The Water Will Come

March 31, 2020


In 2012, soon after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City, journalist and author Jeff Goodell visited the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The neighborhood smelled of mold and rot, but people were putting their lives back together. Although he had been writing about climate change for a decade, this experience “made it visceral” for him in a way that TV images, interviews with scientists, and his previous studies had not been able to do.

The direct result of this experience was writing The Water Will Come in order “to tell a true story about the future we are creating for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. It begins with this: the climate is warming, the world’s great ice sheets are melting, and the water is rising. . . . Sea level rise is one of the central facts of our time, as real as gravity. It will reshape our world in ways most of us can only dimly imagine” (p. 8).

One of the strengths of this book is that it tells stories that are both intellectually persuasive and viscerally powerful. Goodell travels to the places that he discusses, talks with people who live there (either as their home or for extended periods of time), and writes in a way that takes readers of the book along with him. We visit obvious locations in the United States with Miami and environs, New York City, and New Orleans as primary examples. Among the most perilous locations in the United States are military installations and at least one nuclear power plant.

We go to European locations, especially the Netherlands and Venice, where people, in contrasting ways, have lived creatively with ocean waters for generations, but which now are facing even more challenging problems. Along the way we visit Lagos, Nigeria, and other African locations that are trying to maintain urban societies in locations vulnerable to rising seas.

We travel to Greenland and Alaska (with President Obama in Air Force One) and in the process experience the dramatic melting and breaking up of the gigantic ice shields that have long stored vast quantities of the earth’s fresh water. Perhaps the most tragic of the places that Goodell helps us visit are the island states, including the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, which rising ocean waters are making uninhabitable by even a few people, let along ancient civilizations.

He describes the tragic injustice resulting from the way of life in wealthy nations, such as Europe and the United States, which causes the waters to rise and destroy little places that have contributed virtually nothing to climate change. As we travel along, Goodell fills in stories drawn from ancient cultural memories, such as Noah’s flood, and reports geological studies that recount the earth’s history of changing water levels.

During these travels we listen in on conversations between Goodell and experts who are in charge of technological developments designed to keep cities like Miami and Venice and countries like the Netherlands safe from the rising waters. In connection with one of these projects, which had not yet become operable, he writes that “these gates were designed to do nothing less than hold back the sea, one of the primal forces of nature. That humans could even contemplate building such a tool was evidence either of the power of technological innovation or of the folly of human hubris—or both” (p. 131).

Hubris—excessive pride or self-confidence—is the right word to describe the attitude of one public official who spoke to a crowd that was celebrating Miami Beach’s 100th anniversary. Responding to a critic who doubted that the city would be able to stage a 200th anniversary party, he affirmed that innovative solutions would come about “that we cannot even imagine today.” Goodell’s response is that “the future will not take care of itself. It will be shaped by decisions we made yesterday and will make tomorrow. . . . Smart cities will develop master plans, articulate long-term strategic visions, revise zoning ordinances, pass tax incentives to shift to higher ground. But that’s just a start” (p. 269).

The hardest decision, but also the one that Goodell affirms, is to retreat. One reason it is so hard even to consider is that we have spent energy and money to stay where we are and thus it is difficult “to just fold up our tents and move to higher ground.” Retreat, he continues, is the opposite of geoengineering.” Instead of relying on scientists to solve our problems, we have to take individual actions based on the willingness to change how we live. “Most of all, it means giving up the war with water and admitting that nature has won” (270).

As is true for most Americans, I live far from rising seas, so I don’t face the need for immediate retreat. My challenge is, perhaps, more subtle. I am one of countless millions whose way of life leads directly to climate change. Only as people like me change the way we live will there ever be the possibility of saving the civilized world as we know it.

(The Water Will Come is published by Brown, Little, 2017. Other books by Goodell include Big Coal and How to Cool the Planet.)

Spring Training with Tips from “Bike for Life”

March 26, 2020

For Indy Bike Rider, spring training has begun with tips from Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100

Mass Ave 1Most aggressive bike riders, as I used to think of myself, ease up during winter months, which means that when daffodils and red bud trees are blooming it’s time to begin spring training for the season’s first big event. For twenty years my season opener was TOSRV—the Tour of the Scioto River Valley—210 miles in two days, from Columbus, Ohio, to Portsmouth, on Mother’s Day weekend.

In more recent years, while I lived in the Pacific Northwest, my early spring training began in February when I visited my bicycling son in Florida and prepared for a 500-mile week in southern Arizona riding with PAC Tour, one of the nation’s elite cycling organizations.

Living on the edge of Portland helped me keep in shape because on mild winter days, I could take a three-hour spin through downtown to Portland State University, up Montgomery Drive to Skyline Boulevard for several miles of short uphill sprints, and then drop back down to the St. Johns’ Bridge for a few more flatland miles back home.

Now that I live in Indiana again, where the world is flat and winter is real (although gentler than it used to be), and there is no big event to pull me forward, getting in shape for summer requires a deliberate plan for spring training. Furthermore, I keep getting older and my orthopedics are increasingly troublesome. Despite the counsel of two sports medicine doctors and the guidance of physical therapists, I ride slower and hurt more than I used to. Here’s where Roy Wallack and Bill Katovsky’s counsel in Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100 is helping me now that plants and trees are blooming again in central Indiana. Two of their ideas are shaping this season’s program.

Goals: In chapter one, they profile three cyclists (ages 45, 60, and 60) “who are getting stronger and younger every day” because they have established goals for their cycling. “Goals give you a reason to get on the bike. They give your training purpose, urgency, and excitement.” All of this I really need!

Periodization: Periodization, they write, “is a series of methodical, progressive physical challenges, peppered with variety and punctuated with rest.” Each period can last from four weeks to several months. Looking forward, I see two periods for this season.

The first is early May, about six weeks from now. In keeping with my TOSRV tradition (if this were an ordinary year), the logical goal would be a two-day ride out and back to an interesting place that is far enough away to challenge but close enough to be within my capabilities. One of Indiana’s state parks would be my first choice. Because of the corona virus, however, staying in public accommodations makes little sense. I’ll probably settle for two 50-mile loops from by bachelor pad—my Zionsville triangle for one and another still to be decided.

My second goal is for something more challenging near my 89th birthday on Halloween. One possibility is to do my traditional birthday ride—a mile for each year of my life—but as I grow older and diminish in strength these birthday rides are ever harder to do. An alternative is to ride a second, but longer, two-day out-and-back—maybe Indianapolis to Richmond, seventy miles distant, near the Ohio line. I have not made this trip since returning in Indiana and there are interesting byways and historic sites to visit along the way. By then, we can ardently pray, the pandemic will be over.

With these reflections in mind, I began my spring training on March 23, an overcast day with a temperature in the low forties, and only the slightest whisper of a breeze. Following my guidebook’s advice, I chose a route that I’ve done only a couple of times in the past rather than one of my regular rides. A short distance from my downtown apartment, I ventured forth onto Massachusetts Avenue—Mass Ave—a diagonal that parallels train tracks running toward the northeast and continuing far beyond the city’s outermost boundary. At Thirtieth Street, I cut across to Arlington Avenue, a north-south arterial, and then turned back toward the city on Pleasant Run Parkway, cycling on familiar streets the rest of the way home.

It was not a very long ride, even for me right now—only 14.27 miles, and slow, averaging 12.1 miles per hour—but it’s my first ride for this year’s spring training. Two more rides this week will complete the 50+ miles per week that are on my training docket from now until income tax day.

During these troubling times, when safety calls for keeping one’s distance, I had only one moment of social interaction. On Pleasant Run Parkway, as I cycled about 15 mph, a youngish couple were walking hand-in-hand along the sidewalk about twenty feet away. “Nice Waterford,” he called out, referring to my twenty-year-old touring bike. “Thank you!” I yelled back, hoping that he could hear even though we rapidly were moving out of earshot. For Indy Bike Rider, spring training has begun.

What Do We Pray in Times of Crisis?

March 21, 2020

Home Worship Center

In 1983 a Catholic theologian named David N. Power introduced a new book (Unsearchable Riches: The Symbolic Nature of Liturgy) by stating that we live in a time of crisis. In such a time we have to ask if the prayers we offer in church state a vision of reality that squares with contemporary experience and express hope for the future that responds to the despair of our age.

These questions have new cogency when most of the world is afraid because of the corona-caused pandemic. Life has been turned upside down for an indefinite period of time, and it is hard to develop a hopeful sense of how we will be living later in the year and in time to come.

Churches everywhere continue to draw their communities together, in most places in virtual (electronic) modes rather than physical. We much prefer hugs when we feel the other over hugs that electronic screens help us imagine. In these days of self-isolation, however, even virtual ways  of being together renew live-giving, life-sustaining relationships.

In their sermons, pastors can explore this crisis in ways that help us live courageously and with hope. In their pastoral prayers, they are free to speak clearly, telling God about our bewilderment and fear, urgently asking God to care for those who are suffering, and asking God to work in and through people everywhere as we try to conquer this virulent virus.

In most church traditions the most important prayer is the one spoken at the Communion Table. On the one hand, it is a simple table blessing as we share a ceremonial meal—a tiny piece of bread and a sip of wine or grape juice. Its importance comes from the fact that here we remember the crucial moment when Jesus unforgettably embodied God’s forgiving love. By eating and drinking together, we remember and proclaim that Jesus was willing to give his life for the sake of the world.

This prayer is so important that most church traditions provide recommended texts for church leaders to use. In a few church communities, including my own, appointed leaders of the service develop and speak their own communion prayers. Although I no longer carry this kind of public responsibility, I have been developing a communion prayer to use at home. It is a first draft of the prayer I might offer if I were serving as a leader of Holy Communion with a congregation present. It needs more work to meet even my own criteria, let alone those that David Power would represent, but perhaps it will be a guide for you as you commune with God and one another on these difficult days.

Life-giving God of love, at a time when a pandemic of sickness and fear threatens to overcome people everywhere, we come to you in faith, hope, and love. You promise to be with us in every circumstance, working with us so that the best possible outcomes will be realized.

Gathering at this communion table, in spirit even if not in body, we remember and give thanks for Jesus who by your indwelling presence heals the sick, drives out demons that make us afraid, and promises to be with us no matter what happens in the days ahead.

As we break the bread of life and drink from the cup of blessing, strengthen us with Jesus’s own life, the life that he freely gave on the cross so that all may live. Drive away our fear, dispel our loneliness, and help us as in Christ’s name we minister to people all around us.

Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

Biking 100 miles on the day you turn 100

March 16, 2020

Until my early 80s my goal was to bike my age in miles on my birthday. “Bike for Life” helped me keep on target. Arthritis now is making it harder to put in the miles, but fortunately this book offers wise counsel for senior cyclists whatever their current capabilities may be. I am reposting this review in the hope that you’ll look it up and read it. And then roll out your bike and take to the road.

Keith Watkins Historian

“Wouldn’t you like to ride a century when you turn a century?” Bike for Lifeoffers a “blueprint for longevity, fitness, health, and well-being” so that people can plan to bicycle one hundred statute miles on the day they turn 100.

Genetics, the authors tell us, account for only 20 to 30% of a person’s life span. The other factors that determine how long we will live are related to life style, over which we have a lot of control. These are the factors that Bike for Life discusses. The book gives a comprehensive review of the expected topics like training, nutrition, and equipment. To this the authors add topics that are not often treated in cycling literature: osteoporosis, depression, impotence, and what to do when attached by cougars and grizzlies.

The writers are experienced journalists who have done their research in technical books, medical reports, travel literature, and cycling…

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Taxpayers and the Beach House

March 13, 2020

Amelia IslandIn response to my review of the book Retreat from a Rising Sea, one reader commented that “the federal government’s administration of flood insurance shows little rationality. Perhaps they should read the book although unfortunately I’m not sure that would make any difference.”

Orrin Pilkey and his co-authors treat this aspect of beach erosion and restoration in a chapter entitled “The Taxpayers and the Beach House” which is followed by a sixteen-page display of full-color photographs illustrating places around the world where the struggles between eroding shorelines and human construction are taking place. The first photo shows the concrete slab that is “all that remains of the Pilkey homesite (the authors’ parents and grandparents) at Waveland, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina passed in 2005. In 1969, Hurricane Camille flooded, but did not destroy, the house, which was five blocks from the beach.” The Pilkeys state that these two hurricanes inspired the writing of this book.

They state their thesis clearly: “Today, the shorelines of the United States and many other countries are jammed with large, multistory houses that for all practical purposes are immoveable and are on lots so small that there is no space to move them back. Now the sea level is rising, and the government is very much a part of the picture. Ironically, however, the actions of the U.S. government have encouraged dangerous and environmentally damaging shoreline development” (pp. 75-6).

The Pilkeys describe mitigation as a key tool in the federal government’s efforts to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters. They discuss the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), established in 1968, and the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Act, enacted in 1988, which established “a cost-sharing plan of 75 percent federal funds to 25 percent state and local funds and provided for public assistance in repair, restoration, and debris removal, as well as an emphasis on mitigation with the establishment of mitigation grants.”

Although the authors grant that these programs have “undoubtedly increased community resilience in some ways,” they also state that these programs have failed to forestall development in vulnerable places. “In fact, these programs openly act in opposition to the known sea-level rise and the need to retreat from the encroaching shoreline. They make certain that when we finally do retreat, it will be an unplanned response to major storms” (p. 78).

The authors speak positively about some FEMA programs, calling attention to “one form of mitigation—property acquisition programs—[that] has repeatedly proved to be a wise investment of federal funds by encouraging retreat from hazardous areas.” They conclude by asserting that the “time has passed for U.S. taxpayers to be required to subsidize coastal living. . . . Our tax money could be better spent encouraging and facilitating a planned and managed retreat from the coast—relocating people to higher ground instead of repeatedly rebuilding in many areas that we should never have built in the first place” (pp. 88-9).

After reading this book, however, my discouragement about the ongoing struggle remains and I plan to continue reading about this challenge. One focus will be the barrier islands along the Atlantic coastline, and especially Amelia Island where I spend time each winter visiting family. This island, thirteen miles long and two miles wide, has a long and complex history dealing with politics, economic issues, race, and culture. While life along the beach has always been part of the attraction of life on Amelia, it has become far more important during the past generation.

Efforts to control beach erosion, supported to a major extent by governmental funds, have taken place for over a century, which makes Amelia Island (and the city of Fernandina Beach) a very good case study. A book of photos, many of them aerial, by photographer Elizabeth Wilkes, helps me see the island even when I am far away: Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach, A Visual Ecstasy, (see photo at top of column; available from

Most of my attention, however, will be devoted to books that discuss these issues more broadly. On my desk now is The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, by Jeff Goodell (Little, Brown and Company, 2017). Also on my list are Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, by Elizabeth Rush (Milkweed Editions, 2019) and Battle Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches, by Cornelia Dean (Columbia University Press, 1999).

Two more Pilkey books also seem important for my study: A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands, by Orrin H. Pilkey and Mary Edna Fraser (Columbia University Press, 2003), and Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America’s Shores, by Orrin H. Pilkey Jr. and Keith C. Pilkey (Duke University Press, 2019).

Why do this reading? To increase our understanding of how the natural world works. To learn more about the folly of building our homes and cities in places that are sure to be destroyed. To participate more constructively in conversations about public policy. To be inspired to do more in our own way of life to reduce global warming