What is supposed to be “sustainable” about flood memories?   Leave a comment

We recently noticed that our project had acquired some questionable fame when someone who had read a job description relating to the research last December had found the combination of “sustainable” and “flood memory” odd. He went so far as to invent an award for the phrase Sustainable Flood Memories, the “LA-LA Sustainability – the Laughable Abuse of Language Award (Sustainability).” Furthermore, he did not seem to understand what the project means by “watery sense of place,” which made him wonder whether there is “a whole field of study somewhere where people sit around and dream up new-speak.”

Therefore, we’ve just sent him a reply to his questions and enigmas, and we sincerely hope it helps him and other people understand what the project is about, and what the terms “sustainable” and “watery sense of place” mean in this context.

While we strongly support a critical attitude towards the misuse of important terms, we need to also be clear that it is crucial for this project whether or not flood memories are “sustainable.” For the interested reader, the original blog entry and our recent response are reproduced here.

On December 19, 2010, Mark Brown wrote:

2010 Award for the Worst Abuse of the Word “Sustainable”


I admit to a long and growing angst over the misuse of the word “sustainable” and its derivatives. In fact I am well known for making a big song and dance every time the topic comes up. I am sure my friends and colleagues groan whenever the issue arises. They are good enough to humour me. Even those who may say I am cynical often share my concerns – and every year the abuse gets worse. So this year we inaugurate a new Transition Town High Wycombe Award. It is the “LA-LA Sustainability” – the Laughable Abuse of Language Award (Sustainability).

I probably wasn’t aware of just how our beautiful English language had been so distorted until we started the Transition Town High Wycombe in 2008. Back then our first exercise was to help the Wycombe District Council with its “Sustainable Economic Prosperity” Consultation. Clearly we thought this was very suitable. Who isn’t interested in sustaining our economic prosperity? However we were quickly to learn that not everyone shares our definition of the word “sustainable”. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary tells us that this word means to “maintain continuously”. The phrase “sustainable development” (if not itself an oxymoron) has typically been defined as the activity that we do today that does not prevent future generations from undertaking the same activity. So, for example, if driving cars consumes all the oil and steel in the world then our children’s children will not have cars. This is unsustainable.

From 2008 until today we have seen this wonderful concept twisted to mean whatever short timescale people want it to mean. One would have thought that the operative word here was “continuously”. However in political terms anything that is sustainable is quite literally anything that lasts until the next election or any time period mandated by Whitehall. This can be as short as only 16 years. Current Council thinking tends to stretch as far as 2026. One might think that the world can go to hell in a handcart in 2027 but as long was we can struggle through to the year before we will be fine. Somehow. This would lead to only medium-term measures that always assumed today’s trends would continue into the future forever. Hence no long-term strategic thinking would enter the debate. No vision is required. To this manner of thinking there would be no need (for example) to preserve an agricultural sector for food production around High Wycombe. The original consultation document suggested that we should turn over agricultural land & buildings to recreational, tourism and small enterprise purposes. In a world of rising food and commodity prices it wasn’t clear whether we should laugh or cry….

Next came the 2008 Sustainable Communities Act. This was intended to empower local communities to become more durable. The precise definition remained vague but the Act specifically says it should promote the “improvement of the economic, social or environmental well-being” of local people. The Act doesn’t define “sustainable”, ie, there is no idea as to how long a community needs to sustain to qualify. Interestingly the Act does attempt to define the term “local”.

We wrote to all our Councilors back in 2008 to encourage them to submit a proposal under the act. WDC did so in consultation with local groups concerned about M40 road noise. They called upon the Highways Agency “to take action to permanently reduce road noise through re-surfacing, improving sound barriers and implement speed and night time restrictions between junctions 3 and 8”. There was no new money involved but the idea was to move it up the priority list. In this case, although we share the concerns of local residents, we have questioned if this really was the most suitable suggestion? Afterall, the communities along the M40 may well sustain with or without an M40 motorway. Might the fate of local bus routes be more of a key factor? Might not a new generation of electric cars be slower and quieter? Would an electrified transport system need a lot of new wind turbines along the M40 corridor? If so would local communities use the Act to empower themselves to prevent the wind farms on the basis of noise? The mind boggles. The meaning of the act could be so broadly interpreted that it became perfectly possible for local communities to conjure up their own demise in its name.

So, to highlight the problem, we have created the tongue-in-cheek “LA-LA Sustainability” award. And this year I am very proud to nominate the University of Gloucestershire in their Job Advert for a “Sustainable Flood Memories Research Assist”: http://bit.ly/hGs4f8 (paying up to £29k a year, pro rata). According to the ad “The main objective is to research the relationships between local, community level sustainable flood memories (with its associated watery sense of place, shared flood heritage, folk memories of flooding, and local informal flood knowledge) with community resilience to flooding and future flood risk.” Now, our apologies to Professor Lindsey McEwen (and “Applied Scientists” everywhere) as we do not dispute the value of studying how communities should survive flooding. However, we would argue with the mind-boggling abuse of the word “sustainable” in this instance. Exactly what is a “sustainable flood memory”? Indeed, what is an “associated watery sense of place & shared flood heritage”? This comes in a week when student protestors rioted at the thought of paying £9k a year on tuition fees. The Universities told us they needed the money….

Does anyone need more money to study a “watery sense of place”? How about a reality check? What about an economic sense of purpose? What about common sense? Is there a whole field of study somewhere where people sit around and dream up new-speak? Is this an Orwellian attempt to reinvent our language such that we can justify the public funding for studying the “bleedin-obvious” (as Basil Fawlty used to call it)? Is there such a thing as a sustainable flood? Surely common sense tells us to move to higher ground?

We’ll get back to the successful job applicant in three years and have them explain how what they have learnt will be of use of a world of increasing flood-risk. We expect to be impressed.

Do YOU have a better example for the LA-LA-Sustainability awards? Please send us your nominations to lala@transition-wycombe.org.uk. A free one-year subscription to the best offering.

And this is what we replied today (August 16, 2011):

Hello Mark,

My name is Franz; I am the research assistant on the “Sustainable Flood Memories” project at the University of Gloucestershire. A colleague has just forwarded me your blog post from December 19, 2010, where you make observations on the use and abuse of the term “sustainability”, award the project the “Laughable abuse of language award” for its use of the term and, last but not least, voice your expectation to “be impressed” by what the project does.

The good news is that you don’t have to wait quite as long as you originally expected to hear from me. On the other hand, this means that you may want to reconsider some of the things you wrote about the project, based on very little information about it.

I – together with the other researchers on this project – share your concerns about the over-use of the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable” as buzz-words, eroding what they perhaps meant originally, and leading to cynical developments like the ones you describe in your post (and indeed throughout your blog). But, to be fair, that will happen with any fairly popular term, including, for instance the “local resilience” that you write on your banners. There are always people and institutions ready to co-opt powerful ideas, hijack them for their own purposes or water them down to a degree that they are no longer recognisable. Just because something is “too easy to ridicule”, though, does not mean that this gets you anywhere.

So it’s great you keep an eye on this and denounce particularly grave examples. Nevertheless, I will try to show you that your previous nomination – although of course we are somewhat flattered by the prize – was a bit of a mistake.

As you write yourself, sustainability really implies to “maintain continuously”. So if we talk about sustainable flood memories, then we mean memories of the floods that are maintained continuously. The term ‘sustainable flood memory’ was used to capture a sense of memory that is community focused, archival, integrating individual and collective experiences, and involving inter- and intra-generational communication and strategies for its future.

The main issue behind the research project, as you can easily see on the website and blog that have gone up in the meantime, is that in this country floods seem to be forgotten too often and too quickly – perhaps by affected communities, but certainly by planners and policy-makers. This is why floods usually strike us as disasters, while really they are simply recurring events, influenced of course by what people do and have done in the catchment. But rivers can be expected to flood, even though the intervals in between any two floods may be rather long. That’s why memory is so important, and collective, sustainable memory in particular. It is not sufficient to lament each flood after it has occurred and, a few years later, to go on developing housing, infrastructure and lifestyles as if nothing had ever happened. Rather, we need to find ways of making flood memories more sustainable, both in flood risk communities and in the public sector.

We find that while formal institutions in particular may “forget” floods quite quickly, people who have been affected by floods, and in particular those who have learned regularly to deal with flooding, are quite good at keeping flood memories. Of course there are some memories that no one wants or needs perpetuating. But remembering what high water means in a particular place, what coping strategies worked last time and what didn’t work, how high the water rises regularly and in exceptional circumstances, and where you can evacuate your vulnerable neighbour or bring your valuables… all these and many more are things that are very worthwhile to remember, aren’t they? Perhaps even the image with the person riding a bicycle through a flooded street, which came with your post, can be a valuable flood memory – it may remind you, for instance, that when the water is so high, you can still pass through it on your bike!

Local knowledge and coping strategies like this, by the way, are aspects of what the project has tentatively called “watery sense of place”. I appreciate that this is not quite standard use of language, but if you bear with me for just a few more lines, you might actually understand what we mean by it. It is an attempt to emphasize the fact that in many places, people’s relations with their home and community are not based solely on such solid foundations as “land”, “soil”, “ground” etc, but rather that water plays an important part in local identity and belonging, something that most people from the Somerset Levels, for instance, would be able to tell you at great length. In relation to our project, this means that such a particular, “watery” sense of place must not be ignored by those who draft up flood risk strategies, or be relegated to a category of old-fashioned folklore. Rather, it can serve as a central building block in a “shift up to local resilience” in flood risk areas.

One last point, about money: Until recently, I have been a student myself, and I think UK Higher Education is digging its own grave by introducing exorbitantly high tuition fees. But that is wholly independent from research projects like this one, which are funded by external bodies (the Economic and Social Research Council, ESRC in our case). On the contrary, projects like this actually generate income for the university, which can be used for covering the operating costs of libraries and other infrastructure, for instance. Please pay a bit more attention where you air your frustration about an admittedly sad development in higher education.

I appreciate that you too “do not dispute the value of studying how communities should survive flooding”. And I also find your crusade against poor and ubiquitous usage of “sustainability” laudable. But if you fight for precise usage of language, then I assume you must understand why our project is called sustainable flood memories, and you will have some sympathy for terms like “watery sense of place”.

There is no need to be “impressed” by this. But I hope it helped you understand a bit better what the project is all about, and how our use of “sustainable” may not be too far off your use of “local resilience”.

If you have any further questions about the project, I’d be happy to answer them. Please do not hesitate to contact me.

Kind regards,



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