16 August 2011


Last night I watched a re-broadcast of the American Experience episode titled Earth Days. The two-hour special traced the history of the early-to-mid 20th century conservation movement, including the seminal influences of Rachel Carson's iconic book Silent Spring, and Paul Ehrlich's revolutionary book The Population Bomb. That movement transformed virtually overnight into the modern environmental movement on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day.

I lived through that history, so it was magnetic to me ~ the personalities, the events, the politics, the passions, the protests, the issues which linger with us today. Images of the horrific air and water pollution of those times, together with footage of the depredations visited by humans on wilderness and wildlife, help one to understand the value of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency ~ all steps which today's generation takes for granted. This may be the finest American Experience episode ever produced, and that's speaking volumes for this sterling PBS history series. You can watch it in its entirety here.

For those of us who have remained engaged in the environmental movement over the years, one of the touchstone issues is sea level rise induced by global warming, itself accelerated by human activities like burning fossil fuels. A NYTimes book review illuminates one consequence ~ the loss of many of the world's habitable and recreational beaches. In The World's Beaches: A Global Guide to the Science of the Shoreline, the authors point out that "A beach, simply, is the end product of sediment (sand or gravel or even pebbles or cobbles), wave energy to move it around, and a place where it can accumulate .... Unfortunately, the future holds many threats to the world's beaches, the worst from human activity, intentional or accidental. People 'groom' beaches with rakes or even tractors, destroying the homes and food supplies of tiny crabs, sea birds and other animals that rely on beach habitat. Pollution ~ everything from giant oil spills to oceanfront septic tanks ~ mars many beaches. But those problems are minor compared with sea level rise, induced by global warming, and the efforts people make to fight its effects.

"If experts are correct and seas rise by two or even three feet by the end of the century, cities like Miami, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Venice, Lagos, Tel Aviv and places like the Gold Coast on Australia's eastern coast may suffer significant, chronic flooding. Island nations already feeling the effects of rising water may literally disappear.

"Beaches that are unfettered by human infrastructure do not disappear when sea level rises. They simply move inland. When sand on a barrier island is washed into the lagoon behind it, or when the base of a beachfront cliff erodes and the bluff slumps down to the water's edge, the beach is, in effect, moving to higher ground inland.

" .... Around the world people eager to protect valuable hotels, condos and other infrastructure respond to the threat of rising seas by building concrete walls or rock revetments. When rising water reaches this armor, as it inevitably does, the beach is drowned .... Rising seas will make sand-pumping operations untenable, and tourists will amuse themselves by promenading on top of a seawall ~ already the principle activity in too many coastal resorts."

Goodbye, Cannes. Fairwell, Waikiki. We loved you, yet we drowned you.

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