Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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The Great Disruption — sea-level rise

Kin Canute rebukes his courtiers - engraving by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville (reproduced by John Henry Haaren: "Famous Men of the Middle Ages," 1904)

This is the fifth part of a series on what Australian author Paul Gilding, in his 2011 book on the climate catastrophe, has called “The Great Disruption” (Read Part 1, 2, 3, 4). Gilding’s thesis, and that of this series, is not that we are necessarily headed toward the end of the world, or even the end of civilization, but toward a significant disruption of our economic and social systems caused by the biosphere’s loss of much of its resilience, and large swaths of the planet becoming unproductive or uninhabitable. In this series, we’ll examine disruption caused by environmental shocks to the planet’s system, and discuss how these impacts can overlap each other, disrupting many of global civilization’s functions.

“…continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person,” Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, circa 1129 A.D.

Well, at least King Canute knew better.

According to the English historian Henry of Huntington, the good king — who was a brilliant general and statesman responsible for the early medieval unification of the disparate kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and England into a single North Sea Empire — was humble, and wary of hubris.

When his fawning courtiers implied that he had supernatural powers, he bade them set his throne at the ocean’s edge. There he sat, commanding the tide not to rise. It rose, of course, as he knew it would. Whereupon he told his entourage, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” because, “heaven, earth and sea obey eternal [God-given] laws.”

Today we call those “laws” natural and understand their mechanics. For example, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere increases the amount of outgoing radiated heat that’s returned to the earth’s surface, warming it. The increased warming causes seawater to expand, rising along shorelines. Increased heat also makes glaciers melt more quickly, adding to sea-level rise. Higher sea levels mean more destructive storm surges and the erosion of formerly stable beaches. Thus the sea “obeys” natural laws.

But somehow these facts seem to have been overlooked by many of the affluent, and presumably well-educated, residents of the coastal town of Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts, located about 35 miles north of Boston. There, a series of winter storms washed away the shore protecting a strip of expensive seaside houses, and seawater flooded some first-story rooms. One of those houses, at the very edge of an eroded dune, is now “newly listed” for sale at $3.5 million.

In response, a group called “Salisbury Beach Citizens for Change” raised $600,000 in contributions from homeowners and had 15,000 tons of sand dumped along a 1.5-mile stretch of beach, completing the project on March 7.

Two days later another storm came, and half of that sand was washed away.

While “Citizens for Change” President Tom Saab claimed that the sand performed its function by keeping the sea out of people’s homes, it was clear to most others that continuing to pay to replenish it was unsustainable. One comment on the group’s Facebook page read, “Your houses sit right on an ever rising and ever violent sea. Do you really think any amount of money will stop what’s inevitable?”

Apparently they had thought exactly that, since, like most of us in the wealthy, developed world, they had been largely insulated from the impacts of climate change — until $300,000 worth of sand washed away.

They turned to the state of Massachusetts for help — more sand, basically — and were dismayed to learn that it would not be forthcoming. With its seven million citizens and a billion-dollar budget shortfall this year, the state had other priorities. Additionally, Massachusetts does not allow seawalls of concrete or wood pilings to be built along beaches, as these structures tend to damage dunes and cause erosion. And even if seawalls were allowed, it is only a matter of time before the rising seas would destroy them, drawing good money after bad into the ebbing tides.

So, what to do?

It seems that the Great Disruption caused by sea-level rise will soon force millions of people, from wealthy Americans to poor Bangladeshis, whose lowland country is being flooded, to pull up stakes and join the hordes of climate migrants wandering around the planet and causing even more disruption.

Meanwhile, I wonder how quickly that newly listed house in Salisbury Beach will sell. And how things would have turned out if we’d only listened to old King Canute.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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One Response

  1. Filippo!! Finalmente ho trovato un momento per leggere questo articolo. Molto bello! Mi e` piaciuto molto il racconto del re inglese. Che bravo signore e saggio! Mi piace quando un autore riferisce a qualcosa storica perche` poi abbiamo allegato alla storia della umanita` intera. (anche Heather Cox Richardson, la professoressa della storia, a volte riferisce a qualche momento storico che illumina qualcosa di oggi)
    Allora, grazie per la scittura!

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Articles in This Series


Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.