Coastal Inquiries: electronic archive for interdisciplinary coastal studies. Volume 2 : 2002

Recreation in the Irish Coastal Zone
A Study of the Conflict Between Human/Nature Interconnectedness and Environmental Degradation
Kelley Power

1. Introduction

Is there an innate connection between humans and the natural world? Evidence suggests that such a connection does exist and that it is psychologically and physiologically beneficial to humans. In exploring this connection, humans participate in a number of outdoor recreational activities that bring them into contact with nature. Ironically, one of the side effects of this interaction is environmental degradation. However, despite awareness of this consequence, environmental degradation continues virtually unimpeded. In this paper, the human connection with nature and its manifestation through the pursuit of outdoor recreational activities are discussed. Using the Irish coastal zone as a case study, various coastal recreational activities are identified and the environmental consequences associated with them are considered. Drawing on information about the attitudes and behaviours of the Irish population and theories about the human/nature relationship, an attempt is made to explain why environmental degradation takes place in spite of inherent human/nature interconnection. Based on this explanation, solutions to coastal zone degradation are suggested, with the intention that, in a general sense, these solutions are applicable to other environmental problems.

2. A note on terms

During preparatory research, it became apparent that there is contention or confusion over the definition of the term nature. As this term both appears frequently and contributes significantly to the development of the ideas presented herein, it must be assigned a definition prior to proceeding. Since a detailed debate about terminology is beyond the scope of this paper, the definition for nature has been chosen at the author’s discretion for the purposes of this paper in order to simplify the content for the reader.

The word nature is a derivation from the Latin natura meaning ‘birth’ or ‘the order of things’ (Cunningham et al., 1994). While the origin of the word may be widely accepted, the definition is not. According to Wohlwill (1983), "The term nature is among the more elusive and vaguely defined concepts in our vocabulary." (p.6) The primary problem is that one person’s concept of what constitutes nature may not coincide with another’s. Is a backyard garden a representation of nature? The owner of that garden, living in an urban environment, may think so while a country dweller may scoff at the idea of nature being anything less than an uninhabited, verdant valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

To avoid any question of the meaning of the term nature as it appears in this paper, nature is defined herein as all plants and animals of the earth, as well as all biological and non-biological materials and processes (Cunningham et al., 1994). So, in addition to wilderness areas, this definition includes places that have been manipulated by humans - green spaces like parks and gardens, for example - where humans would not live, only visit.

3. Beneficial human contact with nature

The quest to understand the human relationship with nature is one that has stimulated academic inquiry for decades (Knopf, 1983). One of the core questions that drives this line of research is, Do humans require nature? On the affirmative side, scientists expound the theory that the evolutionary history of humans has predisposed the species to react positively to nature and that humans function optimally in an environment reminiscent of their natural evolutionary setting (Knopf, 1983). Wilson (1984) coined the term biophelia to describe this theory and it is summarized by Khan (1999) as the, "…fundamental, genetically based human need and propensity to affiliate with life,"(p.9). The larger implication of this statement is that humans are biologically programmed to associate with nature because prehistorically such interconnection was necessary for survival.

Opponents of the theory of biophelia cite examples of the neutrality of children to natural stimuli, as well as the effect of cultural influence on attitude regarding nature as evidence that there is no genetic or evolutionary human need for nature (Chemers and Altman, 1977; Holcomb, 1977). However, while arguing that an evolutionary predisposition for humans to enjoy and thrive in a natural environment may not exist, many opponents of the biophelia theory recognize the virtues of human interaction with nature (e.g. Ladd, 1978; Knopf et al., 1973).

3.1. Humans and the Natural Environment

So, while argument persists about whether or not humans are genetically predisposed to associate with nature, it appears that there is some consensus regarding nature’s positive effects on humans. Several studies have been conducted that demonstrate the psychological and physiological benefits of contact with, or exposure to representations of, nature. Based on the approach used by Frumkin (2001), the studies cited are divided into categories according to the natural stimulus examined for human response.


When examining the effect that contact with animals has on human beings, researchers tend to focus on the differences in levels of health and stress between pet owners and non-pet owners. Anderson et al. (1992) note that, of 6,000 patients studied in a cardiovascular risk clinic in Australia, both men and women who were pet owners had significantly lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Factors such as differences in exercise levels, diet and social class did not appear to play a role in the findings.

People who own dogs seem to benefit particularly from association with their pets. Several studies indicate dog owners demonstrate fewer minor health problems than non-pet owners, and had fewer physician visits than people who do not own pets (Friedmann and Thomas, 1995; Serpell, 1991; Siegel, 1990). Furthermore, Siegel (1990) reports that between those who own pets and those who do not, the former more frequently report visiting the doctor for stress-related reasons than the latter. Frumkin (2001) suggests this indicates that owning a pet helps to mediate stress. The mediation of stress by observing animals has also been shown by Katcher et al. (1984). In that study, oral surgery patients either watched an aquarium, looked at a picture of a waterfall or were given no stimulus. During surgery, patients who had watched the aquarium registered higher comfort levels than those in either of the other two groups.


Researchers have found that contact with plants evokes similarly positive responses in humans as those noted from contact with animals. From a survey of residents in retirement communities, Brown (1992) reports that 99% of subjects considered living within pleasantly landscaped grounds either essential or important. Further, 95% considered it essential or important that their windows face green, landscaped grounds. In offices, the presence of plants has been associated with higher levels of relaxation and calmness amongst employees (Randall et al., 1990). Gardens and the act of gardening in an urban setting have been linked to greater conviviality by Patel (1992). The therapeutic effects of gardening have led to the development of horticultural therapy, a form of mental health treatment. It is also used in geriatrics programs, prisons, community-based programs and special education (Frumkin, 2001).


Studies relating to natural landscapes in general indicate that when viewing nature scenes, subjects demonstrate enhanced mental alertness, attention and cognitive performance (Hartig et al. 1991; Cimprich, 1993; Tennessen and Cimprich, 1995). Kaplan (1992) states that working employees with a view of nature reported fewer headaches, less job pressure and greater job satisfaction than employees without such a view. Ulrich and Lunden (1990) and Ulrich (1993) examined relative recovery times and post-operative anxiety between surgical patients exposed to natural stimuli (e.g. view of trees in window, pictures of forest or open water) and those with a view of a brick wall, a blank panel or an abstract picture. The first group showed decreased anxiety and shorter hospital stays than the group without natural stimuli.

There is strong evidence, then, that contact or observation of nature, whether in the form of animals, plants or landscapes, is definitely beneficial to humans. As a summary of the issue, it is useful to consider the findings of Kaplan and Kaplan (1989). In reviewing hundreds of studies relating to the effects of human contact with nature, Kaplan and Kaplan found that such contact promoted enjoyment, relaxation, and lowered stress levels in individuals. Additionally, the authors determined that people with access to nearby natural environments were healthier and, with long-term exposure, showed increased levels of satisfaction with life in general.

3.2. An evolutionary connection?

Combined with the results of research into the human response to animals and plants, studies recording positive associations between human well-being and natural landscape provide strong evidence that humans benefit from contact with nature. Returning to the argument of whether or not humans are genetically predisposed to react positively to nature, the human responses to plants and animals leave the question of an evolutionary link largely unanswered. However, by looking further into the human response to natural landscapes, indications of an evolutionary predisposition for an innate human/nature connection begins to appear.

It is believed that human history began on the savannas of Africa. This environment consists of open grasslands with scattered clumps of trees and denser forest near water sources such as rivers and lakes. When given a choice, humans prefer such landscapes - open, tree-studded and overlooking bodies of water (Wilson, 1984).

The preference for savanna-like landscapes is well documented (e.g. Orians and Heerwagen, 1992; Schroeder and Green, 1985;). In studies examining the aesthetic preferences of people in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, this same attraction to savanna-like landscapes was manifested (Hull and Revell, 1989; Purcell et al., 1994; Korpela and Hartig, 1996). So, the affinity for savanna-like landscapes can be considered cross-cultural, which is to be expected if evolutionary predisposition is indeed responsible.

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing to humans, there may be direct, positive effects associated with human exposure to savanna-like environments. Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) and Ulrich (1993) put forth the theory that human association with savanna-like landscapes leads to reduced levels of stress and anxiety. In one study relating to recreational activities, participants reported feeling peacefulness, tranquility or relaxation in a savanna-like environment (Ulrich, 1993). Honeyman (1992) reported that viewing this type of landscape also led to decreased feelings of fear and anger.

While convincing, this evidence does not definitively settle the argument over whether humans have an innate, genetic predisposition to interrelate with the natural world. However, it does prove that the argument for an evolution-based connection to nature cannot be dismissed out of hand.

3.3. Contact with Nature in the Present Day

Despite strong indications that contact with nature promotes human well-being, it is presumptive to suggest that every human appreciates or seeks to interact with nature. However, there is little doubt that, in general, the desire to interact with or observe nature is well integrated into human life. Assuming that the biophelia hypothesis is correct, this need or desire to associate with nature is innate and evolutionary.

For people throughout history, contact with nature was automatic and unavoidable since their lifestyles dictated that they work the land, live in remote areas and travel exposed to the elements. Today, contact with nature is no longer a requisite of the human lifestyle. Humans live in homes, are transported by car, plane or train, work in offices and, for the most part, pick and choose when or if they want to associate with nature. Within this context, seeking out nature and enjoying it without it being necessitated by lifestyle is primarily a recreational activity (Driver et al., 1991). In fact, enjoyment of nature is recognized as one of the drives behind recreation (Crandall, 1980).

4. Recreation in the coastal zone

The natural environment offers a variety of opportunities for outdoor activity through which individuals can manifest the inherent desire to interact with nature. The choice of a particular environment – wet or dry, mountainous or flat - is made based not only on personal taste, but in accordance with a number of constraints on recreation including health issues and availability of time and money (Kay and Jackson, 1991; Shaw et al., 1991). However, according to Van Der Maarel and Usher (1997) no environment receives greater recreational use than the coast and, furthermore, it is the dry coastal area – particularly beaches and sand dunes – which are subjected to the heaviest recreational use. The term used to describe both the wet and dry coastal environments in the vicinity of the land/ocean interface is the coastal zone. This term encompasses the area where recreational activities directly related to coastal features such as dunes, beaches and near-shore waters take place.

4.1 History of coastal recreation

The attraction of the coastal zone was not always a societal norm in Western culture. Nature - wilderness in particular - was historically considered inhospitable and fear-inspiring. In terms of representing the unpredictability and potential hostility of the natural environment, perhaps no other element can compare with the ocean. For those who lived near or worked on the sea, it was a threatening and mysterious entity, viewed in much the same light as the forbidding mountains and forests of the terrestrial landscape.

From the 17th to the19th century, it was standard practice for young European nobles to tour the continent for exposure to the cultures and arts of the so-called civilized world. Until the mid-18th century, the seaside was studiously avoided as a component of this experience. However, by the 1750s, two factors brought about a shift in the traditional view of coastal areas by Western culture.

First, the Industrial Revolution in Britain ushered in a new social structure, giving rise to a wealthy middle class anxious to emulate the lifestyle of the nobility. Looking to this model, merchants and industrialists sent their offspring on extended tours of the European continent, to the Italian and French cultural centers, and began to holiday at spas, traditionally the exclusive retreat of the upper class (Steinebecke, 1993; Towner, 1996). The nobility chaffed at the idea of pursuing the same diversions as commoners and so explored different venues for their entertainment. At about the same time, tastes in landscape preference began to change and Western society developed an appreciation for wild, untamed environments. The coast, which embodied these characteristics, became an area to be admired and explored (Towner, 1996). Within this context, the coastline, as an untapped source of recreation, was an ideal retreat for wealthy nobles seeking exclusivity.

The second factor compounding this new interest in the coastal zone came when popular medicine began extolling the healing properties of ocean water and fresh sea air (Towner, 1996). In the mid-1700s, bathing in seawater, and even drinking it, were considered treatments for ailments ranging from deafness to cancer and leprosy (Steinebecke, 1993; Towner, 1996). Not surprisingly, people began flocking to the coastal areas to benefit from the healing properties of the water. An associated infrastructure soon emerged to accommodate the influx of people, including bathing facilities, promenades, concert halls and theaters (Steinebecke, 1993).

By the beginning of the 19th century, seaside resorts had sprung up along Europe’s shores, especially along England’s southeast coast. Eventually, the middle class began patronizing coastal retreats as well, many taking family vacations. This resulted in increased pressure for facilities and, by the mid-19th century, large tracts of continental Europe’s coastlines were succumbing to development (Steinebecke, 1993).

4.2 Coastal Recreation Today

The trend for development along accessible coastlines with suitable topography continues today. Hotel and housing developments, parking lots, caravan parks, marinas, restaurants, piers and promenades all feature prominently in the modern coastal zone. These facilities serve as the infrastructure for the coastal recreation and tourism industry, supporting activities such as sunbathing, jet-skiing, yachting, fishing, walking, bird watching, swimming and horseback riding.

The attention given to the coastal zone as an environment of preference for outdoor activity has allowed countries around the world to develop prosperous coastal tourism and recreation industries. The Republic of Ireland is one of these countries. In 1998, the tourism sector alone accounted for 6.4% of Ireland’s Gross National Product (Bord Failte, 1999) and, the following year, employed 8.7% of the country’s workforce (Bord Failte, 2000). The beauty and accessibility of Ireland’s coastline attracts both domestic and overseas users. Ireland’s experience with coastal tourism and recreation make it an ideal case study for examining the range of recreational activities undertaken in the coastal zone and the effects such activities can have on the coastal environment.

4.3 Irish Case Study

Ireland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean that lies off the west coast of Great Britain. The island is divided into two areas – Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the independent Republic of Ireland. Ireland has a total of thirty-two counties, twenty-six of which are within the Republic (Figure 1). The remaining six counties - Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone - make up Northern Ireland. A study of Northern Ireland is beyond the scope of this paper, thus from this point forward, the terms Ireland and Irish refer only to the Republic of Ireland and areas of the counties contained therein.

Figure 1 - County Map of Ireland (derived from Green, 2000)

Fifteen of Ireland’s twenty-six counties border on the ocean. A recent calculation indicates that the length of the Irish coastline is approximately 7,500 km at tidal limits (Boelens et al., 1999). The importance of the coast to all aspects of life in Ireland is illustrated in a variety of ways. In terms of ecology, the country’s shores include a number of different natural environments, from sandy beaches to rocky cliffs, which support a diversity of plant and animal species. The coastline similarly fosters diversity in economic terms; a diversity of commercial activity through marine transport and through the use of available marine resources. From a social perspective, the coastline is a focal point for settlement and leisure. Balancing the use of and dependency on the Irish coastline with the need to preserve its health and accessibility is an ongoing struggle. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Irish tourism and recreation industry.

Tourism in Ireland

Ireland enjoys a thriving tourism and recreation industry. In the year 2000, there were over 6.4 million overseas visits to Ireland by non-residents (Central Statistics Office, 2001). While there is no comparative data for domestic travel in 2000, Bord Failte (Irish Tourist Board) reported that Irish residents took 6.2 million holidays in Ireland in 1996 (Boelens et al., 1999). There is very little data that deal exclusively with coastal tourism in Ireland; statistical information tends to focus on recreation and tourism in general. However, it is probable that a higher proportion of tourist activity takes place in coastal areas than areas inland (Boelens et al., 1999). One 1970 study indicates that 72% of all tourism activity in Ireland for that year took place in the coastal zone (Brady Shipman Martin, 1997).

Visits to the coast regularly involve some degree of participation in specific coastal zone recreation activities. The Irish coast is marketed to tourists, both domestic and overseas, as a recreational destination. The Discover Ireland tourism and recreation guide published by Bord Failte (2001) illustrates how trips to the coast are linked with specific recreational activities.

In each of the coastal counties in Ireland, the unspoiled character of the natural landscape, whether in the form of rocky shores or sandy beaches, is advertised. Walks along the coastline are a standard suggestion for recreational activity in these areas. Within Co. Dublin, sea-side golf is marketed. In Co. Cork and Co. Kerry, the attractions of the Dingle and Beara Peninsulas are highlighted, with particular emphasis on the availability of water sports such as fishing, sailing, scuba diving and windsurfing. In the southeast, including Co. Waterford and Co. Wexford, resorts and sandy beaches are key attractions. A number of adventure holidays are offered that present the opportunity for water-based activities ranging from snorkeling to water-skiing. Special interest holidays include horseback-riding on beaches and walking sea-side cliffs (Bord Failte, 2001). The Discovery Ireland brochure clearly illustrates that the coastline is a focus of tourist activity and that Bord Failte encourages this interest.

Responding to both the emphasis placed on the coast by Bord Failte and the natural beauty of the environment, tourists and recreation seekers travel to the shoreline to engage in the multitude of activities available in the coastal zone. These activities can be broadly classified in two categories: land-based and water-based. Land-based activities include those that take place on cliffs or rocky shores, such as walking, hiking and rock climbing, and more traditional seaside activities on the beach or dunes such as picnicking, sunbathing, swimming and fishing. Water-based activities include those that require direct access to the ocean, such as yachting, jet-skiing, water skiing, snorkeling, scuba diving and sea-angling.

Land-based Recreation

As stated previously, the Irish coast is heavily marketed to tourists and recreation seekers. As a marketing strategy, it is effective - according to one 1996 study, about 60% of the Irish population has taken trips to the beach or seashore (Boelens et al., 1999). The Government and tourism industry have consequently created a vast infrastructure in coastal areas to accommodate the large number of people that choose the coastal zone as the site for their recreational activities.

For example, a study conducted on the West Coast of Ireland identifies the various tourism and recreation facilities and activities available in five western counties: Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway and Clare (Wood et al., 1996). Each county contains resorts offering various coast-related recreation activities. The area had 30 Blue Flag beaches in 2000; this designation is awarded to beaches that maintain good standards for water quality, safety and environmental education, amongst other things (National Trust for Ireland, 2000). Land-based activities on and around these beaches include walking on the beach and coastal trails, golfing, fishing, and cave exploring (Wood et al., 1996).

The increasing popularity of golf in Ireland resulted in the development of over seventy golf courses from 1990 to 1997. (Boelens et al., 1999). Of this number, twenty were located on the coast. Dunes along the shoreline are preferred locations for golf courses, not only because of the picturesque view they provide of the coastal area, but also because of their light, sandy soil and uneven terrain (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, 1979).

The coastal landscape itself exists as a ‘natural infrastructure’ for many coastal recreation activities, e.g. the ocean for swimming, the beach for walking. The availability of both man-made and natural recreation infrastructure has attracted significant numbers of people to the coast for the purpose of participating in land-based activities.

A survey completed by An Foras Forbartha (1977) indicated that on Bull Island in Dublin Bay, recreation seekers participate in a variety of land-based coastal activities. Over three-quarters of the people polled indicate that playing on the beach is part of their experience while 55% said they read while on the beach. Half of those surveyed play on the sand dunes while 39% listen to the radio and 36% walk on the beach. On a sunny Sunday in 1989, it was estimated that up to twenty-thousand adults could be expected on the beaches of Dublin Bay (Boelens et al., 1999)

Piers and promenades are equally as popular with recreational walkers. In 1974, East Pier Dun Laoghaire and East Pier Howth (Dublin) were recorded as having a maximum of 1,100 and 700 pedestrians, respectively, at any one time; these are considered significant numbers by the source (Brady Shipman Martin, 1974). O’Sullivan (1987) observes that the number of people walking increased in the thirteen years between his study and that of Brady Shipman Martin (1974). It is likely that this trend has continued in the ensuing fifteen years.

In recent years, an increasing number of visits to the coast have been for the purpose of ecotourism. Approximately 116,000 domestic residents visited coastal nature reserves or engaged in bird watching in 1995/1996, representing about 4.4 % of the Irish population (Boelens et al., 1999). The southwest coast and Shannon estuary have seen increases in the number of people taking time out to whale or dolphin watch. The interest in ecotourism persists in spite of the fact that many coastal nature reserves, such as the Wexford Wildlife Reserve (Co. Wexford) and Logh Hyne (Co. Cork), have limited facilities for visitors.

Water-based Recreation

Water-based activities such as sailing, sea-angling, scuba diving and water-skiing have traditionally not received as much attention from recreational users of the Irish coast. Marine Institute (1999) report that only 4% of the Irish population participates in boating or sailing, 3.3% in sea angling (either from a boat or the shore) and 1.2% in other sea-sports. A likely explanation for the lower participation levels in water-based activities is that these tend to require a higher skill level and a greater investment of money than land-based activities. For example, anyone can partake in beach walking as it does not require training or spending. Conversely, scuba diving, like yachting or sailing, requires that participants both develop certain basic skills and invest money for purchase or rental of equipment, both of which can be prohibitive factors.

The Irish tourism and recreation industry encourages greater involvement in water-based activities by developing the associated infrastructure and marketing particular locations to the public. Resorts in the Western Counties – Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway and Clare – cater to sea-anglers, scuba-divers and surfers, amongst others (Wood et al., 1996). With their rich fishing grounds, Donegal, Mayo and Galway are home to some of the country’s foremost fishing resorts. Clare and Sligo (particularly Sligo’s north coast) host beaches popular with windsurfers and surfers. Sligo also offers a less conventional activity - seaweed baths. Though Wood et al., (1996) note dive centers in Clare, Mayo and Donegal, the popularity of scuba diving is not relegated to any individual county, but is spatially restricted only by the availability of headlands and islands.

Sailing and cruising are popular activities for overseas visitors, whose needs are accommodated by the fifteen marinas located around Ireland’s coast (Marine Institute, 1996). Dublin Bay and Cork Harbour are particularly popular boating centres. A 1989 study indicates that 15,000 people sailed in Dublin Bay during that year (Boelens et al., 1999). In the mid-1990s, over 260,000 overseas visitors annually engaged in water-based activities, 56,000 of which participated in some form of boating (Boelens et al., 1999). It is uncertain whether or not this figure includes visitors arriving in their own boats; if not, 56,000 is a conservative estimate of overseas boaters. Although only 4% of Irish participate in sailing or boating, this participation rate translates into approximately 114,000 people (Boelens, et al., 1999). When added to the number of overseas visitors participating in sailing, it becomes apparent Irish sailing and boating facilities are widely used.

Though sea-angling does not appear to have widespread appeal amongst the Irish population, the activity has long enjoyed popularity in Dublin, particularly in the regions of the Great South Wall and Dun Laoghaire Piers (O’Sullivan, 1987). In recent years, interest in this activity has been growing. Since 1988, it is estimated that the number of Irish residents engaging in sea-angling has increased by 50% (Boelens et al., 1999).

5. Coastal zone degradation from recreational activity

Since 1988, the number of tourists visiting Ireland has increased by an average of about 6.5% per year (Boelens et al., 1999). While there is no comparative figure for long-term changes in the number of Irish people traveling domestically, the overall trend from 1996-2000 was an increase in domestic tourism (Bord Failte, 2000). Given the assumption that most tourism activity takes place in coastal areas, it is not surprising that the number of visits to the coast has risen in conjunction with increasing tourist activity. Conservative estimates are that during the period from 1970 to 1995, day trips to Irish coastal areas increased by an estimated 600% (Boelens et al., 1999).

The volume of tourists traveling to the Irish coast has put pressure on the coastal environment to absorb the effects of increased demand for recreational activities. Coastal zone degradation observed along sections of the Irish coast indicates that, up to the present, the effects of intensive recreational activity have not been properly mitigated.

Environmental degradation associated with increased demand for coast-based recreation is a two-tiered problem. At the regional scale, the coastal landscape is threatened by the expansion of infrastructure, a requirement if larger volumes of tourists are to be accommodated. The establishment or expansion of facilities such as hotels, restaurants, golf courses, caravan parks, parking lots, piers and promenades is necessary. Coastal real estate is also much sought-after by individuals and developers wanting to build houses close to the sea. Along with this private sector construction comes the responsibility by government to construct roads and water and sewage treatment facilities (Environmental Protection Agency, 2000). Not only does such intense development ultimately deteriorate the physical beauty of the coastal landscape, but it also destroys plant and animal habitat and can contribute to coastal erosion.

While deserving of study, regional environmental degradation in the coastal zone is not the primary focus of this paper. Instead, the emphasis is on the second type of coastal zone disturbance - local degradation. Environmental damage classified as ‘local’ describes degradation that occurs directly as a result of human participation in land- and water-based activities along the coastline. For example, the removal of vegetation by repeated walking through dunes or along cliffs is a type of local degradation.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to comprehensively assess the impact of recreation on the coast due to an insufficient amount of quantitative data (Boelens et al., 1999). Studies dealing with environmental degradation caused by coastal recreation tend to refer to isolated incidents and localities. However, the existing studies do give an indication of the type of degradation that the Irish coastal zone is sustaining as a result of heavy recreational use. The information that is available allows for an evaluation of the effects of coastal recreation on three elements of the coastal zone: dune systems, beaches and the near-shore ocean environment.

5.1 Dune Systems

It has been suggested that coastal recreation affects sand dunes more than any other physical feature of the Irish coast (Boelens et al., 1999). Dunes are highly sensitive to damage and their ability to recover from such damage is relatively low (Quinn, 1977). Quigley (1991) recognizes that dunes are complex living systems, with strong links between physical and biological components; they also form in a series of linear steps (later steps dependent on preceding ones) over an extended period of time. Due to the relationship between physical and biological components of the dune system and the complexity of their formation, dunes are highly susceptible to sudden changes, whether such changes occur naturally or are the result of human activity.

While the sensitivity of the dune system may be the underlying reason why dunes are the areas most affected by coastal recreation, the variety of activities supported by the dunes is also a contributing factor. Quinn (1977) notes that dunes: provide shelter for people within easy walking distance to the sea; provide pleasant surroundings for picnicking and walking; offer interesting and varied wildlife habitat for observing animals; act as a site for sporting activities including golf, pony trekking and sand buggies. Not all of these activities are compatible. Some, more than others, contribute to the degradation of the dunes system, with the unfortunate consequence of precluding other, less damaging activities.

Due to their proximity to the sea, dues are prone to severe erosion by natural forces. However, human activity exacerbates this condition. When public access to dunes is unmanaged and designated walking paths are either unused or not in place, devegetation can occur, followed by soil and sediment erosion. Quinn (1977) notes that pedestrian activity on dunes – in conjunction with other factors such as over-grazing and caravan parks – has resulted in serious deterioration of vegetation and threats to the stability of Irish dune systems. Once the vegetative surface of a dune is removed by trampling, the underlying sand is vulnerable to disturbance by further trampling or natural wave and wind activity. In the absence of vegetation, the most severe damage is inflicted on the dune system by blow-outs: localized removal of sand by focused and concentrated winds. Blow-outs contribute to wildlife habitat loss, biodiversity reduction and a decrease in the dune’s amenity value (Boelens et al., 1999).

In Co. Wexford, pedestrian traffic and associated vegetation trampling along the dunes has contributed to erosion by allowing wind to mobilize the sand and destabilize the dunes (Boelens et al., 1999). Brittas Bay and Bannow Bay have been identified as locations of acute dune deterioration in Wexford (Quinn, 1977; Boelens et al., 1999).

Along the northwest coast of Ireland, leisure activities related to dune systems have led to several counties experiencing dune management problems. Wood et al. (1996) evaluate the coastal zone in five northwest counties – Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway and Clare – and identify areas of the coast both occupied by dune systems and used for leisure activities. The authors then go on to identify which systems are at risk from erosion (Table 1). The results of that evaluation indicate that in Donegal, Galway and Clare, all of the dune systems used for leisure are considered to be at risk, while almost three-quarters of Mayo dune systems are at risk and half of those in Sligo. Though specific activities leading to dune degradation in these areas are not specified, it is likely that activities like those cited by Quinn (1977), such as walking and picnicking, have contributed.

Table 1: Dune Systems at Risk on the Northwest Coast of Ireland 
(derived from Wood et al., 1996)
Coastline with Dune Systems (km)
Coastline with Dune Systems Used for Leisure (km)
At Risk* (%)

*’At Risk’ indicates areas threatened by erosion due to natural phenomena and leisure activity

Another cause of dune system degradation is the existence of golf courses in the coastal zone (Van der Maarel and Usher, 1997; Quinn, 1977). It has been noted that the existence of a golf course can sometimes preserve segments of a dune system because access to certain areas of the dunes is restricted, thereby preventing overuse (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, 1979). However, restriction in some areas can increase pressure on adjacent, unrestricted areas; an effect observed along the north Dublin coastline and at the Old Head of Kinsale in Co. Cork (Boelens et al., 1999). In addition, in the most intensely managed areas of the golf course, artificial maintenance of the grass can result in habitat loss and a ecological change (Boelens et al., 1999). Van der Maarel and Usher (1997) associate the use of fertilizers, as well as frequent mowing, raking and trampling with a decrease in biodiversity.

5.2 Beaches

Beaches are generally considered to be more resilient than dune systems, with regular tidal activity acting as a regenerating agent, thus mitigating erosion problems associated with recreational use. Shingle (rock) beaches in particular are less susceptible to degradation due to their durable physical characteristics and their relative unattractiveness to coastal visitors (Van der Maarl and Usher, 1997).

The primary problem associated with human use of beaches is litter accumulation. Boelens et al. (1999) state that with increasing recreational use of beaches, the presence of litter has been reported to increase as well.

Since 1987, Coastwatch Europe has been conducting surveys of the Irish coastline, collecting data on coastal zone degradation. By surveying the shoreline in 500 m sections at various points along the coast, surveyors record observable indications of degradation. While everything from automobiles to medical waste has been observed on Irish beaches, this paper is concerned only with items likely to have been deposited on the beach during the course of recreation activities. Included in this category are objects such as cans, plastic bags and bottles, items generally categorized as ‘litter’.

The 1997 Coastwatch survey indicates that the most frequently recorded litter item on Irish beaches is plastic bottles, followed by cans, plastic shopping bags, glass bottles, paper and can holders. Cans, textiles and cardboard are found at approximately 50% of the sites surveyed and plastic litter of all forms (including items not likely to be associated with recreation activity) have been increasingly recorded on Irish beaches (Dubsky et al., 1998).

Recognizing the source of the litter found on beaches is beyond the scope of the Coastwatch reports, however it is reasonable to assume that some is deposited by individuals engaged in coastal zone recreation. Boelens et al. (1999) note that an estimated 18% of litter deposited on the coast comes from tourists and recreation users.

Litter has the obvious effect of detracting from the aesthetic quality of the beach, however, it can also pose health and safety threats for both humans and animals. For example, broken glass and tin cans pose a risk of injury to people on the beach. After eating plastic, animals have been known to suffer chemical poisoning. Swallowing plastic bags, which prevents the stomach from absorbing nutrients into the body, has caused turtles to starve to death. Sea-birds have been observed tangled in plastic four- or six-pack drink holders (Marine Conservation Society Fact Sheet, [n.d.]).

Based on evidence gathered during the 1997 Coastwatch survey, the surveyors were asked if they considered their assigned section of coastline to be under any particular threat and, if so, to identify it. Recreation activity is identified as the primary threat in 10.4% of surveyed areas. While one-tenth may not seem to be a significant proportion, it does make ‘recreation’ the fifth highest concern noted amongst surveyors. More tellingly, the perceived threat from recreation activity cited in the 1997 study roughly doubled the figure cited in Coastwatch surveys from the early 1990s (Dubsky et al., 1998).

5.3 Near-shore Environment

Little data exist to describe the effects of water-based recreation on the coastal environment. Although this could be attributed to the general lack of information that exists on Irish coastal zone degradation due to recreation, there may be another explanation. Large-scale problems such as urban waste water and sewage discharges, industrial discharges and the fishing and aquaculture industries are recognized as the main environmental threats to Irish coastal waters (Environmental Protection Agency, 2000). Tourism is identified as a potential source of environmental degradation, but its effects are negligible in comparison with these larger issues. It is therefore possible that the lack of study into the effects of coastal recreation on the near-shore environment is deliberate, as researchers direct their attention to more severe problems.

The information that is available on the effects of water-based recreation tends to be general, as opposed to site specific. For example, Boelens et al. (1999) report that activities such as jet-skiing can disturb wildlife in the coastal zone and contribute to local erosion. Potential sources of pollution associated with boating and yachting are also identified by The Irish Sailing Association (Navigating with Nature, 2000). Amongst these are discharges of engine oil and exhaust fumes, as well as the release of chemicals from hull paints, all of which can have adverse effects on aquatic vegetation and wildlife. Boat maintenance yards, slipways and moorings can be sources of local pollution (NSW EPA, n.d.). Litter and food scraps disposed of overboard are similarly considered to be sources of pollution (Navigating with Nature, 2000; NSW EPA, n.d.). Boaters are encouraged to be cautious in using anchors since dragging along the seabed can damage wildlife and vegetation (Navigating with Nature, 2000).

6. Explaining environmental degradation within the context of the innate human/nature relationship

It is interesting that, despite evidence that humans and nature share an inherent bond and that nature has a positive effect on human physiology and psychology, humans seem unable to halt or effectively manage environmentally harmful activities. The degradation happening in the Irish coastal zone as a result of recreation activity exemplifies this situation, highlighting the apparent disregard humans have for nature and the benefits it provides.

However, coastal zone degradation, or indeed any environmental degradation, cannot be blamed exclusively on human apathy. There are a number of other factors that contribute to an explanation of the dichotomy between inherent human connection to nature and human destruction of the natural environment. Finding an effective solution to coastal zone degradation depends on identifying these factors.

6.1 Environmental Degradation and the Irish Population

In 1998, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a report entitled Irish Citizens and the Environment (Faughnan and McCabe, 1998). The report contains the results of a study designed to generate a cross-national assessment of the environmental attitudes, perceptions and behaviours of the Irish population. While the questions asked in this study are not specific to the negative environmental impacts of coastal recreation, the results provide a general idea of Irish attitudes towards and perceptions of environmental problems. The report identifies several trends in Irish attitudes, perceptions and behaviours that lend themselves to determining the underlying causes of environmental degradation in Ireland. Below is a summary of the relevant survey results, as well as the comments and conclusions made by Faughnan and McCabe (1998).

Awareness and Perception of Risk

The Environmental Protection Agency (1996) notes that both individuals and economic sectors demonstrate insufficient knowledge of environmental issues, as well as a weak grasp of their complexity. This finding is supported by the results of the 1998 survey. Faughnan and McCabe (1998) state that, "The environmental knowledge of Irish respondents, assessed by a battery of items presented as a quiz, was low by any criteria." (p.58). While survey subjects tend to recognize that there are risks associated with environmental problems, many do not recognize the degree of risk associated with particular environmental problems. For example, Faughnan and McCabe (1998) report that although car pollution is recognized by many respondents as an environmental risk, few people consider car pollution to be ‘extremely dangerous’. Interestingly, though, road traffic is now considered to be the primary air polluter in Ireland and is perhaps the most significant recent environmental trend at the national and European levels (Environmental Protection Agency, 1996).

Attitude and Behaviour

Based on the responses of participants, Faughnan and McCabe (1998) conclude that despite displaying an attitude of environmental interest or concern, Irish citizens do not consistently manifest this attitude in their behaviour. For example, though approximately 16% of respondents state that air pollution by cars is extremely dangerous, only 0.8% state that they always cut back on driving a car for environmental reasons and more than 50% acknowledge that they never do.

Consumer behaviour and political behaviour (discussed below) are both found to be linked to the respondent’s sense of personal efficacy. Those agreeing with the statement ‘it is just too difficult for someone like me to do much about the environment’, are found to manifest less consistent environmentally sensitive behaviour. Notably, almost 50% of respondents either agree or strongly agree that it is too difficult for them to do anything about the environment.


Faughnan and McCabe (1998) presented survey participants with a list of environmental consumer behaviours including sorting recyclable items, cutting back on driving and paying attention to labeling on products. The activities most regularly adopted by respondents are lowering/turning off heating in mid-winter when leaving the house (42.7%) and switching off lights when leaving a room for short time (57.1%).The comparatively low participation rate in activities such as sorting recycling (14.4%) and cutting back on driving (0.8%) led Faughnan and McCabe to suggest that economic considerations may play a major part in determining to what degree environmentally friendly practices are adopted. In other words, it is to the economic advantage of the consumer to minimize electricity use, whereas sorting recyclables yields no economic benefit. People are therefore more likely to minimize electricity use than to sort recyclables.

The report goes on to state that while there is apparently a willingness to pay for environmental protection, Irish citizens do not favour such payment through taxes or by decreasing their standard of living. Neither do they support rationing. Furthermore, when it comes to economic versus environmental concerns, Irish citizens frequently perceive a trade off, or at least tension, between these concerns. The report states that respondents demonstrate attitudes that generally do not accord environmental protection the same priority as economic interests.

Personal Involvement

The report also reviews the political behaviour of respondents in an environmental context. Respondents were asked which, out of the following four activities, had they engaged in: having membership in an environmental group, signing a petition, donating money and taking part in protest demonstration. The most frequently reported activities are donating and petition signing, with about 20% of respondents participating in each. Only 4% of respondents participate in either of the other two activities.

In general, respondents indicate a preference that environmental protection be regulated by the government through policy decisions, rather than by the individual on a voluntary basis.

Influence of Respondent Background

It should be noted that, although the above trends are recognized by Faughnan and McCabe (1998) as being generally representative of the Irish population, responses indicate that education level, age and income also influence attitudes and behaviours. Irish citizens who are younger, have relatively high levels of education and large personal incomes are reported as being more supportive of environmental protection when juxtaposed with economic growth. Such individuals also demonstrate higher levels of environmental knowledge. It is also reported that the lower a respondent’s age and the higher the level of education, the more likely the individual is to adopt environmentally sensitive consumer behaviour and express greater concern over such issues as global warming and air pollution from industry.

6.2 Interpreting the Results

The attitudes, perceptions and behaviours of the Irish population revealed by Faughnan and McCabe (1998) suggest a number of possible factors that contribute to the persistence of environmental degradation in Ireland.

First, the general lack of knowledge regarding environmental issues indicates that the Irish population may not be aware of the degradation happening in Ireland. The population would be particularly ignorant of deterioration that is not obvious to the average person, such as declining wildlife populations or the loss of biodiversity.

Second, Irish citizens have demonstrated a tendency to behave in a manner inconsistent with their attitudes regarding activities that pose a risk to the environment. This suggests that the persistence of environmental degradation can also be attributed to a widespread inability to translate attitudes into action. While it is tempting to attribute the break between thoughts and behaviour to apathy, there is evidence that a low sense of personal efficacy could be to blame. It is more difficult for a person to act in an environmentally sensitive manner when she believes that her actions do not make a difference.

Third, the political behaviour of respondents in the 1998 study suggests that actions that require direct personal involvement or a greater commitment of time (such as protesting or being a member of an environmental group) are less likely to be undertaken. Associating this trend with the persistence of environmental degradation, it is possible that Irish citizens are unwilling to become personally involved in combating the problem due to the perception that it requires too much effort.

Fourth, Faughnan and McCabe (1998) interpret the consumer behaviour of some respondents to mean that the environmentally sensitive activities undertaken by Irish citizens may be driven by resultant economic benefits to the individual. Therefore, it is possible that people do not regularly engage in environmentally sensitive behaviour because they do not recognize any immediate economic advantage in doing so.

6.3 An Alternative Theory

It is legitimate to suggest that the persistence of environmentally harmful activities is a result of a lack of knowledge, a gap between attitude and action or an unwillingness for individuals to become involved due to commitments of time or lack of economic incentive. This theory provides a plausible explanation for why humans continue to degrade the natural environment despite evidence that there is a beneficial, inherent connection between humans and nature.

However, in recent years, a school of thought has emerged that strives to understand the current human/nature relationship and the persistence of environmental degradation in a different context. The school of thought is known as ecopsychology and, along with fields such as ecofeminism, social ecology and deep ecology, is considered to be one of the more radical ecology movements.

Ecopsychology generally refers to, "…a variety of endeavors – theoretical, applied and clinical – that bring together the methods and understandings of ecology and psychology to address the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual roots of the ecological crisis." (Ecopsychology, 2002). To this end, ecopsychology draws on a number of sources, some of which are beyond the realm of traditional science. In fact, many of the underlying principles of ecopsychology are reminiscent of social and spiritual beliefs of non-Western cultures.

At the core of ecopsychology is the understanding that the Earth is a living system and that the planet and all life on it, including the human species, are fundamentally interconnected. As a manifestation of this relationship, humans have an innate, primal drive to exist in harmony with the natural world. However, this drive has been subordinated to the modern human consciousness, which dictates that humans are isolated from all other life and have dominion over the earth and its life forms. In short, modern humans have adopted a human centered, or anthropocentric, view of the world and life in general (Metzer, 1999)

Ecopsychology suggests that the root of modern environmental degradation is an imbalance in the traditional human/nature relationship, as defined by the human connection with other life (Metzer, 1999). To restore balance to this relationship, the alienation between humans and the planet must be healed (Davis, 1999). Because current environmental problems are created and perpetuated by human consciousness, healing the rift means casting aside anthropocentrism and recognizing human interconnectedness with nature.

In many respects, ecopsychology can be likened to the theory of biophelia discussed in Section 3.0. Though biophelia does not draw any conclusions about causes of environmental degradation, the theory does assume that a bond exists between humans and nature, and that the drive to associate with nature and draw comfort from it is biologically and psychologically ingrained. Therefore, the numerous studies on positive human response to nature and landscape preference used to validate the theory of biophelia can also be cited in support of ecopsychology.

7. Combating environmental degradation

According to Section 6, there are a number of obstacles that must be overcome in order to halt the degradation of the environment at human hands. However, these obstacles are not insurmountable. The answer lies in resolving the underlying causes of the problem.

In effect, human-induced deterioration of the environment is like a disease. The physical manifestations of environmental damage, such as those described in Section 5 for the Irish coastal zone, are symptoms of this disease. While it is possible to treat the symptoms, e.g. picking up the litter from beaches, restricting access to sensitive dune systems, this treatment will not solve the underlying problem. In order to cure the disease itself, the causes have to be identified, and appropriate steps then taken to resolve each of these basic issues.

Returning to the case study of the Irish coastal zone, several potential explanations for the environmental degradation observed in that area have been suggested drawing on both the report by Faughnan and McCabe (1998) and the field of ecopsychology. These are:

If these truly are the problems underlying environmental degradation - i.e. the causes of the disease- then undertaking actions specifically designed to resolve these issues should act as a cure. To illustrate how this method can be applied, the following sections outline actions that can be taken to address the problem of coastal zone degradation in Ireland. These actions are designed to specifically target the ‘causes’ identified above.

Problem: Lack of knowledge

Solution: Education

The only way to combat a lack of knowledge is to provide information through education. In terms of environmental deterioration in the coastal zone, education initiatives should be designed to ensure that the Irish population is: (1) made aware of the fragility of the coastal environment; (2) made aware of the degradation that is going on as a result of coastal zone recreation and; (3) informed of the ways to either halt or mitigate damage to the coastal environment.

School information programs are one method of distributing this type of information to a wide audience. Such programs also offer a convenient way to get the idea of environmental protection into the home – through children. Faughnan and McCabe (1998) report that younger respondents are more likely to manifest environmental awareness and environmentally sensitive behaviour than older respondents. This may or may not be a result of existing environmental awareness campaigns in schools. It could also indicate that younger people are aware that they will inherit present environmental problems and will bear the burden of solving them in the future, thus making it better to combat them now. Whatever the case, younger age groups are more prepared than their older counterparts to embrace environmentally friendly ideas. It makes sense to encourage this tendency by providing environmental education in the schoolroom.

Making information easily accessible to the public is another method of promoting knowledge, a responsibility that should be shared by government, the private sector, and conservation and environmental groups. The Environmental Information Service (ENFO) is one vehicle through which the Irish government is making information available to the community. Through its library, in-house information services and fact sheets (free of charge to the public and covering a variety of topics), ENFO provides the average person with an opportunity to expand his environmental knowledge. The Irish Government can also takes steps to ensure that sites of particular environmental interest or sensitivity in the coastal zone are equipped with information or interpretive centers. The primary function of such an establishment would be to make those traveling to the coast for recreational purposes aware of potentially damaging activities and inform them of the consequences of such activities.

With regard to promoting awareness of the potentially harmful nature of coastal recreation activities, business people and individuals whose lives and livelihoods are intimately tied to the coast also have a role to play. Hotels, restaurants and shops in coastal areas should carry information on coastal environmental issues - in the form of pamphlets or posters, for example - and be prepared to discuss such issues with visitors. Such an effort would be even more effective if implemented in partnership with the government or independent environmental organizations.

Government participation in programs such as Coastwatch Europe and Blue Flag is also a means of broadening environmental knowledge within society. Since Coastwatch engages the services of volunteers from the general populous, the surveying process provides the average person, not only scientists or academics, with the chance to observe coastal zone deterioration. The Blue Flag program is similarly beneficial to the campaign for public awareness of coastal zone issues. Since having educational or interpretive information on a particular beach or marina is a criterion for achieving Blue Flag status, the public has access to facts about the Blue Flag beach or marina it is using. Such information would not necessarily be available at non-designated sites. It follows, then, that the more the Irish government encourages participation in Blue Flag - and the more beaches or marinas that receive the designation - the more the public will have access to information on particular coastal areas.

The above are specific methods of promoting environmental awareness in the community through specially designed programs and campaigns. However, in seeking to widen the availability of information on the environment, the importance of a general, academic education should be recognized as fundamental. It has been shown that higher levels of environmental awareness and concern and environmentally sensitive behaviour are observed more frequently in individuals with higher education levels (Faughnan and McCabe, 1998). Fortunately, today’s society stresses the importance of finishing secondary school and undertaking post-secondary studies. While the reasons usually cited for this are the intrinsic value of an education and the advantages it offers in the workplace, the relationship such an education has to environmental awareness and behaviour should also be promoted.

It is important to remember that the success of all education initiatives depends on the quality of the information available to educators. Unfortunately, this presents a problem for the implementation of education campaigns designed to halt coastal zone degradation. Boelens et al. (1999) state that in Ireland:

There is a serious shortage of quantitative information on trends in tourism and recreational activities in coastal areas. There is also insufficient factual information on the effects of current levels of tourism and recreation on the coastal environment including its landscapes, habitats, beaches, nearshore waters, resort towns and associated infrastructure. These deficiencies preclude a proper assessment of the existing and future impacts of these activities on the coastal zone. At present, evidence of environmental problems due to coastal recreation is restricted to a few isolated incidents and localities." (p. 31). It is impossible to educate people about the effects of coastal zone recreation and tourism when there is a lack of data describing these effects and identifying their causes. So, before comprehensive and effective education campaigns can be designed and implemented, governments and independent institutions must conduct further research in the coastal zone.

Problem: An inability to translate attitudes into behaviour

Solution A: Increasing personal efficacy

Faughnan and McCabe (1998) reveal that the Irish population lacks consistency between its attitudes and behaviour when it comes to environmental sensitivity. While demonstrating attitudes that favoured the environment, people tend not to behave in a manner that reflected this favour. A likely contributor to the break between attitude and action is the low level of personal efficacy indicated by 50% of survey subjects. If, as Faughnan and McCabe state, Irish citizens who report higher levels of personal efficacy tend to behave in a more environmentally sensitive manner, then the converse is likely true, that low personal efficacy translates into less environmentally sensitive behaviour.

In that case, improving levels of personal efficacy may contribute to improving the consistency between environmentally sensitive attitudes and behaviours. One method of increasing personal efficacy is through environmental education (as discussed above). People must come to understand that being environmentally sensitive does not necessarily mean living a restricted lifestyle or sacrificing comfort. Neither does it require large amounts of time or money. Through education, people learn that even small actions contribute to minimizing the human impact on the environment. For example, walking on marked walkways through dunes, instead of on the dune face, and collecting litter, rather than leaving it on the beach, are minor actions that contribute to preserving the integrity of the coastal zone. Essentially, those Irish citizens with low levels of personal efficacy need to understand and believe that small actions make a difference in combating environmental degradation.

Solution B: Instituting effective policies and monitoring programs

Alternatively, the gap between Irish attitudes and behaviour may be attributable to a lack of effective guidance from the government in the form of environmental policy. Most people have a general idea of what is right and wrong when it comes to behaving in an environmentally sensitive manner. Still, some require a framework within which to operate, one where the decision making process is essentially taken out of their hands by the law or government.

Faughnan and McCabe (1998) report that, in general, the Irish population is willing to live in accordance with environmentally friendly government policies, even if it means foregoing certain freedoms. If this is true, it bodes well for rehabilitation of the coastal zone in the presence of strong government policy (regulations that come along with such policies are more effective if people are willing to be regulated). However, Ireland’s current environmental policies, specifically those for the coastal zone, are not strong enough. According to Boelens et al. (1999), the current planning and conservation measures are inadequate when it comes to relieving pressures from coastal tourism and recreation.

In recent years, the Irish government has made progress towards integrating growing concerns about environmental health into their policy decisions. However, there is an economic facet to many environmental problems that must be considered if such policy decisions are to be effective. The complexity of the relationship between economy and environment often makes policy development a difficult process. The Irish coastal zone provides an excellent example of how difficult it is to create legislation or policy that equally satisfies both interests:

Sections 4 and 5 describe the high volume of tourists who visit the Irish coastal zone, the types of recreational activities they engage in and how such activities can lead to environmental degradation. There is a need for increased monitoring and tighter regulation on activity in order to halt this deterioration and such steps are dependent on the development of government policy.

However, in order to develop an effective and acceptable policy, the government must also take into account the potential impact such policy will have on coastal tourism. At present, tourism is one of the most important industries in Ireland, yielding billions of Euros in annual revenue and sustaining one in twelve jobs in the economy (Bord Failte, 2000). Because of the integral role the tourism industry has in economic development, it is impractical for the government to limit tourism growth.

The deterioration of the coastal environment proves that recent growth has been unsustainable. Ironically, tourism in Ireland is highly dependent on the quality of the environment. In a series of surveys conducted between 1993 and 1999, about 30% of tourists consistently cited the quality of sightseeing or scenery as their main motivation for visiting Ireland (Irish Market Surveys Limited, 1999). So, although tourism must continue to be promoted because of its economic importance, it is irrational to promote it to the detriment of the environment. Under these conditions, the government must be very careful in its policy decisions.

The above example illustrates why it is essential that, in developing government policy, the relationship between economy and environment is clearly defined as complimentary, rather than conflicting. Much of the Irish population believes that environmental protection and the economic growth cannot proceed concurrently (Faughnan and McCabe, 1998). Unless the government can establish that its policy decisions foster a complimentary relationship between economy and environment, it is unlikely that such policy will receive public support.

Brady Shipman Martin (1997) states that, in trying to accommodate the complex relationship between tourism and environmental protection, the government has a tendency towards controlling development and limiting gratuitous or inappropriate development, rather than limiting tourism. An example of such policy decision is in the implementation of the County Wexford Coastal Management Plan which limits development in the coastal zone by assigning areas that are guarded from development such as that between the coastal road and the sea (Brady Shipman Martin, 1997).

Unfortunately, controlling development only addresses the problem of ‘regional’ degradation, not the myriad ‘local’ problems that arise from recreational activities such as walking, horseback riding or boating. Addressing these problems requires a smaller-scale approach to environmental management.

The government has made an effort to recognize and protect areas of the coast that are ecologically and geomorphologically unique. Until recently, a series of designations of areas of particular interest or importance were assigned according to different criteria and legislative tools. These designations included National Parks, Nature Reserves, Environmentally Sensitive Areas and Special Protection Areas, to name a few. Only some of these areas were granted legal protection and the designations varied widely in character from the level of governmental administration to the nature of ownership, be it private, public or a mix of both (Wood et al. 1996).

The government has recently created Natural Heritage Areas (NHA) in order to integrate these various designations at a national level. Each NHA receives a designation according to its importance for plants, birds, geology and ecology, as well as the importance of each of these items on an international, national, regional or local importance. Assigning a unified classification scheme will go a long way to streamlining conservation efforts (Wood et al, 1996).

Ultimately, the effectiveness of such a classification scheme is highly dependent on the quality of the monitoring program used to enforce it. If the government develops and implements such programs, then areas such as NHAs could be an effective environmental protection method for environmentally sensitive areas, including the Irish coastal zone.

Problem: Unwillingness to invest personal time

Solution: Education

The inference that Irish citizens are less reluctant to invest personal time in being environmentally sensitive is made from survey results indicating that the environmental political behaviour most commonly engaged in by respondents tended to be passive, rather than active (Faughnan and McCabe, 1998). To be a member of an environmental group or take part in a protest requires a greater investment of time than signing a petition or donating money. Not that the latter do not have a role in putting an end to environmental degradation; supporting and financing the environmental movement is important. Such actions simply require less personal involvement than protesting or campaigning.

In reality, not every individual has the time, or the interest, to make saving the environment her life’s work. In some ways, though, such a level of dedication has become symbolic of the environmental movement. With that image in mind, it is easy to believe that environmental sensitivity can be manifested only through similar commitment. This is not the case.

The effect that small actions can have within the context of environmental degradation was discussed briefly above. To reiterate, individuals need not devote large amounts of time, nor sacrifice personal comfort, to behave in an environmentally sensitive manner. Returning to the example of beach litter, an individual does not have to organize a campaign to clean up Irish beaches to demonstrate environmental sensitivity; she simply has to collect her own litter. Again, the way to convey this message to the public is by educating the public and making information about the environment easily accessible, as discussed previously.

However, inherent in the ‘small action’ solution is the belief that a majority of people will similarly engage in the same small action, leading to a large cumulative effect. There is no guarantee this will happen, since not all people believe that preserving the environment is important, or they do not consider it a high personal priority. Education can provide such people with a different perspective of the environment, one that recognizes the importance of the natural environment and its ties to human well-being.

Problem: Lack of economic incentive

Solution A: Deterrence

Faughnan and McCabe (1998) report that Irish citizens are more likely to manifest environmentally sensitive behaviour that results in an economic benefit. For example, turning down the heat when leaving a room, while environmentally friendly, also lowers the heating bill. The suggestion, then, is that for some, protecting the environment for the sake of the environment is not motivation enough; their environmental consciousness is tied to economic benefit.

Although some may argue that it is difficult to assign an economic value to the environment, doing so may act as an incentive for otherwise disinterested people to take an interest in environmental protection. Certainly this concept has worked to some degree in the fight against industrial pollution. As Wheeler (1999, para. 6) states, "Although public spirit moves a notable minority to control pollution, most managers are bound by pressures from markets and shareholders. They will reduce discharges only if they expect the additional cost to be less than the penalties that continued pollution will impose on them.". If this holds true for industry, it may apply to individuals as well.

Instituting fines or penalties for environmentally insensitive behaviour is one method of discouraging such behaviour. There is already a law in place in Ireland that financially penalizes people caught littering; it might be beneficial to have similar laws in place in the coastal zone to fine people for actions such as walking on dune faces or deliberately disturbing wildlife habitat. As an alternative, or in addition, to fines, offenders could be required to participate in environment-focused classes or workshops as part of the penalty for engaging in environmentally destructive behaviour. Educating offenders about the effects their actions have on other people, wildlife or the environment itself might deter future violations.

Any deterrence measures must be accompanied by strict enforcement and monitoring if they are to be effective. In the case of litter, for example, Ireland has recently adopted a National Litter Pollution Monitoring System to improve enforcement of the 1997 Litter Pollution Act (Cleaning up our act, 2001). Having observed that, despite instituting litter control policy, littering remained a prevalent problem in the country, the government decided to improve monitoring in an effort to find the solution.

Solution B: Revealing the hidden costs of environmental degradation

While deterrence can be an effective tool, those engaged in campaigns to stop environmental degradation, like governments or environmental groups, should also consider the benefit of identifying hidden costs associated with environmental degradation. Specifically, by making the population aware that environmental degradation creates an economic burden on society, more people might behave in an environmentally sensitive manner.

Hidden costs are those costs which do not manifest themselves overtly, as fines or donations for instance, but which are incurred by the population without its awareness. For example, consider the problem of littering. The Irish government is responsible for drawing up legislation, implementing laws and monitoring litter control plans. In public areas, the government provides garbage bins, garbage collection and street cleaning in an attempt to limit litter accumulation. With the government undertaking these activities, it is the taxpayer who incurs the cost. The more work required on the part of government to control litter, the more money is spent and the greater the economic burden on the population. As the burden is not overt, it is a hidden cost.

Any activity the government undertakes to intervene in environmental degradation will cost taxpayers in the end, perhaps not in the near future, but eventually. Since Faughnan and McCabe (1998) report that the Irish population is generally unwilling to pay higher taxes to help solve environmental issues, perhaps the knowledge that persistent environmental degradation can lead to tax increases would motivate people to behave in an environmentally sensitive manner. Such a solution, like several of the others noted in previous sections, depends on ensuring that the public is provided with information, or education, on environmental issues.

Problem: An imbalance in the innate human/nature relationship

Solution A: Recognizing the connection between humans and the natural environment

Both ecopsychology and the theory of biophelia recognize that humans and the natural world share an inherent bond. In modern times, the isolated and anthropocentric view of the world adopted by humans has removed awareness of this bond from the human consciousness. The result is that there is now an imbalance in the innate human/nature relationship. Ecopsychology attributes present day environmental degradation to this imbalance.

In order to put an end to environmental degradation, balance must be restored to the human/nature relationship (Metzer, 1999). The global scale of environmental degradation shows that restoring balance to the human/nature relationship is important for the entire population, not only those in individual nations. Since it is a global issue, the solutions below are presented within the context of the entire human population, not only Irish citizens.

Ecopsychology identifies two primary elements to this process. The first is recognition of human rootedness in nature (Seed, n.d.). In other words, accepting the inherent connection between humans and the natural world. Recognizing this connection changes environmental degradation from a problem that is simply ‘out there’ in the physical environment, to one of personal significance that directly affects the well-being of all human beings.

The undertones of non-Western spiritual and cultural beliefs that characterize human/nature interconnectedness make it challenging to present the concept in a manner that is agreeable to Western society. While some are satisfied to consider the idea on its philosophical merit, others require scientific evidence before accepting the existence of a human/nature relationship. Such evidence does exist. The numerous studies on positive human response to nature that have been cited in support of the theory of biophelia provide empirical evidence for the existence of human/nature connection. Furthermore, since modern conveniences have eliminated the necessity of day-to-day human interaction with the natural environment, humans today actively seek association with nature through outdoor recreational activities. This is indicative of the persistent human need to maintain a connection with nature.

Solution B: Changing the isolated, anthropocentric worldview

Unfortunately, it is difficult for humans living in a modern Western society to embrace the existence of a human/nature connection. The isolated, anthropocentric view of the world that dominates society makes a concept like human/nature interconnectedness difficult to accept, as it challenges the accepted human place in the world. Therefore, in order to gain wider acceptance of an inherent human/nature connection, it is necessary to completely revise the modern worldview. This is the second element necessary for the restoration of a balanced human/nature relationship.

Modern human consciousness maintains that nature exists to be dominated and conquered, that nature is of instrumental value to humans. These are the characteristics of a humanistic, anthropocentric attitude (Metzer, 1999). In order to effect change in human consciousness, the human-centered worldview must be replaced by an ecocentric view, one that acknowledges the value of humans and nature.

Ecocentrism recognizes that humans exist as a part of nature; they are not above or set against it. Nature is an ally, not an enemy and, as an ally, the elements of the natural world are not subject to human domination, but act in partnership with humans for mutual benefit. In short, humans and nature share a symbiotic relationship. Nature does not exist exclusively as instrument for human use, but has an intrinsic value, one that is not attributed by humans, for humans.

Of course, simply ‘adopting’ an ecocentric worldview is not possible. Shifting human consciousness away from anthropocentrism requires a total reorganization of the human thought process. It has taken centuries for the anthropocentric worldview to become rooted in the human psyche (Metzer, 1999). It follows that a total revision of human consciousness could take equally as long. The question is, how long can the present rate of environmental decay continue before the effects are irreversible? The answer to this question ultimately determines the length of time humans have to set aside anthropocentrism for a more ecocentric worldview. Perhaps drawing on the innate, evolutionary bond that exists between humans and nature will facilitate the transition between humanism and ecocentrism.

The solutions suggested by ecopsychology fall outside the boundaries of traditional methods used to control environmental degradation, such as education campaigns, policy implementation or lawmaking (Metzer, 1999). As such, they are not widely recognized as potential solutions to the environmental problems the world is experiencing at present. However, being unconventional does not mean that such solutions are without merit. With the relative lack of success achieved by traditional methods to date, the window of opportunity is opening for those involved in the more radical ecology movements, such as ecopsychology, to present alternative solutions.

8. Conclusion

Reconciling the conflict between human/nature interconnectedness and environmental degradation is a difficult task. There is no simple solution. Not only is the conflict itself complex, but the description and explanation presented for it draw from a number of disciplines including geography, economics, philosophy, psychology and ecology. Given this, any attempt to resolve the conflict and put an end to environmental degradation requires an interdisciplinary approach if it is to be effective, building on the knowledge of a number of different fields.

The explanations and solutions presented in Section 7.0 are designed with that fact in mind, using ideas from various disciplines first to discover the underlying causes of environmental degradation, then design solutions. Though they are identified individually, these explanations and solutions do not exist independently. Causes of degradation should be treated as different facets of the same problem. Remedying the problem therefore requires executing several solutions simultaneously. For example, implementing effective policies and educating the public should be undertaken in conjunction with efforts to bring about recognition of innate human/nature interconnection.

An endeavor of this magnitude - bridging several schools of thought and levels of society - cannot be the responsibility of any single government, organization or individual. Rather, a cooperative effort between all of these parties is necessary. Such cooperation must include open-mindedness, since not all parties advocate ‘traditional’ explanations and solutions for environmental degradation. Using this approach, it is possible to achieve a balance between human needs and the needs of the natural environment, with the ultimate result of ending environmental degradation.


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