'We've Built Right Up to the Edge in the Most Foolish Way'

A historian of coastal settlements says we only have ourselves to blame for Sandy's destruction.

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US Coast Guard/Reuters

As luck would have it, the book sitting on my bedside table when I went to sleep in Brooklyn Monday night — Hurricane Sandy howling past my windows — was The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, by John R. Gillis. It was published just two weeks ago by the University of Chicago Press, and this review copy had made its way to me, although I had yet to open it.

In Sandy’s aftermath, sitting in my house on the edge of a seacoast that was having its own historical moment, I decided to take a look inside.

What I found was a reminder – both reassuring and disturbing – of how deeply intertwined people and the sea are. Gillis begins his book by exploring the idea that the true human Eden was found on the coast, where different food sources were abundant, rather than within an inland “garden,” as the Western tradition has long maintained.

What I also found was confirmation of how often that relationship, which stretches back some 165,000 years, has been one of uncertainty and disaster. When I turned to the index to look under "flooding," the entry concluded with this: "see also ‘drowned cities.'"

The author of The Human Shore splits his time between the coast of Northern California and an island off the shore of Maine, so he clearly feels the pull of the sea himself. But Gillis told me in a phone interview that he thinks most people, as much as they love the ocean, have little understanding of it.

"The coasts we live on are not natural phenomena, but human phenomena," he says. In his book, Gillis writes about how beginning in the 18th century, Western cultures began to re-imagine and rebuild the shoreline to suit their commercial purposes, creating hard boundaries where tidal areas and marshlands once blurred the edge between sea and land:

What was once the edge of the sea, defined by the reach of water, became the seaside, a feature of land. What had been a threshold open in both directions became an ever firmer border. Every year governments around the world spend billions trying to “fix” their coasts, make them conform to the lines they have drawn in the sand. They build seawalls, groins, and jetties, dredge mountains of sand, and haul still more to replace what has been washed away. In the name of coastal protection, they destroy estuaries and wetlands, actually destabilizing shores by encouraging devastating erosion and flooding by sea surges.

Gillis says that before the modern era, people in coastal areas treated the ocean with respect and a healthy dose of fear. "The sea was understood to be what it is," he says. "Not necessarily an antagonist, but a capricious, dangerous creature."

People often built their dwellings facing away from the waves and the threat they presented to human life and order. Fens and tidal areas provided a buffer between settled areas and incroaching water. European port cities were not right on the seacoast, but further inland, up rivers. Cautionary tales of "drowned cities" were well known. Some, such as Atlantis, were legendary. Some, like Dunwich in England, were very real.

Then came what Gillis terms "the second discovery of the sea." The oceans, since very early in the human era, had been seen as routes for navigation and a source of food, but they had not been loved. "One went to sea out of necessity rather than desire," he writes. But over time, the sea became a source of inspiration for painters and poets, the source of a romantic ideal of nature. In an effort to get ever closer to this seductive creature, people began trying to tame it – and convinced themselves that such a thing was possible.

Today, people are drawn to the sea in greater numbers than ever before, Gillis says. "The sea has become our new wilderness," he says. "It attracts people because of its awesome power and its sense of horizon."

Our scientific understanding of the sea has advanced exponentially. "We have finally discovered the sea for itself, literally a living, breathing organism in its own right," Gillis says. That organism's breath sometimes comes in the form of hurricanes, a phenomenon we can now predict and measure with unprecedented accuracy.

And yet, he cautions, we are in many ways as ignorant of the sea’s essential qualities as we were in the days when people feared the kraken and believed in mermaids.

"We are attracted to something we don’t really understand," he says. "We have to appreciate that it’s not just another scenic attraction. We need much more realistic education about the sea, from childhood through adults."

"Most people who approach the sea, and even live at its edge, are largely oblivious to its true nature," says Gillis. "It’s like going into a tiger’s cage at the zoo and saying, 'Oh, it's OK, it won’t hurt you.'"

Gillis sees the destruction brought by Sandy as the inevitable result of a pattern of development that disregards all that history tells us about the ocean and its role in daily human life. "We’ve built right up to the edge in the most foolish way," he says. "The whole coast is now an extended suburb."

I ask him what, in his view, would be a realistic response to rising sea levels, increasingly frequent and severe coastal storms, and repeated destruction of waterfront properties. "There is macro-engineering to be done," concedes Gillis, who thinks rebuilding and preserving wetlands would be a far more effective strategy than hard seawalls. He also cites pioneering Dutch innovations such as floating homes.

But in the end, he says, engineering solutions won’t suffice.

"The sensible long-term thing is to think in terms of retreat," he says. Only by regaining our respectful distance from the water’s edge, says Gillis, can we truly protect ourselves from the cost – both human and financial – of living on the margin where sea meets land.

But try telling that to the people who own property there. Gillis acknowledges that our emotional attachment to the shoreline, not to mention our financial investment, makes the prospect of turning back now unlikely. "It seems to me there’s a lot of thinking to be done," he says. "But I wouldn’t be optimistic about my scenario. It seems impossible when you hear the mantra of, 'We’re going to rebuild.' Still, how many times are we going to rebuild Atlantic City?"

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Sandy and similar disasters, says Gillis, is the role that we play in them by choosing to live the way that we do.

"If we don’t get off the kick of blaming nature for these disasters," he says, "we’ll be in real trouble."

Top image: U.S. Coast Guard handout photo of damage after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.