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.)