The Water Will Come
Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World
Little, Brown 2017
This is an infuriating book. Not because Jeff Goodell is anything less than an accomplished and empathetic reporter, but precisely because he is exactly that. Goodell is a veteran of Rolling Stone magazine and author of a suite of books revolving around climate change (and—full disclosure—a professional acquaintance). He reveals in The Water Will Come what climate change is going to mean for the East Coast of the United States, and what people are (or, more to the point, are not) doing about it. Spoiler alert: it’s not good.
The complexities of wind, water and land being what they are, the East Coast will experience substantially more sea level rise than many other parts of the U.S., and no place will feel the effects more dramatically than Miami Beach, where water may come up three to six feet over the coming decades. It is here that Goodell begins his book and to which he repeatedly returns. The effects of his reporting, at least on me, are a combination of exasperation, despair, a certain unproductive desire to revel in an I-told-you-so schadenfreude when it all goes to hell, and a final throwing-up-of-hands.
Bill McKibben (another climate Cassandra) wrote that human beings evolved to deal with the tiger in front of us, not the tiger over the hill. McKibben, Al Gore and their fellow travelers have been explaining patiently for thirty years now that the tiger over the hill is a changing climate, it is coming toward us, and by the time it gets here it will have so much momentum we won’t be able to deal with it. In other words, we needed to use our collective frontal cortex to overrule our limbic brains and actually think our way out of a problem that we would much rather ignore or run away from.
Among the many problems climate change pose is momentum. By the time we personally experience the realities of too much carbon in the atmosphere and too much acid in the oceans, we won’t be able to do anything meaningful to slow the disaster that is the Anthropocene. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, the effects of that carbon and acid will continue to grow and multiply for hundreds of years. That’s momentum. Once Miami’s condos begin to topple—well, forget about it. Thus the mandate that we must actually think our way out of the problem before it arrives at our door.
Alas, the last thirty years have proven that the body politic in the United States is broadly incapable of such thinking and thus meaningful action. And so we come to a moment in Goodell’s book wherein he attends a presentation put on by the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. Miami Beach, and Florida in general, have made a devil’s bargain for the last century in which their prosperity (not to mention their government coffers) are dependent upon an ongoing, never-ending real estate boom. A high-stakes game of musical chairs is playing out along the Florida Coast, with the savvier property owners trying to calculate how much longer they can enjoy their beachside holdings and still find some other sucker to whom they can sell at a profit. Anything that threatens to stop the music is anathema and not to be mentioned. It is to the credit of the Chamber that they were willing to host an event in which scientists would speak about the implications of rising sea levels on Miami Beach, and that anyone in the real estate development industry would attend.
As one scientist explains the inevitability of Miami beach being lost to rising seas, worsening storms and the ocean literally bubbling up through the porous karst limestone beneath the condos, a distraught estate agent exclaims, “This can’t be a fear-fest! Why is everyone picking on Miami? Why have we become the poster child on this? … You can’t scare people. You can’t tell them Miami is not going to exist. It’s not right. It’s not fair.”
This moment captures the essence of Goodell’s book and is what stayed with me after I finished it. Climate change is incredibly hard to deal with psychologically (never mind practically) because it poses an existential threat. And if your financial livelihood is linked to pretending it is not happening, then it is doubly threatening. I am reminded of Upton Sinclair’s insight that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it” (a malady that affects us in many arenas, but let’s not go there).
A certain weariness on the author’s part comes through Goodell’s pages. He has been a climate warrior for a long time, and yet here we are in the age of Hurricane Sandy, the vanishing West Antarctic ice sheet, the American West in flames—and we are being “led” by Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt. A resignation ghosts through the spaces between his sentences. We are past grief now and onto acceptance. Fine, this book says. You don’t want to get serious about climate change? You don’t want to find and listen to the wise elders who could guide us, who could look farther down the road than the next business cycle, the next quarterly report, the next tweet? Fine, here is your future. We could have done better than this, but there you have it. Enjoy.
A decade ago I read a commentator who wrote “we have been bought off with an iPod and a latte.” He was writing about erosions of personal freedom and liberty, but his insight applies broadly. Like Winston Smith in 1984, we are subject to a barrage of distraction—for the most part willingly embraced—that keeps us from tasks such as, oh, the hard thinking and difficult choices necessary to save modern civilization from manmade catastrophe. If the lights stay on and the paycheck still shows up on time, if gas is cheap and there’s a new binge-worthy series on Netflix, it’s all good, right? That growling sound behind the hill? I don’t hear it. Do you?