“They don’t make it anymore”

When Samuel Clemens wasn’t working as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, or writing novels under the pen name of Mark Twain, he was quite the humourist and philosopher.

“Buy land,” he advised: “they don’t make it anymore.”

It’s not entirely true: for centuries, mankind has been turning sections of the seabed, lakebeds and such into land that can be used by people. Without this practice, many rivers would be wider, the Netherlands would be 17% smaller, and much of Mexico City wouldn’t exist. ‘Land reclamation’ has been going on for centuries.

I’m not quite sure why it’s called reclamation, since the ‘re-’ part seems to imply that land was previously in existence, when clearly it wasn’t. Consider Samphire Hoe, a country park located at the base of Shakespeare Cliff near Dover – and made almost entirely from material excavated during the construction of the Channel Tunnel. Some 4.9 million cubic metres of material were deposited there, expanding the United Kingdom by thirty hectares.

In the South China Sea something similar is happening, although the building material isn’t left over from some other engineering project: it’s specifically being dredged up in order to construct artificial islands to bolster some extremely dubious territorial claims over a patch of sea.

While it isn’t true to say that “they don’t make it anymore”, new real estate certainly is expensive. Samphire Hoe came about because it’s basically a made-over spoil heap from a £4.65 billon project. The cost of the project by the People’s Republic of China in the Spratly Islands is unknown, but the adventure began with a naval battle at Johnson South Reef in 1988, in which seventy or more Vietnamese sailors were killed.

Land, it seems, always comes with a very high price.

Johnson South Reef

Artificial island under construction by the Chinese military at Johnson South Reef (Agence France-Presse)

At the same time, land elsewhere is disappearing. I have previously written about how Nauru is threatened by rising sea levels, and parts of the east coast of England seems to be melting away, too. Spurn Point, at the mouth of the Humber estuary, may soon become Spurn Island. In fact, during some extreme tides, it now does exactly that. The nearby port of Ravenspurn is long gone, and that’s a shame because it once played a significant part in history as the place where Henry Bolingbroke landed in 1399, on his way to defeat Richard II and become Henry IV, King of England.

Ravenspurn is far from the only settlement that Yorkshire has lost to the sea. Other curiously-named places include Hornsea Beck, Colden Parva, Ringborough, Monkwell, Waxhole, Owthorne by Sisterkirk, Old Withernsea, Out Newton, Dimlington, Old Kilnsea and many more… all places that you’ll now find only if you look below the chilly waters of the North Sea. The major east coast towns are protected by substantial engineering works, but that probably increases the rate at which less protected sections of coastline are washed away. Even the sturdy coastal fortifications that were built during the World Wars now lie broken and jumbled at mad angles, which doesn’t bode well for our attempts to resist coastal erosion, long-term.

Going, going... gone? Skipsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Going, going… gone? Skipsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

“What is the price of holding back the sea?” That’s the question the BBC has been asking recently. The cash-strapped government requires that a pound spent on flood defence must bring at least £8 in economic benefit; a requirement easily demonstrated in a densely-populated area, but much harder to achieve where it’s farmland that is under threat – despite the fact that even a temporary seawater inundation would leave fields unfit to grow crops for years.

The cost of flood defence is expected to rise by 60%, to £200 million, by 2030. One possible strategy is that of managed retreat: instead of trying to defend every single farm, selected ones would be allowed to revert to salt marsh – which is what they were, centuries ago. This sacrifice (allowing the sea to re-reclaim them, if you will) offers a number of potential advantages, including shortening the overall length of the coastal defences, and allowing the outlying marshes to absorb much of the wave energy before it reaches the sea wall… but on our crowded island, we can’t really spare the loss of too much fertile farmland.

On the global scale, there’s about 0.02 km2 for each person – based upon a planetary land area of 149 million km2 and a current human population of 7.25 billion. We can’t actually have 0.02 km2 (4.94 acres) each, because that would leave no space at all for wilderness, and in any case some of the land area is buried under thick ice in Antarctica. Still more is covered with roads, businesses and your share of public buildings. Some of it is old mine workings, landfill sites, mountains and so on.

Basically, usable land is very precious.

In the UK, the land area per person is just 0.003 km2 (243,610km2 divided among 64.1 million people), so it should come as no surprise that we import 40% of our food. This is a figure that is rising, but the really surprising thing is that it isn’t already a lot higher. With climate change, coastal erosion, worldwide population increase and pressure on the water supply, there are significant food security challenges ahead.

When, in the mid 17th century, astronomers began to use the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons to measure the time accurately (and thereby, to deduce their position upon the Earth) it caused a lot of maps to be redrawn. When King Louis XIV of France was first presented with a new, more accurate map of his nation, he is reported to have grumbled that he’d just lost more territory to his astronomers than to all his enemies.

You might have heard that “money is the root of all evil”, but surely land is at the root of everything, ever since our culture decided that land belongs to people, rather than the more ancient viewpoint that people belong to the land. From warfare between nations in search of Lebensraum to construction companies seeking a supply of sites suitable for development, it’s all about land. Even the most virtual of ‘Dot Com’ Internet businesses requires premises (or at least server rooms) somewhere, their staff must live somewhere and their equipment must be manufactured somewhere…

This is the real challenge: making use of something finite to provide for an indefinite future.

Buy land. They do still make it, but not nearly enough of it, and some of the old parts are disappearing. Choose the land you buy with care… and look after it.

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