In the aftermath of severe storms this autumn, communities across Europe are facing harsh realities: the unexpected destruction of personal belongings, of property, livelihoods and the sense of safety we usually associate with our own home.
The impact of severe flooding on a home and business is something only those who have experienced it can really understand. What seems like the “power of nature” is raw and devastating and has overwhelmed communities and individuals’ lives over the past months.
The floods have raised concerns around our level of preparedness for the impact of such extreme weather. What we have seen unfold implies a helplessness in the face of nature.
This kind of devastation goes against our culture, against our expectation that we can manage and overcome the challenges of living within, or above, nature.
The belief that we can use, manipulate, and control nature is deeply engrained in our western, industrialised, psyche. Everything we have achieved within the industrialised world over the past four thousand years or so has been built on an ever-increasing ability to harness, extract, and use the many resources our natural world offers us: food, shelter, technology. Ultimately, we achieved the ability to survive in conditions we would never have been able to survive in only 10 or 20 generations ago (thanks, in large measure, to our heating, air conditioning, building and transport technologies).
Is it any wonder, then, that we are tempted to see the events that unfolded over the past weeks as a failure on our part to “defend” ourselves against the power of nature? The language we use in war is ever present. We talk about the need for improved flood “defences”, the need to “protect” ourselves against the forces of nature, to not “capitulate” to these sorts of “threats”.
The question of whose place it is where on our planet will arise more and more as we must adapt to the nature we ourselves emerged from – and then altered beyond recognition
But what we fail to see in amongst all this is that nature is both: threat and solution. We, as the human species, as human society, are both users and an integral part of nature. The global climate crisis is testimony to the fact that we can now manipulate nature at the grand scale of our planetary systems. The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us that nature, in the form of microscopic organisms (whether as vile viruses or beneficial bowel bacteria), is ever present within us as well as around us. It is present in our bodies and beyond them.
We can spread nature in the form of viruses or plants or animals which we transport with us on our globally interconnected journeys; plants and animals that then establish themselves out of place and, at times, in an invasive fashion, kill other (native) species in places they once called their home.
The question of whose place it is where on our planet will arise more and more as we must adapt to the nature we ourselves emerged from – and then altered beyond recognition.
As has been the case throughout the history of the human species, the solution to creating a future in which we can survive on this planet must lie in our ability to learn from our mistakes. This time, that learning is relatively simple. It involves the recognition that nature deserves space. Just as we require space, so does nature – including water. Our climate-changed future will lead to more water held in a warmer atmosphere, more water making its way onto land. More water in our oceans through ice melt and thermal expansion of our oceans in a warmer world.
This water needs space and we must give it space. We already know how to do this. We know that wetlands in upper river catchments, deep, natural soils, wide tidal foreshores, and wide, expansive estuarine lands, all store water and slow its journey towards our homes, businesses, and infrastructure.
But to implement this knowledge is proving seemingly impossible. It takes only a brief glance at historic maps or Google Earth images to recognise that we have largely ignored these insights and prioritised urban growth and land use conversion towards less permeable surfaces over the retention or restoration of these known natural sponges.
Changing this disastrous trajectory is not rocket science. But it needs political will and public support. Perhaps we have finally arrived at a place where this becomes possible. Perhaps the awful experience of those affected by the recent flooding can be used as a call to all of us to imagine a different future. A future in which we not only harness the benefits nature brings us but see ourselves as respectfully sharing space with it.
Iris Möller, Professor of Geography at Trinity College Dublin, is a coastal geomorphologist whose research focuses on how complex shallow coastal environments shape our world