Book Review: Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

This is an excellent book. It is one of those rare books that combine science, observations of nature, and memoir to create a unique, vital, and invigorating literary experience. Broadly, it concerns global warming and rising sea levels, but Rush focuses on the importance of marshlands in preventing coastal erosion and how get-rich-quick coastal development programs have irreparably damaged these marshlands. As sea levels rise, the people who live there have no choice but to abandon their homes and move inland.

However, in presenting these facts, Rush does not write in abstractions. Instead, she visits certain affected areas, gets to know the people involved, and compares the lives that they lived in the past with their present tragedy of being forced to give up their homelands. These affected people are too often the poor who cannot afford to live anywhere else but in frequently flooded lowlands. In some cases, their families have been there for generations. They include a group of Native Americans on a rapidly disappearing island called Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana; a poverty-stricken, oft-flooded area called the Tanyard in Pensacola, Florida; a neighborhood called Oakwood Beach on Staten Island in New York whose frequently flooded homes were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, which left them no option but to accept government buyouts so their homes could be razed to create storm buffer zones; and a low-lying neighborhood of San Jose called Alviso at the south end of San Francisco Bay, which is resisting assimilation by tech companies and other industries. Rush also visits an endangered marsh at Phippsburg, Maine, and H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, which is a stopover for migratory birds dependent on coastal marshlands.

What makes this book so powerful and affecting is not just the data that Rush presents, or even her interviews with the people directly impacted by rising sea waters. What overwhelms and strengthens the book is her empathy for the people she gets to know and care for as well as her love for the marshlands that are rapidly disappearing. There is a pervading melancholy in her observations because she realizes that at this point sea level rise is inevitable, and the only option is for these people to leave their ancestral homes, move inland, and allow the abandoned land to act as a buffer to prevent, at least temporarily, further intrusions. The book is almost a lamentation. Rush realizes that current efforts are not going to work. It is too little, too late. Saving a tidal marsh is like trying to stay healthy in old age. Eventually you are going to lose the battle.

Although Rush concentrates on the situations on coastlines in the United States, she mentions in passing a visit she made to Bangladesh and the horrific flooding happening there during monsoon seasons. This reminded me of past experiences I have had of flooding during the monsoons on the Indian Subcontinent. In the late 1970s I lived for several months in Bombay, now called Mumbai, and I happened to be there during monsoons. Bombay is a very low-lying city built on seven islands. During the worst of the monsoon season when I was there, I had to wade through waist-high water to get to my apartment in Colaba, a downtown area. When I was living in Dhaka, Bangladesh in the 1980s, I remember walking along main roads through knee-high water during the monsoons. After reading Rush’s comments, I looked up the current flooding situation in Bangladesh. In recent storm seasons, up to one third of the low-lying country has been underwater, and millions of people have been driven out of their homes. This caused me to wonder where these people could possibly go. Rush suggests that a viable solution in the United States is for people in coastal areas to move inland. This might work, yes. But what about situations such as those in Bangladesh?

This caused me to reflect upon people who cover their eyes and ears like the proverbial monkeys in a row concerning global warming and rising sea levels. They somehow think that ignoring the problem or denying it will make it go away. That might work until they start drowning. The tragedy, as Rush points out, is that the rich can afford to ignore climate change because they have the resources to protect themselves. It is the poor who suffer by having to live in dangerous low-lying areas.

All in all, as I mentioned above, this is a terrific book, both well-written and important. Take the time to read it; you won’t be disappointed. It will open your eyes and also, hopefully, your heart.

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