The Coastal History Blog 9: “Coasts of the Anthropocene”

This posting follows close on the heels of the last one, which summarized an interdisciplinary conference I attended on “Rivers of the Anthropocene.”  The conference left me with a lot to consider.  There has been some informal discussion on Twitter about what an equivalent conference organized around coasts would look like.  What is the anthropocene coast?  When did it begin? Are coasts “more” anthropocene than other places?  I thought I would take advantage of the blogger’s privilege to offer provisional and incomplete ideas.

I’ve organized this blog post around three charts from Google Books’ Ngram viewer.  I’m new to this kind of tool and I don’t claim any special expertise with it.  There are many strands that have to be teased apart (does a decline in usage mark a cultural shift, or just the rising popularity of a different word?).  Still, it’s an interesting way to draw attention to periods of dramatic transition, when a concept or activity burst onto the stage and drew ample comment.

You may have trouble reading my screenshots.  If you want to replicate interactive versions of any of these charts, search for those keywords separated by commas in Google Ngram—I just used the default settings—but be sure to amend the search to go all the way to 2008 if you want your charts to look like mine. This applies especially to the last chart.

Dredging and trawling

Discussions of the human impact on rivers often focus on dam construction, which—considered on a global scale—peaked in the second half of the twentieth century.  We have certainly tampered with the sediment flow along the coastline by building “defenses” against erosion, but if we are looking for the heaviest hitting forms of human impact, I think the nearest equivalent to dams would be dredging and trawling.  Of the two, trawling will be more familiar to historians.  The consequences of this sort of steam-powered industrial fishing are the subject of a prize-winning recent book by Jeffrey Bolster. [1]  At the moment, I’m reading the journalist Charles Clover’s The End of the Line, which takes the story up to the present.  One anecdote from Clover will probably serve to make the point.  He mentions that trawlers in the North Sea routinely scrape up Pleistocene fossilized bones from the sea bed.  There is a lucrative sideline in assessing these bones and figuring out which might fetch a good price from museums. [2] If trawlers are, in effect, excavating the sea floor in the process of scooping up fish, it’s hardly surprising that they have also denuded those same areas of oyster beds and a host of marine species that fall into the category of inedible “bycatch.”  Thus, trawling is about more than just overfishing—it’s a deep intervention, something that has more in common with dredging than one might assume at first.

Dredging is the process of moving sediment around on behalf of assorted human agendas.  Prominent among these is the need to preserve channels for navigation (and, historically, we have had to dredge wider and deeper repeatedly as our ships got bigger).  We have also used dredging to artificially extend the foreshore in coastal towns, or to create new islands and beaches, to the delight of real estate speculators.  As I discussed in my post on Miami Beach, in some places we reached the point where we essentially had a terraformed coast about 100 years ago.  Once great sums of money are invested in a navigational waterway or a beach resort, additional dredging is usually necessary, at frequent intervals, to protect the investment.  As with trawling, the environmental impact is very serious because of the scale and also the regularity of human intervention.

An Ngram search for trawling and dredging produces this result:

Image 1

Mentions of dredging spike around 1870, 1890, and 1910. [3] The line for trawling also shows a decisive transition period in the later decades of the nineteenth century.

The Ngram is not, of course, measuring the volume of sediment moved, or the number of fish killed.  No doubt we are doing quite a bit more now, without making such a fuss about it.  What the Ngram does mark off, roughly, is the point where the modern coastal regime kicks in.  One way that scientists like to define the anthropocene is that human beings begin to account for more movement, on a geological scale, than natural processes.  By this logic, perhaps coaling stations also belong on our list for the distinguishing features of the early anthropocene coast.

The healthy tan

As someone with a cultural history background, I can’t resist complicating the picture by talking about changes in values, attitudes toward gender and the body, and patterns of leisure.  Mentions of “vacation” and “beach” track quite nicely together from about 1920 to 1980.  I find the graph below even more interesting, though.  It compares “vacation,” “tanning,” and “vitamin D.”

Image 2

I expect that most of the early references to “tanning” pertain to the leather industry.  Not surprisingly, the early decades of the twentieth century are where the action is.  The peaks and troughs line up in interesting ways, particularly in the early 1940s, when attention to the health benefits of vitamin D peaked along with an interest in “fun-and-sun” leisure.

This chart fits well with what we know about changes in how humans, at least humans in rich countries, wanted to use the coast.  The health benefits of seaside trips in the nineteenth century were in terms of brief visits for the benefits of fresh air and immersion in cold salt water.  In the early decades of the twentieth century, Antibes and Cannes shut down for the summer. [4] The advent of “healthy” sunbathing brought us a switch to the revealing swimwear that is so familiar today, and a whole beach culture that celebrated a particular form of sexuality, display, and leisure.

I would suggest that this is far more than a sidebar to the history of the anthropocene coast.  Two related changes stand out for me.  First, the “beach body” has colonized and rewritten our conventions for clothing and conduct even when we are not on vacation. [5] Can we imagine obsessing over “thigh gaps” and the presence, or absence, of “six-pack abs” without that crucial transition to minimalist swimwear happening first?  Second, the ideal now is to capture some version of the beach lifestyle on a full-time basis, by moving there permanently.

Beachfront property in warm climates has become the most desired form of real estate, with predictable overbuilding, even in areas that are prone to beach erosion, tidal surges, or hurricanes.  In temperate climates, the vogue for “waterfront” cities (which I discussed in an earlier post) feeds indirectly off of the glamor of the beach.  Architects like Santiago Calatrava have built whole careers out of capturing the sparkle of water and the shape of sails.

We became an urban species (more than half of us, worldwide, live in cities) around 2005.  This event received ample news coverage at the time, but in terms of environmental impact, there are some interesting consequences.  As Stephanie Kane puts it: “about half of the world’s people cluster in about 3 percent of the earth’s land area.” [6]

I think I can venture four statements:

  • coasts have more than their fair share of that urban 50%
  • we expect more from the coast than from any other habitat
  • overbuilding in coastal deserts and coastal lowlands is a historical anomaly
  • we are going to have a hard time coping with the consequences

Once the coast is overbuilt, we go into defensive mode, protecting our investments.  A journalist for Rolling Stone visited Miami last year with a series of questions about sea level rise and was brushed off with vague references to imitating Venice or adopting techniques from Dutch engineers.  (As he points out, though, all it would take is a tidal surge that briefly immerses the whole area and the drinking water supply would be tainted and useless for years; see also this from the BBC.) Today, we are in the midst of a global boom in the construction of desalination plants, led by Israeli firms.  The prime locations—California, Australia, GCC cities like Dubai—are all in arid regions where the furious pace of coastal urban development proceeded without regard for the water supply.

Amazingly, we continue to build brand-new coastal luxury developments.  Although old resort areas (New Jersey, Florida) are getting tired of playing King Canute and telling the tide to stop eroding their artificial beaches, Dubai has its “Map of the World” composed of made-up islands, and recently the Guardian reported that an offshore neoliberal paradise is under construction near Lagos, Nigeria.  What’s at work here is more complicated than a story about technology.  We dredge to build and maintain these properties.  If we ask, however, what is driving our use of dredging, and our embrace of risk and “natural disaster,” our peculiar modern romance with the beach is at the heart of it.

Coastal squeeze

The term “coastal squeeze” appeared in the 1990s in a fairly narrow context as planners tried to balance the need for anti-erosion defenses (the armored coastline) against existing land use, and the exigencies of human development against ecosystems that depended on an intertidal zone. [7]

There is a way to use this term a bit more broadly to capture the way that the coast is overloaded and overcrowded, both onshore and offshore.  Build a new wind farm offshore?  You’re getting in the way of the fishing grounds.  Dredge out a new coal port?  The only place to dump the silt is next to the Great Barrier Reef.  Extract petroleum and natural gas from beneath a delta?  The hydraulic impact will actually sink that delta faster than sea level rise, and by the way, that delta is also home to millions of people. (James Syvitski’s lecture on anthropocene deltas is well worth the 50 minutes on YouTube.)

As the Ngram shows, mentions of “coastal squeeze” spiked before mentions of “anthropocene” even began to take off, perhaps an indicator that the coast was wrestling with these issues a bit earlier than other places.

Image 3

If we are looking for academic language to approach (and define) a coastal history and a coastal humanities, we could do worse than adopt terms like “coastal squeeze.”  This sort of tug-of-war over values, resources, and turf does capture some very recognizable human elements.  It also suggests the interrelatedness of everything coastal—you can’t just study the fisheries, or the marinas, or the wind farms in isolation.  The way that different uses impinge on each other (something that intensifies with overbuild and a denser population, but isn’t new) comes back to my initial “coastal question” about fractions: the squeeze IS the story.

The coast is spatially much more complex than a river, which can be defined by its basin; yet the coast is far more local than the ocean, which is tied through circulation to just about everything.  To coastal squeeze, we might add “coastal bleed.”  Consider this discussion of leakage from twentieth-century shipwrecks.  Pollution, dumping, islands of debris, catastrophic oil spills and slow, unheralded leaks are all phenomena that hurt the whole ocean in the very long run, but are felt much more intensely and immediately at the local level.  There are, inevitably, environmental justice issues here; different groups will vie to escape the worst of it, or minimize the impact on themselves.  A planet dominated by squeeze and bleed is one of climate misery rather than climate apocalypse, more like the world of Blade Runner than Mad Max.

On the other hand, it’s possible that our anxious debates over how to manage coastal squeeze and coastal bleed will seem, in retrospect, like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  Jeremy Jackson’s TED talk, How We Wrecked the Ocean , is sometimes summed up as “The Rise of Slime” thesis.  According to Jackson and quite a few other experts, we are on the verge of eliminating all fish from the ocean.  This is already disturbing the food chain; plankton proliferate on an unprecedented scale, and other species, like jellyfish, fill the niche once occupied by fish.  Jackson even posits an “Escape from Malibu” scenario in which toxic algae drive an abrupt mass exodus away from the coastline.



[1]: W. Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012).

[2]: Charles Clover, The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat (New York: New Press, 2006), 58.

[3]: Digging into Google Books, I see that references to “dredging” include a fair number of references from the mining industry.  Still, I think that underwater dredging predominates.

[4]: Lena Lenček and Gideon Bosker, The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth (New York: Viking, 1998), 202.

[5]: Fiona Jordan, “Life’s a beach and then we diet: discourses of tourism and the ‘beach body’ in UK women’s lifestyle magazines,” in Tourism and Gender: Embodiment, Sensuality, and Experience, ed. A. Pritchard, N. Morgan, I. Ateljevic, C. Harris (Wallinford: CABI, 2007), 92-106; Phillip Vaninni and Aaron M. McCright, “To die for: the semiotic seductive power of the tanned body,” Symbolic Interaction 27, no. 3 (Summer 2004), 309-332.  This second article argues that artificial tanning represents a break in our relationship with the real beach; I think it is more complicated than that.

[6]: Stephanie Kane, Where Rivers Meet the Sea: The Political Ecology of Water (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 202), Introduction.  Kindle edition.

[7] J. Pat Doody, “Coastal Squeeze—An Historical Perspective,” Journal of Coastal Conservation 10 (2004), 129-138.

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