Thursday 30 January 2014

Columbus' lessons for the Somerset Levels

Nearly seven years ago, while I was writing Toward the Setting Sun – a look at the links and rivalry between Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci – I went to Palos de la Frontera, from where Columbus set sail in 1492.

You can stand on the dockside, as he did, but the ocean is now completely out of sight.  It is smallholdings, strawberry farms and scrubby farmland as far as the eye can see.  In the far distance, on a clear day, you can just see the glimmering of the Guadalquivir estuary in the distance.

It is a measure of just how far the water has receded over the past five centuries or so, right across Europe.  Partly because of drainage, partly because of industrialisation, partly because of greater extraction.

I thought about that today when I saw the pasting the Environment Agency was getting because of the flood water in Somerset.

They may be to blame for not dredging the rivers enough, though there are clear disadvantages of doing so.  I don’t know.  I’m not a water engineer.

But what we can say is that it is possible to discern the drift of the politics of climate change, as the water levels rise and the wind and extreme weather begins to take shape.  The first people we will blame, after the transport companies – who will have taken no precautions, as usual – will be the Environment Agency.

If it is their fault at all, then they will share it with the politicians who failed to take evasive action when it was clear what direction the climate was taking, but that is kind of by the way.

The main point I want to make is about history.  We know the shape of our rivers and coasts in previous centuries, and there is no reason why – however much money the Environment Agency might throw at flood prevention – those patterns should not return.

As I say, Columbus sailed from a dock where the sea has entirely disappeared.  The Saxons used to sail ships all the way up the Thames to Oxford.  And the Somerset levels were under water until a few centuries ago – they were drained over a millennium, and it appears they are returning to their previous shape.

Joseph of Arimathea may not have arrived in Glastonbury by ship, as legend suggests, but many other people did.

Similar examples are all over the country.  The beach where William the Conqueror landed and ate the sand is now an inland car park, some miles from the sea.

We may just have to put up with the return of medieval rivers, with flood plains which are used for floods not for building houses on.  Even the crustiest sceptic about the climate change narrative agrees that the temperature is rising. 

There are times when we need to take Carl Jung’s old advice, that we must tackle the things we can change, not waste our energy on the things we can’t, and somehow generate the wisdom to know the difference.  This may be one of those times.

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