A critical, important, downright informative read about climate change

Credit: Chris West

Credit: Chris West

The climate is changing. It is happening fast. In his book “Over the Seawall - Tsunamis, Cyclones, Drought, and the Delusion of Controlling Nature” Stephen Robert Miller takes us to three regions to show us attempts to control nature that have backfired.

Do you remember the devastating tsunami that struck northern Japan a 12 years ago? Japan was prepared for such an event, with massive concrete sea walls along the coast line to shelter it from such enormous waves.

Tsunamis are not produced by climate change. Nevertheless, what happened in Japan when that wave came crashing ashore is illustrative of how man-made adaptations can fail during extreme weather events. The author calls these botched attempts to control nature “maladaptations.”

In the first section of the book he details how some Japanese had so much faith in the seawalls that when they were warned the tsunami was coming they didn’t flee. Instead they stood atop the walls, some taking photos, then the wave came in and swept them away, forever.

Afterwards some Japanese lost confidence in sea walls. Following the tsunami politicians made sure sea-walls were rapidly rebuilt. The concrete industry was enthusiastic about fulfilling huge contracts to do it. Was that a smart decision? They were replicating a failed system.

There is a significant issue, the new sea walls remain lower than the height of that tsunami. The next big wave could be just as destructive. This is one example of maladaptation, the continued pursuit of flawed strategies that already failed. As cities like Miami and New York consider spending billions on seawalls to buffer rising sea levels due to climate change, they might consider what happened in Japan.

In the second section we go to Bangladesh, a low lying region highly vulnerable to climate change. Rivers draining water from the Himalayas once made the region verdant and fertile. Flood control techniques devised in the Netherlands are being employed there. They are not working.

For millennia rivers deposited rich silt in a natural cycle. After “experts” interfered with that cycle everything got out of whack. Miller details how some peasants rebelled, breaking dikes holding water, allowing the natural flow of rivers to be restored. Nature began working again.

The final section takes us to Arizona. Farmers there have been draining aquifers. There has been little oversight on draining water resources nurtured over the course of millennia. Now the water is running out. The ground is starting to collapse in places.

Arizona also gets water from the Colorado River. That once seemingly inexhaustible flow has diminished, Arizona’s ration is getting curtailed. Meanwhile, in Phoenix, developers keep building houses. Recently they were told if they cannot validate access to water they can no longer build.

They keep searching for water, even talking about diverting it from the Mississippi River. Does that prospect sound absurd? In an interview the author explained if somebody is willing to pay to do it that anything is possible. Even if it is doomed to fail.

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.

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