Existential whiplash: on the beaches of Boston, the future of Miami, and the terror of rising seas

Yesterday,  I came home from an idyllic day at the beach on Boston’s North Shore and read this article arguing that Miami is doomed to drown under rising tides caused by climate change.

I don’t know how to reconcile the beauty of the ocean that I saw and felt and smelled firsthand with the threat lurking in the waves. I know the nature is powerful and not always pretty. I know that nature has a dark side, unexpected swells of anger, storms that beat water violently against rocks. But this is something different.

This is something human-caused, unprecedented, potentially future-destroying–and something that too many Americans, and far too many of our lawmakers, refuse to believe is happening.

And so, I am trying to make sense of the fact that the same water that I love, fed by melting glaciers and icecaps, is coming for us. That the beach, where land meets water meets sky, is our next battlefield.

The beach, more than almost anywhere else, feels like home. At the beach, I am the happiest version of myself.

I shriek in the ice-cold New England water. I splash my friends, and they splash back, and gradually we adjust to the chill. I walk along tidal streams, the sea streaking long lines into the wet sand. I lie on my back in the warm tidal pools, watching a brother and sister deck out their sand castle with plastic dinosaurs.

I watch a baby in a bright pink hat smack her tiny hand against the sand. I watch cormorants dive into the water, seagulls circle in search of unattended snacks, brightly-colored kites flutter in the breeze. I blow bubbles and watch them float over the water.

The beach is a joyful ode to humanity: friends and families and couples and children, thin, fat, young, old, dark-skinned, light-skinned, sunburned, pregnant, barefoot, celebratory, all streaked with salt under a forgiving sky. All safe between the gently rolling waves and the gently rolling dunes.

We’re not safe.

Boston isn’t Miami. Here, we’re slightly less fucked. But although Miami may the coastal canary in the coal mine, it’s far from the only city that faces the threat of rising tides. (Inland areas may not fare much better, with their droughts and wildfires, not to mention floods that come from rivers. And if all our farms dry up and our bees die, protecting our coastlines from rising waters may be the least of our worries. But that’s another terrifying story for another day.)

Miami isn’t Boston. I’ve never been there, never felt a particular connection with it, never longed for it like I’ve longed for other cities I’ve never visited: San Francisco, Portland, Asheville. Miami always sounded like the kind of place where I wouldn’t fit in: a city of the rich, tan, and thin. Not geeky like Boston, where I shared a brief moment of Whovian connection with a stranger on the beach when I complimented his Dalek t-shirt.

Miami may not be my city, but I don’t want to see it drown.

The ocean is so beautiful. Beautiful and dangerous and has destruction woven into its waves.

It’s beautiful and it’s coming for us. Because of what we’ve done (and worse, not done).

I don’t know how to weave the joy I felt this yesterday at the beach and the terror I felt reading about Miami’s future into a coherent narrative. The two experiences are like sharp pieces of glass that can’t be fused.

This is what it means to live in 2013, eyes open to the mortal threats we face, unable to let go of joy, unable to make sense of it all. It’s a kind of existential whiplash.

The conventional environmentalist narrative is “I love [insert natural place here], I want to protect it, therefore I fight.” But it’s too late for that. I believe we can make a difference–I believe we have a responsibility to make a difference–but I know that positive feedback cycles are already underway. That even if we stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow, it wouldn’t be enough. And that we’re nowhere near stopping all carbon emissions tomorrow.

That, no matter how many inspiring essays we write, no matter how we rouse others to action, no matter how we ourselves act–people are going to die. Places we love are going to become shadows. Some of them, post-apocalyptic nightmares.

We’ve already seen a carousel, its lights still on, surrounded by dark floodwater. We know there’s only so much of the story left to be rewritten.

What we don’t know–what’s harder to make sense of–is how to live with this knowledge. How to live, and not drown.

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One thought on “Existential whiplash: on the beaches of Boston, the future of Miami, and the terror of rising seas

  1. Pingback: Quote of the day: YES YES YES YES | Tutus And Tiny Hats

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