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Walls Around our Coastal Cities? By Gary Griggs

The Thames River Barrier, 2004. Photo source: © Andy Roberts, licensed under CC BY – SA 2.0 via Wikipedia Commons

By © Gary Griggs, Author of “Our Ocean Backyard- Collected Essays”

Hurricane Sandy has come and mostly gone, but the devastation left behind will take years to clean up and repair. The final damage toll was over $68 million for New York and New Jersey
alone. Requests for federal disaster aid from FEMA (lots) started before the storm had even passed, and the inevitable Monday morning quarterbacks immediately began devising all of the pos- sible solutions for protecting the coastal areas of New Jersey, New York City and Long Island in the future.

The total damage figures are huge, but the meteorological figures are in some ways, more alarming. Sandy produced the highest storm surges ever to hit New York City, nearly four feet higher than the previous highest water levels during Hurricane Donna in 1960.

New York City is particularly exposed to the sea, with water coming in through the Hudson and East rivers, and with a mean- dering total of hundreds of miles of exposed shoreline, much of it just a foot or two above sea level. Sea level is also now about a foot higher here than it was in 1900.
You might think that New York City would have thought about these things many decades ago, but sea – level rise and storms prob- ably weren’t as pressing in the 17th century when the city was first laid out. The early settlers were Dutch, who knew a thing or two about living very close to sea level. But the founding fathers must have felt that a few feet of freeboard was enough, or simply had other issues to deal with.

To add insult to injury, sea level along the Atlantic coast is likely to rise 3 to 4 feet or more by 2100, as the oceans continue to warm and ice sheets continue to retreat and melt. Sadly, the worst isn’t over and it’s not likely to get better any time soon. So despite the energetic calls to re – build and armor the shoreline against future disasters, there is wisdom in pausing for contemplation before jumping to employ the first band – aid from the bandwagon of ideas to come along.

There are a lot of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere that we can’t get back, and we don’t have a switch in place to turn off what we are putting in every day now. Emissions continue to rise. In 2012, the Earth’s 7 billion people dumped 39 million tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere every day. Every day! Where is all this coming from? Well, 91% comes from burning fossils fuels and the manufacturing of cement, while the remaining 9% comes from land use activities (burning forests, and agriculture). And the overall emissions continue to rise each year.


Although China has now surpassed the USA in total carbon diox- ide emissions, there really isn’t much comfort in this statistic as we all share the same atmosphere. On the positive side, carbon dioxide emissions from the USA and the European Union have dropped in recent years, but on the other side of the fence, emissions from China and India are increasing. Off all those 39 billions of tons of carbon dioxide we emit globally each year, 50% remains in the atmosphere contributing to the warming we are experiencing, and 26% is taken up by land vegetation on the land. The remaining 24% ends up in the ocean, being taken up at the rate of just over one million tons every hour. This has consequences as well, primarily by making the oceans more acidic. But that’s another story.

So what are the planners, designers and engineers coming up with for New York City? There is the $6 billion system of floodgates that has been proposed, using Venice, The Netherlands, and London as examples. This approach raises some important questions about who or what gets to be protected and which neighborhoods are on their own.

Ten years ago, a research team from the State University of New York at Stonybrook, working with the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, put together a complex plan of levees, seawalls and floodgates for protecting most of New York City from storm surges. The estimated price tag of $10 billion at that time brought that proposal to a screeching halt.

Some are calling for a mix of hard structures, whether seawalls or storm barriers of some sort, combined with “soft strategies”, like constructing urban wetlands, tidal marshes, even artificial reefs intended to nurture oysters, which has been referred to as a blending of urbanism and ecology.
The hope here is that these engineered green spaces would absorb and reduce the force of incoming water, thereby protecting the shoreline. Porous streets of concrete have been proposed to soak up excess water like giant sponges, while other new streets would be designed to drain the surging water back into the harbor.

If Manhattan was a sparsely inhabited rural area, these ideas might be considered practical, but this is New York City – protecting it with oyster reefs and some wetlands? When everything – streets, subways, and underground parking garages-are all completely underwater with a storm surge of nearly 14 feet, porous concrete is not going to soak up the excess water, or drain the water back into the harbor. There is a need to be creative, but also a need to be realistic and fully consider the forces and water levels we are seeking to control, and the fact that sea level is going to continue to rise.

Its also important to come to grips with the reality that New York City isn’t the only large city in the United States (forget the rest of the world for a moment) that lies very close to sea level and
is exposed to hurricanes, extremely high tides and storm surges, or a rising sea. There are a few others to consider, in no particular order: Miami, Newark, New Orleans, Tampa, Boston, Wilmington, Virginia Beach, Charleston, Galveston, and on the west coast, Long Beach and parts of many of the low – lying communities surrounding San Francisco Bay, including San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose.

Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology and former Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University, has said “With climate change we basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We are going to do some of each. The question is what the mix will be.

The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation and suffering there will be”. We need to start making some very serious commitments to significantly reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases if we are to avoid a future that is not going to be pleasant for any of us.

Learn More: “Our Ocean Backyard – Collected Essays”; a Book by Gary Griggs
For the three billion people on Earth who live in coastal regions, the ocean is figuratively, if not literally, “our backyard.” The oceans enrich our lives in countless ways, but our interactions with them have not always been positive. Gary Griggs, a coastal geologist and oceanographer, is known for making science understandable, enjoyable, and accessible to non-scientists, was asked to write a bi-weekly column, “Our Ocean Backyard” for the Santa Cruz Sentinel…

Our Ocean Backyard – Collected Essays; A Book by Gary Griggs

Our Ocean Backyard- Collected Essays

A book by Gary Griggs

Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

For the three billion people on Earth who live in coastal regions, the ocean is figuratively, if not literally, “our backyard.” Many of us have sought out ocean areas in which to live, work, or vacation. The oceans enrich our lives in countless ways, but our interactions with them have not always been positive.


In April 2008, Gary Griggs, a coastal geologist and oceanographer who has studied the oceans for over forty-six years and is known for making science understandable, enjoyable, and accessible to non-scientists, was asked to write a bi-weekly column, “Our Ocean Backyard” for the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Santa Cruz sits smack on the ocean. California is in many ways defined by its coast, so it isn’t surprising that so many people are drawn towards our ocean edge. Whether it is our weather and climate, or any number of recreational pursuits: fishing, surfing, sailing, jogging or walking, or just observing and exploring, the ocean provides something for all of us. In turn, engaging in each of these different pursuits gener­ates a healthy curiosity – historical, geological, biological – as does simply living, day-to-day, in a community facing the sea.

This collection of 170 columns explores several of these curious ocean questions. Should we worry about tsunamis here on the central coast? How did Yellow Bank Beach, Davenport Landing, Greyhound Rock, Castle Beach and Black Point get their names? Gary explains why the sea behaves as it does, while bringing our coastal history and landscape into perspective. Our climate is changing and the ocean is responding.

Many of us are eager to learn more about our oceans and coast, particularly the science behind it all, but we don’t often understand that science very well. And to make matters worse, many scientists who write about their particular specialized area, don’t do so in way that is understandable or relevant to the non-scientist. Gary’s stories, which draw upon our rich history of ocean exploration and discovery, are written for anyone with an interest in the oceans – not just in Monterey Bay or the central coast – and shed much needed light on what we can expect in the years and decades to come.

Gary writes not to advocate, but rather to illuminate. His goal is always to explain the science, which in turn enhances our enjoyment of this beautiful resource, and also empowers us to make considered, informed decisions – whether it is in our daily lives, or in the voting booth.

About the Author:

Gary Griggs is a distinguished professor of Earth and planetary sciences, and the director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz. Honored as a Coastal Hero by the Coastal Commission and Sunset Magazine in 2009, he has been studying the oceans for over forty-six years. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Living with the Changing California Coast, Introduction to California’s Beaches and Coast, and California Coast From The Air: Images of a Changing Landscape.

Book available now at: Amazon.com and Createspace


“Gary is a talented interpreter of complicated coastal science and has a long track record of effectively translating his findings for policymakers. Gary’s bi-weekly column for the Santa Cruz Sentinel has been instrumental in promoting popular understanding of these important issues across the Monterey Bay region and beyond.” —Sam Farr, Representative.

“Gary is the epitome of excellence in teaching. He shares not only his knowledge but also his passion and himself with his students, with boundless generosity . . . He has been a blessing to the campus, to our profession, and to each and every one of us who had the privilege of studying with him.” —Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans & Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. NASA Astronaut (ret.) and UCSC ‘73.

“I marvel at Gary’s ability to relate more complex situations in an understandable form for lay people - and in a way that holds their interest. It is obvious why he has been a successful and much-loved teacher for over four decades. It is a great thing that many of his columns now appear in one place, available to an even wider audience.” —John Laird, California Secretary of Resources.

How Human Existence Doesn’t Have to Cost the Earth



Beaches, whether sandy or stony, are very much part of summer, but if Orrin Pilkey and Andrew Cooper’s The Last Beach is right, the traditional seaside may soon be a thing of the past…

Read Full Article, NewScientist

“The Last Beach” Book Review: The end of beaches? Why the world’s shorelines are in serious trouble, Salon

Books roundup: Saving the beaches, The Herald Sun
Everyone loves a beach, particularly those of us who grew up on one, or near one. But our love of beaches also threatens their existence…

The Last Beach, A book by Orrin H. Pilkey And J. Andrew G. Cooper
“The Last Beach” is an urgent call to save the world’s beaches while there is still time. The geologists Orrin H. Pilkey and J. Andrew G. Cooper sound the alarm in this frank assessment of our current relationship with beaches and their grim future if we do not change the way we understand and treat our irreplaceable shores.

The Last Beach, A book by Orrin H. Pilkey And J. Andrew G. Cooper

The Last Beach

A book by Orrin H. Pilkey And J. Andrew G. Cooper

Published by Duke University Press

The Last Beach is an urgent call to save the world’s beaches while there is still time.


The geologists Orrin H. Pilkey and J. Andrew G. Cooper sound the alarm in this frank assessment of our current relationship with beaches and their grim future if we do not change the way we understand and treat our irreplaceable shores.

Combining case studies and anecdotes from around the world, they argue that many of the world’s developed beaches, including some in Florida and in Spain, are virtually doomed and that we must act immediately to save imperiled beaches.

After explaining beaches as dynamic ecosystems, Pilkey and Cooper assess the harm done by dense oceanfront development accompanied by the construction of massive seawalls to protect new buildings from a shoreline that encroaches as sea levels rise.

They discuss the toll taken by sand mining, trash that washes up on beaches, and pollution, which has contaminated not only the water but also, surprisingly, the sand.

Acknowledging the challenge of reconciling our actions with our love of beaches, the geologists offer suggestions for reversing course, insisting that given the space, beaches can take care of themselves and provide us with multiple benefits.

About the Authors:

Orrin H. Pilkey, deemed “America’s foremost philosopher of the beaches,” by the New York Times, is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and Founder and Director Emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, based at Western Carolina University. Pilkey is a coauthor (with Keith C. Pilkey) of Global Climate Change: A Primer, published by Duke University Press, and of twenty books in the Press’s Living with the Shore series, edited by Pilkey and William J. Neal. The Orrin Pilkey Marine Science and Conservation Genetics Center opened at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, in 2013. Pilkey lives in Hillsborough, N.C.

J. Andrew G. Cooper is Professor of Coastal Studies in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Ulster. He and Pilkey are coauthors (with William J. Neal and Joseph T. Kelley) of The World’s Beaches: A Global Guide to the Science of the Shoreline and coeditors of Pitfalls of Shoreline Stabilization. Well known for his advocacy of nonintervention on shorelines and his work on beaches and coasts worldwide, Cooper lives in the town of Coleraine in Northern Ireland.

To Order Please Contact: Duke University Press


A clarion call for a change of policy that prioritizes the preservation of beaches over property rights.
In this follow-up to The World’s Beaches: A Global Guide to the Science of the Shoreline (2011), Pilkey (Emeritus, Geology/Duke Univ.) and Cooper (Environmental Sciences/Univ. of Ulster) warn that shoreline development is already endangering our beaches.
The authors deliver a message to be heeded: “We must view the beach as a sacred and resilient yet strangely fragile natural environment to be protected at all costs.”Kirkus Review.

The world’s beaches are being washed away as coastal developments increase in size and engineers build ever higher sea walls to defend against fierce winter storms and rising sea levels, according to two of the worlds’ leading marine geologists, Andrew Cooper and Orrin Pilkey, in a new book, The Last BeachGuardian UK, Book Review.

Beaches, whether sandy or stony, are very much part of summer, but if Orrin Pilkey and Andrew Cooper’s The Last Beach is right, the traditional seaside may soon be a thing of the past. The Last Beach shows that Westerners should not get smug about their future because development and house prices frequently trump environmental good sense.New Scientist, Book Review.

Welfare with an Ocean view: The Last Beach is organized into chapters laying out the various ways in which humans have maimed the world’s beaches. There are a lot. The Last Beach is determinedly international—it dives into the full range of challenges facing beaches around the world.Washington Monthly, Book Review, March-May 2015.

In the new genre of science-based apocalyptic non-fiction that serves to open our eyes to the effects of the Anthropocene – the recently designated geological era in which it can be concluded that our species is having an unalterable effect on our planet – Orrin Pilkey and Andrew Cooper’s book is a terrifying addition to a growing and doomy bookshelf. Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, and Cooper, professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster, have created a wide-ranging survey of the state of our beaches – the essential and incredibly fragile interface between us and the sea.Philip Hoare, Times Higher Education, Book Review.

We can have our beachfront properties — our Miami high-rises, our Hamptons mansions, our Jersey boardwalks — or we can have our beaches. But as geologist and Duke University emeritus professor Orrin Pilkey and J. Andrew G. Cooper, a professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster, have been arguing for decades now, we can’t have both.Salon, Book Review.

In a new book, “The Last Beach” (Duke University Press, $19.95, trade paperback) Pilkey and follow geologist J. Andrew G. Cooper of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Ulster, warn that we will lose the beaches we have long enjoyed if we do not end our insistence on building whatever we want right up to the shoreline. The Herald Sun, Books roundup: Saving the beaches

California Coast From The Air: Images of a Changing Landscape


California Coast from the Air:

Images of a Changing Landscape

A book by Gary Griggs and Deepika Shrestha Ross, Photography by Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman

Published by Mountain Press

In a state identified with change, California’ s 1,100-mile coastline lives up to the reputation. Storm waves attack sea cliffs, earthquakes trigger landslides, and ocean waves relentlessly move sand. Over the past century, humans have changed the coast too, particularly in Southern California, where some stretches of coastline have been completely altered.

Thanks to the California Coastal Records Project, the brainchild of Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, we now have an aerial photographic record of the entire coastline, from the redwood forests near the Oregon border to the urbanized shoreline of San Diego Bay. California Coast from the Air features 150 of the best photographs from this scientifically valuable yet truly artistic collection of more than 80,000 images.

Steep coastal cliffs gradually sliding into the ocean, an isolated sandy beach that cannot be reached by road, or sand dunes marching inland under the force of the wind are just a few of the scenes portrayed in the book s photos. Oceanographer Gary Griggs and architect Deepika Shrestha Ross provide insightful captions, describing the natural features, their changes over time, and human efforts to tame them.

The photographs are organized by county, from north to south, and shaded-relief maps locate features described in the text.

About the authors:
Gary Griggs, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, has written many books about the California coast. The latest is California Coast from the Air, a collection of stunning aerial photographs of the state’s coastline with captions by Griggs and architect Deepika Shrestha Ross.

Most of the photographs are by local residents Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, who have taken thousands of high-resolution digital photographs of the entire California coastline and posted them online through the California Coastal Records Project.

Griggs, an expert on coastal geology, has been collaborating with the Adelmans since he first learned about their project.” News Center, University Of California Santa Cruz

Order available now at: Amazon.com

Photographer Clark Little’s New Book: Taking An Ocean Beating To Get The Perfect Wave

Photograph: © SAF – Coastal Care


Clark Little has made a career getting pounded by massive waves over and over and over again, and it’s absolutely awesome.

Little’s newly released book Shorebreak showcases pictures taken during his last four years of travel and from the islands of his home state, Hawaii. The glossy-book is 160 pages of the world’s ocean, as seen from the eye of a wave…

Read Full Article And View Images, The Huffington Post

Top 5 Threats To The World’s Beaches (And A Systemic Solution)

Beach re-nourishment, Waikiki, 2012. Photograph: © SAF


Professors Orrin Pilkey and Andrew Cooper are writing what promises to be an outstanding book.

In The Last Beach (to be published this summer by Duke University Press), they describe the top five threats to beaches around the world. Even a quick overview of these threats suggests a strategy for confronting the degradation and loss of beaches. It’s no surprise that a comprehensive, long-term beach protection strategy requires significant changes to our economic system, a system that has overdeveloped and polluted beaches to the extent that they have become unhealthy places to swim or even play in the sand…

Read Full Article, Countercurrents

Originally published in The Daly News

The Coastal Consciousness of John Gillis

Foreharbor, Gotts Island, Watercolor by © John R. Gillis.

By © Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Courtesy of The Chronicle Of Higher Education,

Clamorous and gusting, Superstorm Sandy blew ashore last fall with a force that felt at once scarily new and, in this, our own Age of Disaster, quite familiar. Watching its frigid waters gushing into Manhattan’s subways and overtopping seawalls in the Rockaways and Atlantic City, we were reminded of other storms, like the monster that inundated the citizens of New Orleans—and then turned their plight into a touchstone of our politics. Katrina’s aftermath helped torpedo a blustering president’s second term, but the images of Sandy, looping past on YouTube and CNN, carried even more-far-reaching impacts. They brought urgency to a climate-change debate finally ready, it seemed, to make all of us envision a world where oceans will be several feet higher than those of today.

As Tropical Storm Andrea began the 2013 hurricane season, many of us were grateful for the warning calls. But as the conversations prompted by those calls grow increasingly suffused with hyperbole and guff, many of us commit that sin, anathema to historians, of condescending to the past. Was it really so, what New York’s governor said in Sandy’s wake—that “we had never seen a storm like this”? Sandy brought rain and high waters, yes, but Nor’easters have been buffeting America’s Atlantic shores for centuries. It wasn’t even close to the strongest storm to hit New York during the century that precise wind speeds and rainfall have been recorded. Climate change is real and serious, but was not last fall’s “natural disaster,” like Katrina and like all the rest to come, as much about human failures—in infrastructure, planning, and our proclivity for building homes on shifting sandbars—as it was natural catastrophe?

Those questions aren’t new. But their new urgency may account for the feeling of providence that accompanied the arrival of the historian John Gillis‘s latest book. Reaching back into the days when early hominids became human, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (University of Chicago Press, 2012) also looks forward to what will happen if we don’t change how we relate to seacoasts. The book represents a fitting capstone to the career of a remarkable historian whose arc of interests has anticipated two key, entwined strands in his discipline—the rise of environmental history and global history—and whose work has long exemplified how, in our changing present, the ways we imagine the past can and must change as well.

The historian John Gillis has spent almost half a century of summers at Great Gott Island, off the coast of Maine. Photo by: © Richard Howard, for The Chronicle Review

Gillis well understands the age-old human urge to find our way back to what Rachel Carson called “the great mother of life.” He’s less sanguine, however, about what most people do when they get there. “Never,” he writes, “have shores been so rich in property values and so impoverished in what once had made them the first home of humankind.” One of his book’s guiding motifs, borrowed from a signpost that had stopped him short on a cliff-top hike in Northern California, is a simple admonition he thinks readers of Coastal Living magazine, and all those who’d love to inhabit the glossy million-dollar views it features, would do well to heed: Never turn your back on the ocean.

Gillis doesn’t want us to just remember that. He wants us to understand why we must, as he said this spring when I called to ask him what he hoped readers might take from The Human Shore. Gillis—who divides his time between two shores: San Francisco Bay and an island off Maine where he and his wife, the writer Christina Marsden Gillis, have summered for decades—was direct. “The first step is to start imagining our coasts as less a ‘natural’ artifact than the product of hundreds and thousands of years of human creation. If we do that, then I think we’d be a long way toward saving them, and ourselves, from utter destruction.”

As befits a scholar whose work has sought to trace both those “hundreds and thousands of years of human creation” and their larger effects on the earth, I first met Gillis in a department not of history but of geography. I was a graduate student at the University of California, and Gillis had retired from a long career at Rutgers University, back East, and come to live in Berkeley. This distinguished-looking fellow would turn up at our weekly colloquium and, when the speaker was through discoursing on landscape morphology or settler colonialism, ask incisive questions from behind his white beard. Gillis’s predilection for geography in his emeritus years signaled his trajectory in the half-century since he had completed his own Stanford University history Ph.D., as he recalls with a chuckle, on “the Prussian bureaucracy.”

After Stanford, Gillis returned to his native New Jersey, first for a brief stint at Princeton University and then up the road to Rutgers’s history department for 34 years. Leaving behind his early vocation for sifting Munich’s archives, he turned to British history, and, in exploring intimate questions pertaining to hearth and home, built a reputation as a social historian. Youth and History (1974) is a study of age relations in European society across time. For Better, for Worse (1985) traced the rise of the institution of marriage in Britain. And A World of Their Own Making (1996) explored the roots and effects of rituals, like wedding days and Christmas dinner, with which we forge family bonds and contend with their breaking.

Glancing back toward civilization’s dawn but locating many of those rituals’ birth in Victorian England, A World of Their Own Making offered a keen genealogy of the concept of “family” that doubled as a subtle excoriation of the Christian Coalition types who, at the time, were using “family values” as a club with which to bash sodomites and sex educators. Prompted in part by a family tragedy—the death of the Gillises’ son Ben when a small plane he was piloting crashed in Kenya—the book concluded the historian’s decades of studying family by synthesizing grand currents with the smaller scale at which we live them. It’s been no surprise, then, that as Gillis has expanded his scope, his most recent books have evinced a similar determination to examine history vis-à-vis the ways we imagine its unfolding.

InIslands of the Mind (2004), he traced the grip that islands have exerted on human imagination since the ancients began thinking of them as paradises or prisons; as places to be marooned, reborn, or transformed. Exploring how the West’s long obsession with islands “made the Atlantic World,” Islands of the Mind included as many citations from poets and writers as from historical theorists or government documents, indicating Gillis’s long-nurtured frustration with disciplinary boundaries. He has always bristled at the ways academe rewards narrow expertise and the cultivation, across a tenure-winning march of monographs and articles, of a discrete field. When I asked him why, he explained with a typically geographic metaphor. “‘The field’—it’s so redolent of territory, and property, isn’t it?” he said. “I don’t want to be trapped in a field. I want to trespass!”

Even the practitioners of “Atlantic history,” the voguish subdiscipline that his work helped to create by treating the world that mariners made in crossing the ocean as a subject for study as worthy as any nation lapped by its waves, can get his gourd. “Historians connect all these dots, across the Atlantic, and they get to feel they’ve gone beyond America’s shores,” he says. “But they don’t really have to do so, or have any apt way, as many critics have started pointing out, to address the degree to which [the Atlantic] is connected to other bodies of water.”

Gillis thinks the rise of maritime history has helped correct that—but suffers from the opposite problem: “It turns out to be sea-locked,” he says. “It has its jaunty sailor out there, but he never really comes ashore. And so again the shore, and coastal people, end up betwixt and between. They don’t have a history, or a geography, to call their own.”

The Human Shore is Gillis’s attempt to fill that gap. His book places coasts, and their minders, at history’s heart. But as befits a historian who has “grown only more and more aware of how much history is an imaginative activity,” what most distinguishes his work is the depth he brings to combining the arc of human imagination with its effects—to synthesizing our thinking about seacoasts with the material history of how those ideas will shape the prospects of the planet.

Opening his narrative in earth’s amniotic seas, Gillis extends what we all know—that life began in the ocean—to sketch a broader argument about the central role of coastal peoples in the development of civilization. Most modern historians and archaeologists in the West have inherited a bias for the landed from forebears for whom the Bible was a bible of not only history but also geography—a bias visible in our picturing Eden as an inland garden, and, in terms of science, our evolving ancestors as transient hunters on the plain who, thanks to good fortune in the Fertile Crescent, began cultivating wheat and evolving complex societies.

Finding evidence in newly discovered ruins of homes along the marshy coasts of Wales and the huge shell-mounds, built by Ohlone Indians, that still line San Francisco Bay, Gillis argues that it was early humans’ engagement with the sea, not their activities on the savannah, that led to their divergence from primates. Echoing the Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer’s famous view that “the shore is the primitive home of man,” Gillis reminds us that on the shores of Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas alike, aquaculture predated agriculture. Long before our forebears planted wheat, they were setting aside areas for cultivating clams and shellfish. Scholars may disagree about what all this means. But Gillis shows how our historical underplaying of those muddy margins where land and water meet is manifested in the difficulty that our intellectual traditions, like our laws, have had in contending with places that don’t definitely belong to either land and sea.

Moving rapidly through the centuries, Gillis describes how the first Homo sapiens to leave our species’ East African cradle reached the Indian Ocean’s shores 125,000 years ago and then migrated north, across the Red Sea, as “coasting” people whose descendants, from there, moved along the shores of the Arabian Peninsula and on to the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Eventually they surrounded the Indian Ocean, turning its rim into a contiguous web of seaboard civilizations, crosscut and interlinked by shipping routes that have existed for some 5,000 years.

Describing the varied mythological traditions by which people everywhere came to distill their views about the sea, he notes the commonality of belief in land symbolizing order and sea chaos. Coasts, accordingly, were looked on as shifting zones of sharp rocks and deadly sirens: scary sites that belonged more to the realm of the god Oceanus than to the land. It was only as the old maritime empires became modern states (and tamed Oceanus, at least in mind, by dividing its contiguous mass into “seas” with their own names) that the modern urge to transform our shores’ terra infirma into territory, and thus to fix the frontier between order and chaos, grew ascendant.

Gillis describes how the “water people” of such marsh-and-island landscapes as England’s vast Fens looked on helplessly as their coastal-wetland home was filled in—a drama that was replayed, again and again, from Holland to Boston to the shorelines of the South China Sea, as such projects came to represent harbingers of progress. Recounting how Europe’s seamen stitched together a new world in their old one’s image, Gillis explains that, at the end of that continent’s great Age of Exploration, in the late 18th century, the word “coastline” entered our vocabulary. That moment, he writes, marked the start of a new phase in the life of the shore—typified by ever-expanding human efforts to fix our coasts in place, but also suffused with a new Romantic interest in the sea. The ocean became not merely a terrifying abyss but also a vision of beauty, to be admired.

“Never have shores been so rich in property values,” writes Gillis, “and so impoverished in what once had made them the first home of mankind.” Photo by: © Richard Howard, for The Chronicle Review

This conception of the sea, which spread throughout Western culture in the 19th century, is nowhere more visible than in the uniquely modern mania for the beach—for lazing about on the shore three-quarters naked as a form of recreation. It was only at the end of the 1800s that visiting the “beach” (a neologism derived from an English word for coastal stones, Gillis tells us) became common as a leisure activity; it took a few decades more for the beach to grow, in Europe and beyond, into the destination par excellence for another modern invention: the vacation. Gillis reads those developments in terms of the larger social history of leisure and of work. But his discussion of the beach’s changing meaning is also a means of examining the far more worrisome effects of its shifting uses, in literally concrete terms.

Whether made of sand or pebbles, beaches are formed by the movement of water. They are, by their nature, ever-changing. “No wonder our ancestors had no name or affection for them,” Gillis writes. Few examples so starkly illustrate our changing relationship to the shore as the fetishization of a once-worthless substance—white sand—and the billions of dollars we pour, each year, into keeping the stuff in place. Such efforts, along with the billions more spent on “fixing” coastlines in general (half of New Jersey’s shore is engineered in place) bespeak a larger contradiction of our era: that even as more of us than ever settle near the sea—some three billion people now live within 100 miles of its edge—we grow only more ignorant of its protean ways.

A similar disconnect is visible in the ways that our cities’ working waterfronts, once the haunt of stevedores and sailors, have been turned into maritime theme parks—New York’s South Street Seaport, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Once working wharves, these sites are now for shopping and wave-gazing, mirroring our once-industrial cities’ evolution from sites for labor into shrines to conspicuous consumption.

Reconceiving our relationship to the shore in the way Gillis recommends is plainly sensible; translating that reconception into large-scale shifts in our behavior and policies is daunting.
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

Reconceiving our relationship to the shore in the way Gillis recommends is plainly sensible; translating that reconception into large-scale shifts in our behavior and policies is daunting. Stop building homes ever closer to the edge; protect and restore the coastal marshes and wetlands; redesign the levee systems. Those steps are necessary, but part of what slows their being taken is an ingrained recalcitrance that Gillis finds expressed in a term from Canada’s Prince Edward Island: “chasing the shore.” It was long used, Gillis writes, to describe poets or idlers who venture down to the sea for purposes other than hauling lobster traps or digging clams. He notes it in discussing the suspicion with which we have historically viewed activities on the shore as not at home in the rational world—and also to suggest how, in our hyperrational age, the shore’s lure has seemed only to strengthen.

It certainly has for me. Although I’ve never heard the words “chasing the shore” spoken on Prince Edward Island, where I’ve spent some of every summer of my life, it is precisely what I’ve always done there. Sleeping in a fisherman’s shack that my great-grandparents turned into a seasonal cottage, making memories on the red sandbars and mussel-covered rocks of PEI (as the island’s lovers and locals call it), I realize that “chasing the shore” is something my family, like many, has turned into a core vocation and value. In our summer home’s refashioning, and in the larger transformation of the shore it sits on, from the old aquaculture of the indigenous Micmac through to that of the hardscrabble Scots and Irish, is distilled much of what Gillis discusses about our human shores’ past—and their future. The plot on which that cottage sits has been losing a foot of shorefront a year; locals say the erosion is speeding up, apace with waters of the Northumberland Strait, whose level may rise by at least a yard this century.

In our era when climate-change deniers are beginning to resemble those who once denied that germs make us sick, geographers are beginning to speak of the Anthropocene—the epoch of the earth’s history defined by Homo sapiens’ impress on it. For Gillis, turning toward the environment is only logical, as is his recent turn to the shore. “We need to stop looking at [history] as something that emanates from centers,” he told me recently, “and begin to think of it as something that has its origins and dynamics on margins. And coasts, of course, are one of our chief margins.”

The rhetorical flip, grounding his metaphor in real geography, is typical Gillis. But in an academy still structured by old disciplines and ingrained fields of expertise, his call may yet be heeded. In recent years, not a few institutions and scholars have embraced proliferating programs and centers for environmental studies and global affairs to try to address our era’s most pressing concerns. Many such initiatives, in abetting cross-disciplinary work by climatologists and anthropologists who study, say, the linked scientific and social effects of global warming, have shaped public debate on the issue in crucial ways. Reading Gillis, though, one is struck by how few have met that rarest of intellectual challenges: to produce scholarly work not merely made timely by its engagement with varied fields and modern problems, but also enriched by a historian’s understanding of how the human imagination of our planet has helped shape it—and how that history, as Gillis insisted when I visited him at the place that has inspired much of his work, may yet contain seeds for the solving of its problems.

Great Gott Island, where Gillis has spent summers for almost half a century, is a gorgeous bit of evergreened granite with no driveable roads (and no cars), a summer population of some 20 families, and a little wooden shack, down by the wooden jetty in the little harbor, affixed with a sign reading, U.S. Post Office. It’s another place whose evolution from a year-round outpost for a few hearty fisherfolk to summer place of memories for a few bohemians and scribblers mirrors much of what Gillis, a self-proclaimed “islander by choice,” has mined in his books.

Stopping off to see him there, after my yearly pilgrimage to PEI last summer, I strolled around the island with Gillis on a spotless August afternoon. We looked out at white lobster boats bobbing in the glinting blue waves. Gillis took me to the 19th-century wood-frame house that he and his wife bought for $3,000, back in his Prussian-bureaucracy days, then led me toward the small cemetery plot where Great Gott’s minders and lovers—including the Gillises’ son Ben—lie at rest beneath stone graves.

Walking past the little cemetery, I asked John about how he thought this little place, and his life here, had informed his determination to write histories of the world entire. He gestured out toward the waves. “‘Go west, young man!’ That’s the line people draw; they think of history as moving west, across the land. But that’s not how it actually went, except for during a small chapter of history.”

His eyes glinted to match the waves as he invoked a local expression for the bit of human shore I’d just traveled, from Canada’s Maritimes down into New England. “I often say that history went more ‘down east’ than out west. You know how journalists say ‘Follow the money’? Well, follow the wind, follow the tide, follow the shore—you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is a lecturer in geography and American studies at the University of California at Berkeley. His book Island People will be published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Original Article, The Chronicle Of Higher Education

American Coasts, Past and Future, by John R. Gillis

The Human Shore: Seacoasts In History; A book by John R. Gillis
In his new book, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, published by University of Chicago Press, November 2012, historian John R. Gillis explores the deep history of seacoasts, the original home of humankind.

The (Less Than) Eternal Sea

Photograph: © SAF — Coastal Care


“To call the ocean sublime we must regard it as poets do, merely by what strikes the eye; if it is at rest, as a clear mirror of water only bounded by the heaven; if it is restless, as an abyss threatening to overwhelm everything.” —Philosopher Immanuel Kant.

“…We needn’t call upon an angry god to make the sea an object of no small terror. Every year we withdraw from it 160 million tons of fish, deposit in it 7 million tons of garbage. Poisonous chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico have formed a pool of dead water equivalent in size to the state of New Jersey; among the several hundred dead zones elsewhere in the world, one encircles the Chinese coastline.

If the sea levels continue to rise at their current rate, the day is not far off when Miami and Atlantic City become beds for oysters. The fishing in the sea that was once near the surface now is done by trawls the length of locomotives dropped to the depth of a mile and dragged across the bottom, reducing many thousands of square miles of the ocean floor to barren deserts no longer giving birth to the tiny organisms from which emerge the great chains of being that sustain the life of the planet.

Nothing in the sea lives by itself, nothing either on the earth or in the air or in the minds of men. To know the sea is mortal is to know that we are not apart from it. Man is nature creatively refashioning itself. The abyss is human, not divine, a work in progress, whether made with a poet’s metaphor or with a vast prodigious bulk of Styrofoam.” —Lewis Lapham

Read Full Essay, by Lewis Lapham, The Huffington Post

The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail
“To the by-now-familiar story of the various depletions of species over the last 500 years (the haddock by 1930, the cod by 1992), Bolster, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, adds the dimension of events taking place on land, political and economic, cultural and demographic. Drawing together in the same net the two sets of datapoints (from the human maritime community and the marine-biological community), Bolster shows the ocean to be subject not only to the changes occurring over the course of evolutionary and geological time, but also, and ever more rapidly, to those imposed on it by the hand and mind of man.”—Lewis Lapham.