Austinmer: Optimistic reflections on a coastal living

I was born and brought up in Leicestershire, a landlocked county in the UK. Opting to study in Cambridge didn’t get me any closer to an existence by the coast.  But as 2015 begins to unravel, the 5 year anniversary approaches of when I arrived in Wollongong and began living and working by the sea.  I thought it might be a good opportunity to reflect on what a coastal living means to me.

I live between Wollongong and Sydney, in a suburb that attracts creative people. The Glamma Rays are an example of this creativity: a group of four musical women whose tunes have recently been a favoured soundtrack in our household. Here is their song about Austinmer, which references several familiar and enjoyable aspects of visiting our local beach (this song reminded me how beautiful life is as I skipped bare foot down to the beach on Christmas day with a frangipani flower behind my ear!).

“Austinmer” by the Glamma Rays


In no particular order, here are some things that I enjoy about living by the sea:

  • Having an uninterrupted view across a large area to the horizon
  • The combined joy and shock of jumping into a bracing ocean pool
  • Being able to quickly gauge the weather by glancing at the water and sky
  • Watching and photographing the wildlife, including birds, whales, fish, dolphins, seals
  • Recreation on the beach: running, swimming, surfing, building sand castles, digging holes, drinking coffee and having barbecues

Austinmer Beach, NSW. Photo Credit: Wollongong City Council

More than 80% of Australians live in the coastal zone, so others must enjoy the beach too.

As an environmental scientist, my enjoyment of the beach could be tempered by the fact that I think about the impacts of climate change in coastal environments: sea-level rise, ocean acidification, increased storms. When the beach is crowded, I sometimes wonder whether other people think about these things and whether they connect that knowledge to their interactions with the coast.

There are two phenomena that make it difficult for people to translate concerns about climate change into everyday actions that might abate the rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere: The issue attention cycle and the challenge of acting collectively. While these phenomena are often discussed in a global political context, they are equally applicable to us as individuals.

The issue attention cycle describes a systematic cycle of heightening public interest followed by increasing boredom with major issues. This presents a challenge because public attention is rarely held for the length of time it takes to generate enough political pressure to bring about effective change. A classic example is the failure of successive Australian Governments to effectively reduce carbon emissions, despite the fact that 2013 was Australia’s hottest year on record (resulting in an increased frequency of bush fires, drought and floods).

Collective action problems are best understood through Garret Hardin’s famous Tragedy of the Commons theory, in which self-interested individuals acting rationally will not behave in the best interests of the whole group. Hardin used the example of a group of herdsmen allowing their sheep to grave a depleting pasture: for an individual herdsman, the cost of removing sheep exceeds the benefit of continued pasture for future grazing in a situation where not all herdsmen are removing their sheep. Similarly, it takes an exceptional individual to reduce their carbon footprint in light of all the everyday activities that rely so heavily on fossil fuels (driving, flying etc.), particularly when others are not acting to abate their own activities. But without doing so, our metaphorical common (the atmosphere and the growing levels of carbon dioxide within it) will continue to degrade.

Climate change is a dreary topic for the minds of people basking in the sun and I doubt that many of the surfers at our local beach know the latest IPCC figures on sea level rise. But I am optimistic that these phenomena could be addressed if everybody acted together to be consistently mindful of their influence on the planet and adjusted their behaviour accordingly. As the environmentalist Bob Brown notes in his recent autobiography, “optimism is a key ingredient for any successful human endeavour- and isn’t keeping the Earth viable the greatest endeavour we can undertake?”. Optimism, as well as doing my bit to keep an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, makes it possible for me to go on enjoying our local beach, despite potential environmental changes on the horizon. If we all act together in this regard, perhaps I’ll still be living on the coast and watching those smiley beach faces in my retirement.

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