Retreat from a Rising Sea? some day, maybe, but not now

February 26, 2020

Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change

Responding to a book by Orrin H Pilkey, Linda Jarvis-Pilkey, and Keith C. Pilkey (Columbia University Press, 2016)

 Most of my experience at the beach has been along the Pacific shore, with rocky bluffs, compact beaches, and beach communities interspersed. In more recent times, my attention has been enlarged to include beaches along the Atlantic shore, especially in Florida where one of my sons and his wife established their home in 1984—briefly near Miami and then near Orlando. In later years, they have lived on barrier islands, first New Smyrna Beach and now Amelia Island, Florida’s northern-most tract of land.

In preparation for my 2020 winter visit, I decided to learn more about the current state of the perpetual battle between land and sea. With my bicycle, I can ride up and down the island, stopping at beach entry points along the way. I can talk with people, permanent residents and winter visitors. And I can read—full-length, scholarly books, papers accessed on-line, and other materials available in local bookstores and the Nassau County Library in Fernandina Beach.

Looking for a book to take with me, I discovered the writings of Orrin H. Pilkey, born in 1934 and now retired from a career as professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University. By himself or with others, he has published many books on this topic—nineteen according to one list. Two titles caught my eye: A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands (2003) and Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change (2016). Since the more recent was immediately available from my Indianapolis library, that’s the one with which my reading has begun. Co-authors are his geologist daughter Linda Pilkey-Jarvis and lawyer son Keith C. Pilkey.

Although only two pages in length, the book’s “Foreword,” contributed by the Santa Aquila Foundation,” summarizes the issues which the Pilkeys address. “For the past two centuries, two trends have been steady and clear around the United States. Sea level has been rising, and more people have been moving closer to the coast.” Referring to statistics from the United Nations, the Foreword states that “half of the world’s population lives within 40 miles of the sea, and three quarters of all large cities are located on the coast. Furthermore, most of the world’s megacities, with more that 2.5 million inhabitants, are in the coastal zone” (p. vi).

With a more accusatory tone, the Foreword continues: “Modern humankind appears to be the only species on earth whose propensity is to migrate its habitat counter-intuitively, ruled solely by will, preference, greed, and most dangerously, a sense of technological and engineering invulnerability against nature’s changes” (p. vii).

The first chapter describes Miami and New Orleans, cities that are among the most endangered of any cities in the world. Although the geological and weather-related factors differ significantly, both cities face what would seem to be irresolvable prospects. After discussing, in later chapters, the challenges faced by other cities around the world, the authors describe various ways in which people everywhere, and especially in the United States “deny, debate, and delay” the inexorable conflict between sea level and coastal shores. The only adequate response, they affirm, is to plan orderly retreats from the locations where the dangers are increasing and the outcomes inexorably destructive.

When I asked my son what he and his neighbors think about these matters, he stated that on Amelia Island, in contrast to many beach communities in Florida, development is inside the dunes rather than on the ocean side. Natural protections are still in place. Here the problems of greatest import are hurricanes and storm surges. As for his own home, it is on one of the highest parts of the island and has more secure access to the mainland than is available in many coastal communities. He showed little anxiety about their future on Florida’s northern-most barrier island.

On one of my bike rides—ten miles down to the George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier at the southern tip of the island—I talked with a Virginia couple, probably in their eighties, who are spending a few days in a condo near where we were sitting in the warm sunshine. The husband, a retired geologist and university professor, discounted the seriousness of sea-level rise. When I mentioned the Pilkey book, they laughed because the two men are well-acquainted through academic activities. “When we were planning own beach home,” they told me, “Orrin tried hard to keep us from building. We built it there anyway.”

Like most of us, I fear, they plan to wait a while before beginning their inevitable retreat.


Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Christian and a Democrat

February 8, 2020

Reviewing A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, by John F. Woolverton with James D. Bratt (Eerdmans, 2019)

How does the religious faith of American presidents inform their political actions? This is the general question that drives John Woolverton’s religious biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Woolverton taught church history at Virginia Theological Seminary and was editor in chief of Anglican and Episcopal History during a period he describes as “the counter-reformation of the Reagan-Bush years.” He writes that the kind of religious faith that motivated the thirty-second president “has been less in evidence in the present century.”

The reason he gives is that in the present century we are “overshadowed in part by the conservative Christian right” (p. xv). Woolverton was writing prior to 2014; one wonders how he would state his question now given the even more puzzling relationship of faith, politics, personal morality, and social thought during the Trump presidency. As someone who honors both the religious faith and political action of Roosevelt throughout his years of leadership, I can look with genuine appreciation upon the way that this president combined his religious and political roles even though I feel uneasy about the mixing of religion and politics in the nation’s leadership structures.

The irreligion and irregular politics of the forty-fifth president, in office as I write this review, and the doctrinaire Christian leadership with which he is allied, renew my conviction of the continuing importance of maintaining the “wall of separation” between church and state that has been central to our tradition and practice.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt began his presidency, March 4, 1933, I was seventeen months old, and when he died, April 12, 1945, I was in the eighth grade. Our teacher was out of the room when the announcement of his death was broadcast throughout the school. Thinking that something should be done, I asked the class to stand for a minute of silence in respect. This was my first act of public religious leadership.

I have always had a high regard for Roosevelt’s leadership during the Great Depression when my family lived in serious poverty and during World War II when all that the civilized world values was facing destruction. Not until reading this book, however, have I understood how closely connected personal faith and public politics were intertwined in Roosevelt’s life. Woolverton portrays the president as a life-long, serious-minded, active Episcopal layman, with a well-worn Bible and much-used Book of Common Prayer. In his church life, he learned standards for personal life and also standards for public life. Woolverton notes the Episcopal Church’s importance in producing “a disproportionate number of leaders of the Social Gospel” (p. 3).

More important as a central theme throughout the book is the triad of faith, hope, and charity that Paul sets forth in 1 Corinthians 13:1–13. Even if Roosevelt was less aware that he was transforming these religious virtues into social policy than Woolverton wants his readers to understand, this book is persuasive and enlivening. Woolverton quotes extensively from Roosevelt’s speeches. He shows Roosevelt’s reliance upon friends and staff, such as Endicott Peabody and Frances Perkins, in thinking through issues he faced during his presidency. Read more . . . A Christian and a Democrat

Will 130 Million e-Assist Bikes Save Tomorrow’s Cities?

February 1, 2020

Bicycling with Deloitte to the Winter Farmers’ Market

I began a late January Saturday morning in Indianapolis by reading “Cycling’s technological transformation,” a fifteen-page segment of Deloitte’s much longer Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Predictions 2020. I had been alerted to the report by a summary published on social media by Carlton Reid, historian and journalist in the United Kingdom. According to the Deloitte report, cycling will be the second most important innovation in 2020, the roll-out of industrial 5G being first on the list and the continued rise of podcasting as third.

The Deloitte writers “predict that tens of billions of additional bicycle trips per year will take place in 2022 over 2019 levels” and “will double the number of regular bicycle users in many major cities where cycling to work is still uncommon.” A graph shows the percentage of journeys taken by bicycle in “the top 22 cities” around the world. Montreal is the only North American city on the graph and is one of 16 where the percentage of trips by bicycle is less than 10 percent. Even in those cities the total number of bicycle trips per year is several billion.

The subtitle for this report is “Making bicycling faster, easier, and safer.” The major emphasis is upon the development of “an array of diverse technological innovations,” the most important being electrification made possible by using light weight lithium-ion batteries. These easily charged batteries make it possible to improve lighting, lock bikes more securely, and help cyclists ride faster. The result is that cycling becomes “a more attractive option for first-mile, last-mile, and overall travel.”

I have been an aggressive road cyclist for a full half-century and commuted to my teaching post year-round even when the high temperature hovered around zero. I have been retired for more than twenty years, am widowed, and no longer own an automobile. My two classic road bikes, powered only by my legs and lungs, are my primary means of getting around town. In my flat, mid-western city, freeway overpasses seem to be the steepest grades anywhere near.

Arthritis is settling into place, however, and the value of e-assist cycling is becoming attractive. This next summer, I may acquire a new bike, an e-assist, small-wheeled, fast-folding bike that really can be used for the first and last miles of a trip. The Deloitte report shows that I will be right up to date with the latest trend.

In the meantime, it still is winter in Indianapolis, and at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning time for my weekly bike ride to the Winter Farmers’ Market, scarcely a mile from my front door. My winter road bike has fenders and a generator-driven light. I could ride on a wide, public trail—an engineer’s delight—all the way from my apartment to within a block of the market, but my preferred route is on public streets with OK paving and easy-going traffic. With backpack and front basket, I make the trip most Saturdays, but this morning I hesitated for reasons not discussed in the Deloitte report—temperature of 34 degrees; snow flurries; and wet streets.

After stepping outside to confirm that the streets were not slick, I layered on my rain clothes and rode to the market. On fall mornings earlier in the season, there sometimes are a dozen or more bikes fastened to the bike stands during the hour I spend at the market shopping, snacking, listening to the music, and talking with people. One recent morning the number of bikes was much reduced, but one of them was a beautiful Santana triple. Today two bikes were fastened to the stand when I arrived. Both were gone when I came back out, but another bike had taken their place.

Staff at the headquarters booth tell me that attendance averages about 1,500 during each three-and-a-half-hour Saturday morning. Like me, people spend their time wandering around among some fifty-five to sixty vendors. Most of them, I am confident, live within six miles of the market, the “shorter journeys” that Deloitte says constitute “nearly three in five private car trips in the United States.” So why don’t people bicycle to the market?

Recent conversations with family and friends provide one answer, that most people have not learned how to ride in traffic or equipped themselves or their bicycles for uses other than casual recreation. For them, new skills and new attitudes would have to be learned. If my wife, who had not bicycled as an adult, were still living, we would drive to the market every week just as most other people do.

I’m all for making bicycling faster, easier, and safer in the ways described in the Deloitte report. I hope that my city, Indianapolis, continues its efforts to improve streets and the cycling infrastructure to encourage an ever-greater number of people to bike instead of drive on short trips—a mile or two, maybe even five or six. Something else, however, also has to be done.

The Deloitte editors conclude their report with a full page entitled “The Bottom Line” in which they state that improving bicycling technology “is only part of the picture . . . The other, equally important part is to support policies and programs that promote bicycling.” They focus attention on two topics: (1) How riding a bicycle, even an e-assist bicycle, can improve health; and (2) How employers can become “involved in shaping healthier commuter habits.”

The report acknowledges that even with these changes in attitude and policy, bicycling will continue to be “only a small fraction of urban transportation modes. Even so, “in terms of impact . . . bicycling can be immensely important” to improving the quality of life in cities like Indianapolis and the well-being of our planet home.