howard film, A Beautiful Mind.........'Conviction, it turns out, is a luxury of those on the sidelines, Mr Nash'