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West Africa Scores High In Disaster Risk

Dakar, Senegal. Photo source: ©© Jeff Attaway


Researchers at the Madrid-based humanitarian research non-profit DARA have developed a new methodology, the risk reduction index, that they say could help more countries assess and reduce the risk of natural hazards and disasters. But an assessment using the index, carried out in six West African countries, found pervasive risks and limited capacity to reduce vulnerability.

The index assesses the capacities and conditions – such as human resources, laws and social norms – available for disaster risk reduction (DRR), according to DARA. “Basically, the risk reduction index looks at local community perceptions related to underlying risk,” said Belen Paley, advocacy manager at DARA. “It takes into account natural hazards that the area is vulnerable or exposed to, as well other aspects of that community’s infrastructure, socioeconomic development, governance and other factors.”

The index was used to create a risk map for different parts of West Africa. Guinea, Mauritania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone all scored below 4.0, indicating they are unprepared to handle natural hazard risks. Cape Verde, Ghana and Senegal scored between 5 and 5.9, meaning they have made some progress on DRR. Senegal, for instance, has set up a civil protection department to work on DRR and a DRR national platform, but coordination between these groups is poor, particularly at the local level, and funding remains inadequate, says DARA.

No countries in the region scored above 6.0, which would indicate that governments are not sufficiently prioritizing DRR activities.

These scores are backed by statistics. The number of people affected by flooding in West and Central Africa has steadily increased between 2007 and 2012, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In 2012, more than 3 million people in the region were affected by flooding, almost half of them in Nigeria. At the same time, droughts in the Sahel have become chronic, and this year 18 million people are estimated to be at risk of hunger across the region, says OCHA.

Climatological hazards, such as drought and flooding, affected more than 34 million Africans in 2012, and caused more than US$1.3 billion in economic losses, between 2011 and 2012, according to the latest data from UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). These are numbers are likely to increase as climate change causes more extreme weather events.

“If people are ready and they are prepared, there is evidence that lives can be saved,” said Sarah Lumsdon, a humanitarian specialist at the NGO Oxfam. “So not only do you use weather systems to warn people, but you build certain structures and places where people can go to for safety.”

But the ability to manage and reduce risk remains low, particularly in developing countries, say DARA and UNISDR. Many African countries have few or no resources available to dedicate to risk management, and in countries where risk interventions are attempted, efforts often remain uncoordinated or misguided.

Plans not implemented

In 2005, 168 countries signed on to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), agreeing to establish action plans to reduce the risk of natural disasters by 2015. While more than half of African countries have established frameworks, very few of them have implemented risk reduction policies and plans, says UNISDR.

“In general, DRR requires a certain level of development on the part of the national government, especially in terms of governance,” said Paley.

Many factors, such as environmental conditions, economic resources and organizational structures, can also affect a country’s ability to carry out effective risk management, she said.

To reduce the risk of natural hazards, experts say countries need to first address underlying risk factors, such as land management and health threats, and then develop more comprehensive risk-reduction strategies. But identifying and effectively addressing these underlying risk factors can be a complicated task for national governments.

The risk reduction index was first introduced in Central America in 2009, during a year-long pilot study. In 2011, DARA launched the risk reduction index in West Africa, partnering with Economic Community of West African States, local governments, donors, NGOs, civil society organizations and UN agencies.

Researchers assessed community perceptions of risk in Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger and Senegal, and presented their findings at national workshops, proposing ways to promote and improve DRR strategies and interventions. Some 60 risk factors were discussed, including air pollution, deforestation, water scarcity, disease prevalence, access to health services, poverty, food insecurity, gender inequality, housing quality, media censorship, conflict and corruption.

Looking at Governance

In assessing countries’ readiness to manage risk, researchers found that governance risk drivers – such as perceived levels of democracy, government effectiveness and rule of law – were important factors.

“It’s not an accident that the governance systems and levels of socioeconomic development [in high-scoring countries] have also been making a lot of progress in transparency and accountability in recent years,” said Paley.

Guinea scored low on the governance scale. People perceived high levels of corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, high poverty and unemployment, and low literacy levels in the country. This combination decreases citizens’ ability to cope with natural hazards and can exclude them from decision-making processes, as well as reduce the ability of their government to respond to crises.

More than 25,000 people were affected by a cholera outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2012. The number of cases was highest in the capitals’ slum areas.

Countries in the Sahel band – Mali, Mauritania, Niger and northern Senegal – scored low on ability to handle risks relating to the environment and natural resources, mainly because water scarcity and desertification are rife.

Rains have changed in the Sahel zone, said Malo Niang, a 55-year-old farmer from Thiedy, in northern Senegal. “The rains are bizarre now,” he said. “They start late. They end early. They aren’t consistent like in the past, and so our crops just cannot grow.”

In coastal countries, such as Guinea and Sierra Leone, soil erosion and land degradation were the priority perceived threats.

Urban-rural divide

Another key finding in West Africa was the stark contrast in perceptions of risk between people living in urban areas and those living in rural areas, said Paley.

“For example, in urban areas, land use and the built environment were pressing concerns, because people living in urban areas viewed those issues [as] much more directly related to increasing their vulnerability to natural hazards.”

This includes infrastructure issues (such as sewage systems), where housing is being built and road conditions.

By contrast, people living in rural areas were much more concerned about matters such as changes in rainfall patterns, soil degradation and deforestation.

Risks relating to urbanization must drive policy decisions in the future, say aid workers with expertise in urban areas.

“West African cities, both the large and the small, are expanding rapidly and face specific challenges related to infrastructure, zoning and spatial planning, which directly contributes to an increased risk from flooding,” said Paley.

With the West Africa population expected to reach more 400 million by 2020 (from 305 million in 2010), such risks will only increase. More than half of Africa’s population is expected to be living in urban environments by 2050, according to a UN-Habitat report [link?].

Nearly 70 percent of people who migrate from rural to urban areas end up living in slums, where building codes and standards are rarely enforced.

Room for hope

But instead of accepting disasters as inevitable, governments and communities can use these findings to prioritize and take action, said Paley.

By making DRR a national and local priority, countries can improve early warning systems, build resilience and strengthen disaster preparedness, reducing economic losses and loss of life.

Countries must also have accountability and transparency systems in place to bring the policies to life, said Paley.

At this stage, the risk reduction index is as much a tool for advocacy as for practice.

“We really just hope that they [the international community and donors] will consider where a country is in terms of its engagement in DRR and how high up DRR is on the development agenda, as well as encourage them to promote and to integrate it more… in its development planning [and poverty reduction strategies],” Paley said.

Original Article, IRIN

Sand-Mining Threatens Homes And Livelihoods In Sierra Leone, IRIN

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Over the past few years, companies and foreign governments have been leasing large areas of land for farming and exploitation, in some of Africa’s poorest countries. All evidence points to a phenomenon of unprecedented scale, raising serious questions about the terms of the contracts that governments are signing up to…


Beach sand mining, Maldives. Photo courtesy of: © Denis Delestrac

“Zandoorlog,” by Peter Dupont;
Article originally published in Dutch, in the Octobrer edition of the Belgian magazine EOS. Translation by Rafael Njotea.

Sand is the new gold. The worldwide excavation of sand on beaches and in rivers and oceans is signalling an ecological and human catastrophe.

A worldwide sand rush is taking place. Sand is bagged by divers on the Maldives, it is towed from beaches to trucks by mules in Morocco, excavated from heavenly beaches by machines in the Philippines. In Indonesia dredge boats suck it up from the bottom of the sea, in Vietnam from the river Con. In Sierra Leone workers excavate every grain from local beaches, while on the other side of the Atlantic, in the Caribbean, sand thieves steal entire beaches unnoticed. Google Earth leaves nothing to the imagination.

The rising sea level devours more and more beaches and sand as well. This is a worrying observation, if we take into account the fact that forty percent of the world population lives within just one hundred kilometres of a shoreline. Governments everywhere are having the impact of global warming on their shores assessed. Only recently, results were published of a research study on the vulnerability of the French sand shores.

What is striking is that amidst all the research being conducted, and even though a proper sand war is being fought on the planet, there is hardly any mention of the disturbing consumption of sand. While water, oil and land crises attract attention easily, the sand crisis is largely being ignored.

Essential Raw Material

Sand is the most wanted raw material on the planet. During the past century and a half it has quietly won a spot in all aspects of our lives. In his book ‘Sand: The Never-Ending Story’ British geologist and sand expert Michael Welland describes sand as an ‘unappreciated hero’. Man has become addicted to sand, says Welland. There is sand in every glass bottle, in the mineral silicon dioxide, which can be found in wine and cleaning products. There is sand in paper, in dried food, detergents, cosmetics, hair spray, toothpaste and a whole range of other products that we use every day. Without sand there would be no microchips, no computer, no mobile phone, no credit card, no ID card. Without sand the 21st century as we know it would not exist. Modern-day information society would be impossible without minerals extracted from sand, like titanium, magnetite, gypsum crystals, uranium and even gold.

But above all, sand is a key raw material for the construction business. Building requires tons of sand. Armoured concrete is two-thirds sand. The construction of a house costs on average two hundred tons of sand. Thirty thousand tons are needed for a one-kilometre stretch of motorway; twelve million tons for a nuclear plant. After water, sand is the most-used material in the world. According to British environment specialist Kiran Pereira, more than fifteen billion tons of sand are consumed on the planet per year.

And the demand for sand keeps rising, crisis or no crisis. Fast growing countries such as China, Brazil, India and rich Arab countries like Dubai have set their sights on sand. But also in other countries the demand for sand is soaring, primarily in construction. Especially near coasts. The growing world population pushes more and more people to the coast. Land reclamation and coastal management have become booming business. Unsurprisingly, the global trade in sand yields 70 billion dollars every year.

However, sand supplies are limited. Old sand quarries are empty, new ones are destroying the landscape. Sand winning from rivers leads to floods and ecological dramas. Biodiversity is going down with it. Rivers are finding other beds, shores are collapsing, bridges are destroyed, species are vanishing. It is impossible to work out exactly how much damage sand excavation does to nature and the environment.

At one point the idea was to get our sand from the desert. It was short-lived: desert sand is worthless. That is why sand is increasingly dredged from oceans. A large part of the ocean floor is covered with a thin layer of sand that has gathered there for the past ten thousand years. Thousands of dredge boats are now shovelling up that free sand, leaving the ocean floors and riverbeds empty. But that story, too, will come to an end. The sand ships’ impact on marine ecology, coastline and fish is enormous. Unfortunately, it has never been calculated on a meta-level.

Ecological Time Bomb

Everywhere in the world beaches, historical barriers against seawater, are being sacrificed to sustain the construction mania, the hunger for land reclamation and other human ‘needs’. On the Maldives, the 1,200 islet archipelago in the Indian Ocean, the excavation of sand from coral reefs and lagoons for the construction of tourist infrastructure has led to the disappearance of several beaches. Many islands have been evacuated; environmental refugees were received on other islands. That, of course, means new buildings, which means more sand. Despite the general fear that almost all of the two hundred inhabitable islands will have to be evacuated by 2100, the excavation continues. The Maldives are literally digging their own grave.

A similar story is playing in many other places on the planet. Wherever possible, sand is excavated, traded, smuggled, raided and stolen. Because of sand, whole ecosystems and coasts are lost, ocean floors, river beds and beaches are plundered. It is an ecological time bomb: the rising sea level on the on hand, disappearing beaches on the other.

Especially in Asia, with its many fast-growing countries and huge population explosion, the sand war is raging. A quarter of sand consumption happens on China’s account. But Singapore, too, uses up a lot. The small island nation saw its landmass grow by twenty percent over the past thirty years, through land reclamation on sea. It was helped solely by a few Flemish and Dutch big-time dredging and land reclamation companies: the Flemish DEME and De Nul and their Dutch competitors Royal Boskalis Westminster and Van Oord. No fewer than 132 square kilometres of sea were made into land in Singapore. By 2030 another hundred square kilometres should be transformed. In other words, the demand for sand is gigantic, not just for the reclamation itself, but also for the construction of new buildings and roads.


Because Singapore has used up its own raw materials and has mined away its hills, it is looking for sand in neighbouring countries. The resulting export prohibition for sand in Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia – because of the huge ecological impact – triggered large-scale sand smuggling in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines a while ago. Sand thieves are stealing entire beaches, thereby jeopardising the survival of dozens of islands in the region. Environmental watchdog Global Witness sounded the alarm in 2010 with its report ‘Shifting Sand’, in which it says that, in addition to the ecological damage done, the import of illegal sand from Cambodia has also created a culture of greed and corruption in the country.

In the report the organisation criticises Singapore, which still refuses to make public the origin of its imported sand, as well as the dredging industry, who, according to Global Witness, build up a green image for themselves while leaving an enormous ecological burden on the planet. Without blinking they are doing in Asia that which they cannot do in the US or Europe.

Singaporean marine biologist Chou Loke Ming (Biological Science Center of the National Institute of Singapore) says what the dredging industry wants to ignore. Together with the ocean floor sand the dredge boats suck up flora and fauna. The impact on the water ecology is disastrous. It destroys coral reefs and decimates fish stocks, which is the de facto end of many fishing communities.

Sand winning around islands also has a large impact on the islands themselves. An island is the product of several natural processes: sand, water, wind and currents. The extraction of sand disturbs the balance and waves, gravity and currents start shifting the sand under the beaches. That could mean the end of an island. Indonesia has seen dozens of islets disappear in the waves that way. In the Northern Philippine coastal towns of Caoayan and San Vincente, on the island of Luzon, the South China Sea has recently begun cutting deep trenches through the beaches. The inhabitants can expect the sea to enter their homes in the near future. In front of the coast, huge sand ships are sucking away their natural line of protection. On the beach, the sand is being excavated meters-deep.

Sand Mafia

Dwindling sand supplies, rising prices and an increased demand have given rise to a sand mafia. In many countries criminals collaborates closely with corrupt governments and police. In over 8,000 places in India, for example, sand is exploited illegally. Forty percent of Morocco’s sand trade involves illegal sand that is excavated and immediately sold on construction sites. There, it is used unprocessed to make concrete, a guarantee for future problems. The Moroccan government fears that most of its country’s beaches are being transformed into a moonscape.

Mother Nature has its own way to counter coastal erosion via a natural supply of sand. Most beach sand comes from rivers that bring it in from the mountains. But exactly these rivers are being dammed up. That effectively stops the migration of sand. Worldwide, almost 850,000 dams are stopping the supply of fresh sand and are holding up one quarter of the sand supplies. River dredging is another cause why half the sand that would normally reach the sea doesn’t succeed in doing that.

Most beaches on our planet have a minor chance of survival. A new, simpler way of life seems to be the only remedy against the consumption of sand. But that is not a realistic remedy. The race for raw materials has started all around the world.

Soon, it will be allowed to exploit international seabeds and ocean floors, too. The International Seabed Authority has already given the go-ahead. This independent organisation, founded in the heart of the United Nations, manages and controls seabed excavation in international waters. At this point, companies can only buy dredging rights for mineral-rich sites. From 2016 onwards they would be able to apply for licenses to actually exploit the bottom of the sea.

Even though biologists think deep sea mining is madness – it’s impossible to assess the impact – it will without doubt instigate a new rush for gold and other precious minerals. In that scenario sand, however deep under water, is quickly put into the mix as well. The discovery of big sand dunes deep under the South China Sea – for one – begs for a more advanced trailing suction hopper dredger head… The raw material war has only just begun.

Sand Wars Movie: Environment Award 2014 Winner At The 11th Annual San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival
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Lost Neighborhoods of the California Coast

Severe coastal erosion, California. Photograph: © SAF — Coastal Care


Each coastal disaster is followed by the inevitable debates about whether rebuilding is the right decision. Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina are good examples, as were the damaging El Niño events along the California coast in 1982–83, 1997–98, and 2009–10.

Coastlines globally have been migrating landward since the last Ice Age ended about 18,000 years ago, and all indications are that this trend will continue in the decades and centuries ahead, most likely at an increased pace as the rate of sea-level rise increases. Retreating from the shoreline is not a new approach, and there are many communities and neighborhoods along the coasts of the United States and elsewhere where relocation has occurred and where formerly developed parcels are now underwater.

Documenting these lost neighborhoods and those that are in the process of disappearing today is important in providing a longer-term perspective of what we face as a state and as a nation. Coastlines are in constant flux, and with few exceptions, they are migrating inland, either gradually or more rapidly during extreme events. Although there are short-term or temporary approaches that have been used for decades to hold back the ocean, they all have their limits. Communities need to assess their vulnerabilities to future sea-level rise and begin to adapt or prepare for the inevitability of a changing shoreline.

A Study by Gary B. Griggs, Institute of Marine Sciences and Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences University of California, Santa Cruz, in Journal of Coastal Research.

Read Full Article, Journal of Coastal Research

We Need to Retreat From the Beach, An Op Ed by Orrin H. Pilkey.
As ocean waters warm, the Northeast is likely to face more Sandy-like storms. And as sea levels continue to rise, the surges of these future storms will be higher and even more deadly. We can’t stop these powerful storms. But we can reduce the deaths and damage they cause…

Sandy Reminds Us of Coastal Hazards, by Dr. Robert Young

Climate-Induced Migration Creates Perils, Possibilities

Antigua. Photo source: ©© Justonlysteve


For Pacific islands like Palau, Tuvalu and Kiribati, the implications of climate change are clear, and devastating. Already, these governments have begun to plan for a future in which entire populations have to relocate as their islands vanish under the rising sea.

But climate change also threatens ways of life in subtler ways, leaving families around the world to work out for themselves how to cope.

Octavio Rodriguez, from Sucre, Colombia, said, “Rains recently have been intense – very intense. Years ago, the rainy season lasted two months, November and December, and water levels reached 20 to 30cm. Now, in the last six to seven months, they’ve reached over 2m. We’ve never seen this before. We don’t want to leave our land: here are our past, our memories, our ancestors. We don’t want to move to other parts; we don’t know what to do there. We would turn into delinquents. We’d enter into a cycle of poverty which happens in the cities.”

Rodriguez’s was one of many voices captured in Moving Stories, a new compilation of interviews from the Climate Outreach and Information Network, which reveals the discussions taking in climate change-affected areas. For many, the issue is how to modify their way of life without abandoning everything they know.

Further from home

Pastoralists may be able to change their grazing grounds, or range further from their main base for longer periods each year. But Hindu Oumarou Ibrahim, from Chad, worries that even these strategies may have their limits. “As a means of survival for us and our animals, we are forced to continuously migrate,” he said, “despite all the risks involved. This is our form of adaptation. We have always mastered it, but if nothing is done to ensure the safety of our space and activities, we risk one day being forced to abandon our way of life.”

Meanwhile Miguel, a farmer from Hueyotlipan, Mexico, works away from home to supplement failing harvests. “The rain is coming later now,” he said, “so that we produce less. The only solution is to go away, at least for a while. Each year I am working for three to five months in Wyoming [in the US]. That’s my main source of income. But leaving my village forever? No, I was raised here and here I will stay.”

Work by the Centre for Migration Research, at the University of Sussex, in collaboration with the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit in Dhaka, Bangladesh, shows that this kind of response is very common, with some family members travelling to find seasonal work or moving to the city for a few months or longer to earn money. Climate-induced migration is far more likely to look like this: temporary and fairly local, an exaggeration of existing patterns, rather than a permanent move across international borders.

Children collect water for their families in the half-light of sunset. Captions and Photo source: ©© Oxfam International

Crisis or opportunity?

The money the migrants earn often supports families back home. It may even enable them to make investments – such as in flood defences, irrigation or new forms of livelihoods – that cushion the effects of the changing climate.

Dominic Kniveton, part of the research team from Sussex, says this kind of migration can be a positive thing. “The framing started around the view of people as vulnerable, as victims; it saw migrants as people that were impacted, something that was bad. As time went on, it started to be seen as adaptational. And, lastly, resilience has got in on the act, with migrants and their remittances being seen as building resilience for the community.”

But he worries that governments still tend to see rural-to-urban migration as exclusively negative, and that they are often compelled to create barriers to this movement. If they instead recognized it as useful behaviour, governments could do far more to assist migrants, such as improving working conditions in the sectors where migrants find jobs and providing training in the skills demanded in cities.

He says that Bangladesh, where the team has been working, has a long history of migration. “Irrespective of climate variability and change, people see this as a norm of behaviour. On one hand, we say that we don’t want people to be displaced, but we do say that, possibly, in certain contexts, migration can help people cope with future issues. What you want to do is… push people into a position where they have the conditions to take advantage, and remove them from the displacement situation.”

The perils of displacement

Kniveton spoke last week at a meeting in London that was also attended by Bangladesh’s high commissioner to the UK, Mohamed Mijarul Quayes. Quayes is one of his country’s most senior diplomats, and has considerable experience in international climate and environmental negotiations. He is concerned that emphasizing the usefulness of adaptive behaviour could obscure that fact that, for some people, there is no way to adapt – their homes are simply going to disappear. This will include people living in Bangladesh’s low-lying coastal areas and on land washed away when rivers change course.

“It is not a question of people making a choice of migration,” he says. “If you have a displacement, it’s a wholesale displacement, because there is no place to stay and the access to opportunities is washed away, all gone. And there will be people competing for opportunities in the equally populous contiguous zones… This movement would push [people] further, and there would inevitably be transboundary movement of people, tying up with gun-running and trafficking, smuggling drugs and the rest.”

For Quayes, those pressed to move because of climate change are displaced people, pure and simple. It bothers him that, while they may have the status of internally displaced persons within their own country, international conventions offer them no protection when they cross international borders, unlike those moving to escape persecution or violence.

He accepts that the political climate might not be favourable to creating a new, binding international instrument that, by offering protection, might encourage more migration. But he says that other arguments for helping these migrants can be made.

“We are as effective as our resolve. It’s critically important, therefore, to create ownership of taxpayers who recognize that this is important, not just from altruistic considerations, but because it affects all of us,” he told IRIN. “But if that doesn’t happen, we would have to fall back on what I call the securitization agenda.”

Driving migration underground encourages people-smuggling and other illicit activities, for example. “If you securitize [the issue], you will see funds running in there, because big boys tend to see security threats as more important than humanitarian issues,” Quayes said.

Meanwhile, back in Bangladesh, Mohamed Rashed and his neighbours in Qumira Char lie awake at night, filled with anxiety. “We lost mosques, a school, shops, farms,” he said. “We are scared of the sea now. Gradually, it comes closer to our homes. When we sleep, we are scared. Every year, the tide rises more and comes in further. Next year, this village may not exist.”

“Flood in Bangladesh,” climate change canvas by Students at Charupeeth School of Fine Art,
Jessore, south-western Bangladesh.
The painting was first used for an Oxfam International campaign that was publicised by Jugantor – a major national newspaper. Readers sent more than 80,000 postcards to the G8 embassies in Bangladesh, calling for them to “Stop Harming, Start Helping”. Artists from around the world have painted canvases illustrating the human impact of climate change in their countries. Sixteen of these canvases have been exhibited at the UN Climate Negotiations in Poznan, Poland, 2008. Captions and Photo source: ©© Oxfam International

Original Article, IRIN

Nantucket’s Big Dig: How could it happen?

By © Nantucket Coastal Conservancy;

“We are lifted up by the outpouring of concern voiced by citizens far and wide for Nantucket’s beaches. The destruction of our pristine beach below the bluff in Sconset, a legacy from the Proprietors to future generations of islanders and visitors, is simply unacceptable.

As 2014 begins, we resolve to re-double our efforts to come together to preserve and protect one of Nantucket’s most precious, and threatened, resources, as evidenced by what has been happening in the past days. The photos speak for themselves.

Coastal communities in the Commonwealth, as well as up and down the seaboard, are dealing with the issue of erosion and erosion control. The situation Nantucket finds itself in — wealthy property owners who want to protect their investments at any cost, adjacent property owners who may be harmed by the adverse impacts of various proposals, citizens concerned with the environmental impacts of what is being proposed, local government officials caught between constituencies, contractors who stand to benefit from the money to be spent, the difficulty and reluctance, especially in a small island community, of speaking out against neighbors — is not unique.

However, Nantucket is Nantucket. We treasure our natural coastline. Our beaches make us who we are. They are a key driver of our economy. Going forward, we commit to working even harder to bring our community together to ensure that this knowing destruction of our environment never happens again. Please join us. Wishing all a New Year filled with resolve and promise.”—Nantucket Coastal Conservancy.

NANTUCKET’S BIG DIG: How could it happen?

The Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF), a private, not-for-profit organization formed by property owners in the early 90s, has been trying unsuccessfully to hard-armor Sconset Bluff. They are attempting to stop, or at best delay, the forces of nature to protect their houses that are perched on the edge of this iconic eroding headland.

Erosion has been an issue in the eastern area of Nantucket for millennia: when the original lots were laid out on Baxter Road in the late 19th century, the developer purposely included land on the western side of the street, so that there would be room to relocate structures threatened by erosion. Unfortunately, much of that property has been sold over the decades, so is no longer available.

The beach below the bluff is a public one, owned by the citizens of Nantucket, a legacy from the Proprietors who took positive action in the 1880s to ensure that this stretch of coast would be in the public domain in perpetuity.

The Nantucket Conservation Commission (ConCom), comprised of seven members appointed by the Board of Selectmen, is responsible for implementing and enforcing the Nantucket Wetland Bylaw, as well as the State Wetlands Protection Act, both of which safe guard wetland resources such as coastal banks, dunes and beaches. The local bylaw is more restrictive than the State statute.

SBPF has received numerous permits from the ConCom during the past twenty-or-so years to install several different forms of soft erosion-protection alternatives that have had varying results.

However, within the past few years, SBPF has been attempting to get approval from the ConCom to install hard-armoring structures without success. ConCom has denied a number of hard-armoring proposals put forth by SBPF, including two variations of rocks in metal baskets (gabions), as well as a four-layer geotextile sea wall. A proposal for a 4,000-foot rock revetment is currently on hold.

What are the differences between soft and hard coastal-erosion alternatives? Soft options are designed to work with Mother Nature, to mimic the natural coastal processes and minimize adverse impacts. Soft alternatives are consistent with both local and State law, as well as the best practices for coastal management, as contained in the Storm Smart Program developed by the Office of Coastal Zone Management, a part of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

“We treasure our natural coastline. Our beaches make us who we are…”
— Nantucket Coastal Conservancy

Hard erosion-protection alternatives, on the other hand, are attempts to draw lines in the sand, to work against Mother Nature and to wall off the sea. Hard coastal engineering structures are inconsistent with local and State law, except under certain circumstances, and have been prohibited, not only in Massachusetts, but also in other states as well.

According to Mr. Joseph Vietri, Director of the National Planning Center for Coastal and Storm Damage for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New York, even the Army Corps does not recommend sea walls facing open ocean, as in Sconset: “And I would agree 100 percent—I am very much and we very much do not recommend walls or any kind of vertically aligned structures along an open ocean coastline.”

After the storms of last winter and spring, erosion in a northern section of Baxter Road, the public way that runs along the crest of the bluff with houses on both the east and west of it, accelerated. The Town of Nantucket, which has an obligation to provide access and utilities to structures located on Town-owned roads, acted to provide such services by securing alternate access to the properties from the west, or landward side of Baxter Road.

At this point, SBPF, citing an emergency, entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Town to attempt to abate the emergency by providing “temporary” protection to the toe of the bluff and keep Baxter Road from breaching while alternate plans were put in place. In return, SBPF agreed to fund this phase of the agreement.

However, if the Town declined to “cooperate” with SBPF in attempting to stabilize the toe of the bluff, residents in the area made it clear that they would, in turn, refuse to cooperate with the Town in securing alternate access and would “exercise their legal rights” to thwart the Town’s acting on its own.

A proposal to install a 4,000-foot rock revetment was filed with the ConCom by SBPF and supported by the Town. After a less-than-promising series of hearings held this summer, the project has been put on hold by the applicant, who filed a second hard-armoring proposal, this time with the Town as co-applicant, for a four-layered geotextile sea wall.

After due deliberation, the ConCom indicated that there were “reasonable alternatives” to the geotextile wall, citing a preferred soft solution, sand-filled jute bags. Following this vote, the proposal was modified, as requested by the Commission, to a hybrid structure, part geotextile tube and part jute bags.

However, SBPF wanted what they wanted: a hard-armoring solution. They persisted and, as a single applicant without the Town, filed an Emergency Request for a four-layered geotextile sea wall, the same project that the Commission had previously indicated they would not permit. The Emergency Request was denied by a vote of 5-to-1. (Almost simultaneously, the Town filed for an Emergency Permit, as sole applicant, for the hybrid structure which was approved by the ConCom, on a vote of 5-to-1.)

SBPF immediately appealed the decision to the State DEP under the State Wetlands Protection Act. A hearing was held on site by the DEP. The Regional Director issued an order shortly thereafter approving an emergency, 30-day permit to construct the four-layered, hard-armoring project, although local approval had not yet been secured.

Subsequently the Town joined SBPF in applying for a new, joint Emergency Permit, again seeking approval to install a four-layer geotextile wall. SBPF, as well as the Town, cited the DEP approval of such a structure on appeal as evidence of its appropriateness to the situation and its compliance with environmental standards, at least on an emergency basis.

The Nantucket Conservation Commission, which has been hearing the various joint SBPF-Town proposals for erosion control projects in the area since July, approved a 30-day Emergency Permit for a three-layered project, not a four-layered one as proposed. A number of Commissioners expressing misgivings, preferring the hybrid option, but obviously were influenced by the DEP ruling.

Construction work began immediately.

Sharon and Dirck Van Lieu, principals of Van Lieu Photography, have been blogging and documenting the installation of the project, now in progress. This “temporary” installation, as evidenced by the photos, has been repeatedly referred to as “Nantucket’s Big Dig.”

And it is.

The project is estimated to cost in the vicinity of $2.9 million, to be paid by SBPF. It will require monitoring, maintenance and mitigation for as long as it is in place. According to testimony before the ConCom, it will result in the narrowing of the public beach and its eventual destruction.

Under the rules of an emergency permit, the applicants must file a standard Notice of Intent within 30 days to seek a regular permit for the project. The Commission could conceivable deny the application, and, if it does, could order the $2.9 million sea wall to be removed.

According to the provisions of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) entered into by SBPF and the Town (by a split Board of Selectmen vote of 3-to-2), this project is only phase one of a multi-phase effort. As stated in the MOU, the BOS has agreed that when the time comes they will seek taxpayer funding for extension of the installation.

A prominent local scientist has referred to these types of projects — revetments of rocks or geotextile tubes — as the “most environmentally damaging” ever to happen to Nantucket, if permitted and installed. A former ConCom Chair has publicly called hard-armoring as “antiquated as jousting and probably not as effective.”

Clearly, the State approval has had an impact.

How could the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have approved an Emergency Order for a geotextile sea wall that had been denied by the Nantucket Conservation Commission, not once but twice, and is antithetical to all of the best practices of erosion-control recommended by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts through its Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM)?

Are people with money and influence and enough persistence able to get what they want at the State level, despite repeated denials by the local permitting body? Could this action by the DEP have been a political one, not an environmental one?

Concerned citizens believe that this matter is worthy of full inquiry, as the harm to Nantucket and its environmental resources as well as its regulatory processes are without precedent. Islanders have been careful and attentive stewards of the Nantucket environment. They have been cited for their efforts in this regard over the years, notably with the establishment of the Land Bank in the 70s, the first of its kind in the country.

How could Nantucket’s Big Dig happen?

The community needs an answer.

A first step is to hold our local elected officials accountable for their decisions. None of this would have been possible without a majority of the Board of Selectmen, three of whom have voted consistently to support the endeavor underway in Sconset.

“Sand, the new gold on Nantucket?.”
— Nantucket Coastal Conservancy

The decision to license the public beach below the bluff was made at a 4:00 meeting on a Friday afternoon just before the holidays — this, despite the fact that the citizens of Nantucket have indicated time and time again that we want to have a say in how our land will be used.

Not only did we not have a say, the reality is that the decision made by three of our highest elected representatives will result in the loss of our beach, a legacy to the people of Nantucket from the Proprietors.

There is time for the Board to reconsider. There are less harmful alternatives that will still enable the Town to meet its obligations.

These three members need to hear from concerned citizens, just as they have been hearing from SBPF and Baxter Road residents. Here is their email contact information. Communications to the entire Board of Selectmen can be sent to Erika Mooney, Executive Assistant to the Town Manager, with the request that the information be shared with the BOS members. However, one-to-one, personal contact is the most effective, as we know.

Heading into the New Year, our resolve remains steadfast. We commit to re-doubling our efforts to preserve and protect Nantucket’s natural beaches.

First and foremost, we will organize ourselves in a more formal way, providing non-profit structure and governance for our grass-roots group that has grown strong and broad from our original advocacy beginnings.

It is clear that this issue is going to be the seminal one for Nantucket for the immediate and foreseeable future, and, with your support, we intend to marshal the resources necessary to address it in an effective way. Quite frankly, we have been hesitant to form one more non-profit organization, but given the events of the past few months, our mission is more urgent and longer-term than we had originally envisioned.

More specifically, we will continue to monitor upcoming hearings and provide timely and fulsome reports. We will continue to compile photographic documentation of the installation currently under construction in Sconset, as well as other projects around the island. We intend to upgrade our website and make it the go-to place for current and accurate information about this important issue, once we have the financial resources to do so. We will continue our almost daily postings on Facebook and invite you to join the hundreds, now thousands, of people who read them on a regular basis.

Sand, the new gold on Nantucket?
Martin McKerrow provides excellent photographs illustrating the use of sand excavated from mid-island for this project. The mitigation alone will require 22 cubic yards of sand per linear foot of the project, 900 feet, on an annual basis, more if needed, to offset adverse impacts to adjacent coastal areas. At this point in the installation process, it appears that the excavated sand, transported by dump truck through Sconset to northern Baxter Road, is being used to provide fill for the geotubes, as well as back-fill, as the three-layered structure is put in place. Captions and Photo, courtesy of: © Nantucket Coastal Conservancy.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Nantucket Coastal Conservancy
“As you may know, the Nantucket Coastal Conservancy is a grass-roots coming together of concerned citizens, a diverse group of fishermen, environmentalists, naturalists, seasonal and year-round residents, who originally advocated against the SBPF beach-dredging proposal in 2009. Since that time, we have re-grouped with a broader mission: To preserve and protect Nantucket’s coastal resources, especially our natural beaches. We are especially concerned about the hard-armoring of the iconic ’Sconset Bluff and the adverse consequences that such a huge, engineered wall of rocks or geotextile tubes will have on our environment, and our beaches.”

Learn More And Donate

Nantucket Coastal Conservancy On Facebook

Original Article, Nantucket Coastal Conservancy

Global Lessons for Adapting Coastal Communities to Protect against Storm Surge Inundation

Coastal erosion at Main Beach surf lifesaving tower, Australia’s Gold Coast. Captions And Photo source: ©© Citt


“Coastal inundation as a result of global sea-level rise and storm surge events is expected to affect many coastal regions and settlements. Adaptation is widely accepted as necessary for managing inundation risk. However, managing inundation risk is inherently contentious because of many uncertainties and because a large number of stakeholder interests and values are mobilized.

For these reasons, among others, adaptation progress in many countries has been slow. Despite progress in adaptation research, a critical knowledge gap remains regarding the appropriateness and applicability of various adaptation options, including their transferability between different coastal settings. We review the international literature on coastal adaptation options (including options to defend, accommodate, or retreat) to manage inundation risk, focusing on developed, liberal economies of Western Europe, North America, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand…”

Twelves Apostles, Australia. Photo source: ©© Ben Houdijik

Read Full Article, Journal Of Coastal Research

After Hurricane Sandy, One Man Tries To Stop The Reconstruction

Photo source: ©Jeremy M. Lange


Geologist Orrin Pilkey predicted exactly what a storm like Sandy would do to the mid-Atlantic coast and New York City. On a tour of destruction after the deluge, he and David Gessner ponder a troubling question: Why are people rebuilding, as if all this isn’t going to happen again?

“The Prophet and I returned to the drowned city. Trailing robes behind him, he will point his wooden staff at the places where the waters rose, the subway steps turned into rapids, and the cross streets became fast-flowing inlets. He’ll gesture toward the river, explaining how it was pushed back by the winds and tide, how the full moon affected this most modern of places. Four years ago, when he pointed at these same spots and told me what was going to happen to New York City, I only half believed him. Now I believe, along with everyone else. We have seen it with our own eyes…”

Read Full Article, Outside Magazine, November 2013 Issue

Aerial pictures of North Carolina’s coast, after superstorm Sandy devastated the area. Photo courtesy of: © Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS) / WCU

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.