The threat of climate change is not some distant problem, but already here and now, reshaping the physical and social landscape of coastal communities from Maine to California. This is the take home point of Elizabeth Rush’s latest book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Rising explores the physical processes that are irrevocably transforming the shoreline and the policies and decisions that have left some more vulnerable than others. Rush eloquently describes the geologic and human history of the coastlines, as well as the life cycles of the plants and animals that call them home. The book is advertised as an on-the-ground investigation of coastal communities coming to terms with sea level rise and what it means for their future. But on a more fundamental level, Rising is a somber meditation on the meaning of loss and vulnerability, which Rush delivers with a deep reverence and respect for both the natural and human world. While it seems there is a new book about sea level rise released every day, Rising is one of the more personal and humane out there.
The book is divided into three sections: Rampikes, titled after the dead trees emblematic of dying wetlands; Rhizomes, after the dense root networks that hold a marsh together; and Rising. Ostensibly, this structure is meant to provide a natural progression from those places there is no hope of saving, to those where ties within the community provide some sort of inherent resilience, to those where restoration efforts are underway. In reality, though, the stories and those that tell them bleed between each section and the more notable structure is geographic.
Starting in her adopted home state of Rhode Island, Rush travels first to Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles, a rapidly disappearing island populated mostly by the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe that recently acquired federal funding to relocate. She goes to south Florida, where she moves from the glittering high rises of Miami to the abandoned trailers of Pensacola’s Tanyard neighborhood, which is home primarily to the descendants of escaped slaves. She explores a community in Staten Island devastated by Hurricane Sandy and travels from the marshes of the Gulf of Maine to the estuary of the San Francisco Bay. She even goes to Oregon’s central Cascades, hundreds of miles from the coast, to illustrate the connectivity between different ecosystems. Rush powerfully articulates the immense complexity of both physical processes and emotions, trying to understand what makes a home and what it feels like to lose it. The overarching theme is human inadequacy: the mistakes that got people into this position in the first place, the inability to understand the scale of the problem, and society’s unyielding resolve that engineered interventions will solve everything.
But even as Rush criticizes people, the book, at its heart, is a story about people, including herself. She explores the circuitous career path that led her on this journey of exploration, even the difficulties of doing field work as a woman. She focuses on those communities for whom climate change is just the last straw in a series of compounding injustices, for whom retreat is the best option in a portfolio of bad ones. In some ways, Rising is a tribute to those communities, to those hardy people who have created homes for themselves in places that were not necessarily originally of their choosing. Most powerfully, Rush lets those communities tell their own stories, interspersing her own investigations with first-person testimonies from those living on the frontlines. Nicole Montalto of Staten Island describes the pain of losing her father during Hurricane Sandy while Chris Brunet explains how the relocation project in Isle de Jean Charles will help ensure “the rebirth of the community.” Laura Sewall from Small Point, Maine, is adamant that “living here is not denial. It is a choice.” Meanwhile, Dan Kipnis, “tired of this fight,” has already sold his dream house in Miami. Each individual Rush talks to brings their own insight and experience as to how they are managing the fear and uncertainty of living on the edge.
Though beautifully written, the book’s greatest shortcoming is, perhaps, its negativity. Anyone who works in the field can understand the unease that stems from confronting one of the most pressing challenges humanity has ever faced. Rush clearly feels this intensely herself. She describes being overwhelmed by an “acute form of anxiety” the more she understands what can and will be lost because of climate change. In this way, the book is as much a description of what is happening as the author’s personal reflections as she comes to terms with it. But, sometimes, the doom and gloom can be too much. Rush focuses so much on detailing how the “environmental apocalypse” is coming, that she offers only slivers of hope. She describes the power in witnessing residents of Oakwood on Staten Island mobilizing for relocation funding after Hurricane Sandy. But then she quickly transitions to Pensacola where poor residents have had to informally abandon their homes as it becomes too expensive to stay. Even in her discussion of the San Francisco Estuary Revitalization Project, the second largest restoration project underway in the country, she cannot help but exude pessimism, railing against the hubris of thinking that engineered restoration can fix this problem.
Perhaps Rush refuses to let her readers off the hook with too much optimism, perhaps she confronts them with such uncomfortable and complex truths because she knows there is no other way to tell this story. She poses such difficult questions because she herself does not have the answers. How do we let go of these places? How do you talk about retreat to communities with a history of forced displacement? What do we each value and who gets to decide what is valuable enough? What does voluntary mean for people who have no other option? The truth is, no one – not Rush or the scores of people she interviews – has the answers to these questions. In this way, Rising is not just Rush’s reflection on sea level rise, but an invitation for the reader to do some reflection of their own.