Erosion by Any Other Name…Isn’t the Same Thing

July 1, 2000

In this issue (Erosion Control, July/August 2000) you’ll find a report on IECA’s Economic Research Committee and the ongoing efforts to gather data on the economics of erosion—what it costs to control, how much and where people are spending, and what benefits they get in return. You’ll also find a survey asking for your opinions on how the committee should continue that work. Along the same lines, IECA is planning its first-ever Erosion Industry Economic Summit to take place this fall; check out for details.

Before you send in the survey or visit the website, though, there’s another question I’d like to throw on the table. As we seek out costs and benefits, it might pay to take a look at how people outside the erosion control (EC) industry perceive “erosion.” I’m talking about people who don’t know, and don’t really care, what silt fencing is. People who think coir is only for rugs and welcome mats or think that riprap is a style of music. People such as the contractor mentioned by Ben Northcutt in a recent column who said, regarding the muddy water escaping his construction site, “People are getting excited about something that isn’t that big of a deal.”

Frankly, many—I’d venture to say most—people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about accelerated erosion. Oh, they’re pretty sure they’d know erosion if they saw it, and inevitably someone will drop a mention of the Grand Canyon into the discussion. But they don’t necessarily perceive that different phenomena like mudslides, polluted lakes and rivers, repeated and costly harbor dredging, and dust pollution are all facets of the same process, much less recognize that a whole industry is dedicated to providing the tools and services to prevent it.

Two events illustrate what I mean. Last December, news reports described how mudslides had destroyed entire towns in Venezuela, but few made the connection between cause and effect: The mudslides were the result of massive deforestation. The northern half of the country, which holds 90% of the population, has lost more than half of its once-dense forest cover.

Similarly, during the flooding in southern Africa last February and March, news coverage dealt mostly-as it should have-with the people affected and the response of the international community. Only a handful went further and analyzed the causes. Overgrazing and loss of ground cover in Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Mozambique has led to increased stormwater runoff. Additionally, the loss of about half the region’s wetlands removed an important safety valve, leaving less space for that runoff to be stored.

Does it matter that most news stories failed to get at the root causes or that people aren’t making a mental connection between landslides in South America and channel liners being installed in their own neighborhoods? If they’re not buying EC products or writing legislation, why should we care whether they’re thinking about it at all?

Linguists once proposed that the way we refer to something determines how, or even whether, we perceive that thing. If we don’t have a name for it, we might not recognize it. Once we know what to call it, we start to see it everywhere.

A Chinese proverb puts it more simply: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” If people think of and refer to erosion as a single problem-or at least a group of related ones-they can begin to understand the larger implications of muddy stormwater running down the street. You might still get blank stares when you use the acronyms TMDL or NPDES in everyday conversation. But if people grasp this one big concept called “erosion” and recognize that it’s going to cost them something one way or another, then they-the homebuyers, the taxpayers, the voters-will be more amenable to facing the problem head-on. And that benefits the EC industry, too. 
About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.