Hubris and Coastal Development

As sort of a follow-up to my post on climate change and sea level rise, I’d like to present this from another U.S. military document, in this case Coastal Geology.  From the first chapter:

a. Since man has ventured to the sea, he has been fascinated by the endless variety of geomorphic landforms and biological habitats that present themselves at the coast. With the exception of high altitude alpine, a full spectrum of environments is found around the world’s coastlines. These range from icy Arctic shores to rocky faulted coasts to temperate sandy barriers to tropical mangrove thickets, with a myriad of intermediate and mixed forms. Man has gone to the sea for food, for commerce, for war, and for beauty. He has built his homes and cities at the coast. He has also been hurt by the sea, terrorized by its occasional violence, and baffled by the changes that the sea has wrought on the land in remarkably short time spans. In hours, beaches disappear; in days, new inlets are cut; in a generation, cliffs crumble. His coastal works have often been buried in sand, swept away, or pounded into rubble, frustrating his most worthy engineering efforts. Why? What controls these mighty forces of change?

b. The answers have been elusive. Nevertheless, over the centuries, man has attempted to manage the power of the sea. With a disregard for the realities of nature and a surfeit of hubris, he has built ever more massive structures to protect cities placed in ever more precarious locations. Unfortunately, many of these coastal works have been constructed with little attention to the overall physical setting in which they were placed, with little respect for the delicate balances of sediment supply, water quality, and biological habitat that are intimate elements of the coastal environment.

The manual goes on to define hubris as follows:

Hubris, a Greek term which cannot be fully translated, represents an attitude of overweening pride or arrogance – the end result of a search for self-assertion that challenges everything and defies everyone.

Such a bold expression of philosophy is uncharacteristic of a technical document such as this one, and deserves some explanation.

The idea of pride being a human sin was fairly common in the ancient world.  Neither Christianity nor Judaism had to justify their aversion to pride as the worst of human sins.  Humility as the standard for human behaviour has been a mark of Christian civilisations, although it’s been honoured in the breach many times.

In the modern and post-modern world, humility has been interpreted as a sign of weakness, and overweening arrogance and pride as accepted conduct have taken the place of the modesty of the past.  We see it everywhere: in our government, in those who are coming up and those who are going out.  Sad to say it’s even crept into our churches; one pastor was heard to discourage his members from reacting modestly to a compliment to their outfit.

Part of this is the result of the advancement of science and technology.  Our perception of what we are really capable of outruns our ability (or willingness) to do the work.  The most persistent offenders of this are the Marxist states, who believe that man’s advance in science gives them unbridled license to run over nature in egregious ways (an example of this with tragic backwash is here.)

In the case of coastal development, these areas are not only very geologically diverse, but inherently unstable.  The meeting place of the sea and land, they are subject to the forces of the ocean, which is capable of recrafting the land mass it crashes into with relative ease.  Traditionally the response has been to build as far back from the coasts as possible while allowing for easy sea navigation.  How far back is back depends upon the nature of the coastline.  In the U.S., the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast from northern Florida to southern New Jersey, with a few breaks, have been especially vulnerable, largely because the slope of the ground on both sides of the waterfront is gentle.  That makes the division between land and sea more problematic and at the same time raises the wave height of storm surges.  If we consider cities such as Houston, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Baltimore and Philadelphia, we get an idea of how this works.

New Orleans, of course, brings up the subject of Katrina.  This is an example of how man’s activity has in part defeated the natural barriers that protected the low lying city.  The French wisely sited the place well inland and the city began in what is now called the “Vieux Carré,” the highest point in the area.  But New Orleans spread to lower areas, the re channelisation of the water flow diverted silt from the Delta and thus caused extensive subsidence, and last but not least massive projects such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (“MR-GO”) gave storm surges a watery highway into the heart of the city.  All of this is coupled with the simple fact that the Mississippi River is trying to change its main outlet (and thus the location of its silting) over to below Morgan City.  The result was flooding, not only during Katrina in 2005, but also during Betsy in 1965.

In spite of these simple facts, today our love of living and working near the coasts pushes us to extensively develop these area, not only altering the ecosystem (as the monograph notes) but also putting populations at risk during cataclysmic events and long-term trends such as sea level changes and changes in the level of the coastline itself.

Hubris, indeed.

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