Our Inevitable Retreat

“If you would lift me up, you’ve got to be on higher ground.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

In October 2012, two days before Halloween, the Hudson River rose over its banks and flooded Hoboken, New Jersey. I was one of the lucky residents whose home was spared by Superstorm Sandy’s historic surge. Despite its waterfront location, my building was perched on a small outcropping of bedrock. For thousands of my neighbors, however, months of cleanup and repairs lay ahead.

Of all people, I should have seen this crisis coming. I’d read the books about global warming, and I understood the threat posed to coastal communities by rising seas better than most. I worried that I wouldn’t likely be so lucky again the next time. In the days after the flood, I resolved to get my family and my assets out of harm’s way.

I didn’t panic. In fact, I pondered my next move for nearly two years. The plan I came up with was simple—move inland and uphill. To my disbelief, the housing market hadn’t skipped a beat. Once I finally pulled the trigger, my condo sold in less than a week, at a profit.

I didn’t have a target elevation in mind, but The Heights section of Jersey City, just a mile to the west, sounded like a good place to start. And so I trekked up the steep basalt cliffs of the Palisades and sank my nest egg into an old house. When the survey came in at 175 feet above sea level, I finally felt some peace of mind.

The morning after the moving trucks left, I walked to nearby Riverview Park. I looked out over the floodplain I’d left behind. Had I overacted, fleeing for such high ground, so quickly? Hoboken was already doing a lot to deal with the rising waters, putting in pumps, planning dykes, and digging massive floodwater cisterns. Many considered it a model city. I imagined the scene below in the year 2100. Recent revisions to sea level rise project about one-foot rise by century’s end. That seemed manageable.

But survival wasn’t my only concern. Like most Americans, my wealth was tied up in my home. I was planning for success, too, and whether I’d be able to pass along my life savings to my kids and theirs. I needed a wider perspective.

In my mind, I ran the scene before me back to 1890, the year my house was built. From this cliff, back then, most of the would-be city below was still wetlands—soon to be filled in for factories and warehouses. Then I reversed the reel and zoomed 130 years into the future. The Antarctic ice sheets have collapsed, and the waterline is dozens of feet higher. Hoboken is gone, and the waves lap at the rock wall’s face below.

I shuddered, but with some comfort in the knowledge that come what may, this bluff would be a beach, and a newfound community home would survive. Something did start to dawn on me, however. Despite the luxury of my leisurely, orderly retreat—I was starting to think like a refugee.

***

The barrier island I grew up on is little more than a glorified sand bar. The sea is unavoidable, a watery boundary surrounding on three sides. The white noise of the surf hitting the beach is a round-the-clock murmur. The water is like a second sky, an enormous and ever-changing backdrop for every thought and action.

Long ago, the Lenni Lenape used these islands for hunting in the summers. No doubt they feasted, sunbathed, and screwed, just as vacationers do today. But the Lenape couldn’t see over the horizon, and so they respected the sea’s temper and gave it a wide berth. They cleared out long before the hurricanes’ autumn approach. We, on the other hand, have a vast ability to track the approach of far-off dangerous storms. And so we’ve built right up to the water’s edge, only to scurry for safety at the last possible moment.

Our predictive science, however, is based on past observations. And the sea is changing quickly. When I return to the coast nowadays, the ocean seems more agitated than in my youth. This isn’t just an illusion inflated by my gathering fears. The ocean is, in fact, getting bigger. The oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the extra heat trapped by human greenhouse-gas emissions. Warm water takes up more space. Scientists believe that half the sea level rise of the last-quarter century is simply due to thermal expansion. They say you can’t boil the ocean. But, as it turns out, you can simmer it.

A few hundred yards offshore from one of my favorite beaches, a ghost town lies underwater, swallowed a century ago—not by rising seas but old-fashioned coastal erosion. The Lenape’s tenure on the coast was always temporary, as were the shifting sand islands themselves. This superheated, swollen ocean fills me with dread. It seems poised, ready to unleash something awful. Does it plan to get rid of us, the pests that interrupted its ancient slumber?

At moments like this, my hometown’s future feels provisional. I struggle to make sense of the intimate scale and seemingly geologic slowness of the destruction to come. Part of my coping is a ritual I call “the long goodbye”, a final farewell to this doomed land for my children and grandchildren to recite, until the last waves finally take us down.

***

Some 150 miles to the north, in the great metropolis that surrounds New York Harbor, the chatter about the coastal future is much more optimistic. That’s because a growing coalition of power brokers, property owners, and urban planners have a new weapon. They call it resilience.

Resilience, or its more affected synonym, resiliency, is far more ambitious than it sounds. Essentially, it seeks to create the capacity for communities “to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” Resilient cities “bounce back” after hard times, proponents like to say. For human settlements on the coast, what this means in practice is beating back the encroaching ocean.

In New York, the arrival of resilience thinking was a welcome turn. Hoboken was just one of hundreds of communities to suffer severe damage from Superstorm Sandy. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed along the New York and New Jersey coast alone. So when airlifted armies of Dutch urban planning consultants dropped in a few months later, to teach us their hard-won lessons on building a civilization in the shadow of a menacing sea, they were welcomed. Plans were drawn up, and proposals sent down to D.C. for funding. America loves a winner, and for the first time in a while, climate change felt like something we could beat.

Converts to resilience’s new religion weren’t hard to win over, and I was among them. Resilience promised to put us back in control. We didn’t have to surrender to despair, as I often do on the beach of my hometown. We could fight back, with finesse. Instead of old tactics for fighting the ocean head-on with concrete and steel, resilience offered hundreds of strategies for bobbing and weaving. The essayist Nassim Taleb even argued that new designs for companies and cities could thrive on stress and grow stronger after extreme shocks! The rising seas weren’t the end of days, it seemed, so much as the beginning of a new business cycle.

Resilience produced some clever schemes. Rebuild by Design, a consortium created by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, funded five grand visions for communities around the New York region, including Hoboken. The most well-known was “the Big U”, a flood barrier proposed by starchitect Bjarke Ingels to girdle Manhattan from Hudson Yards on the West Side to the UN Headquarters on the East Side. It’s now slowly taking shape, albeit in a more prosaic network of berms and bioswales than the fortified ramparts originally envisioned. Meanwhile, the greatest demonstration of resilience in the wake of Sandy came from New York’s philanthropic elites. The Rockefeller Foundation’s six-year resilience campaign installed Chief Resilience Officers in 100 cities across the globe. (Perhaps “resilience tsar” didn’t have the right ring.)

If resilience thinking had a single actionable takeaway for the broader public, it was this—the seas may rise, alarmingly so, but there’s no need to abandon the coast. A surprisingly modest set of technological and managerial adaptations, we were told, would be enough. The status quo could be maintained with a modicum of ingenuity, hard work, and cooperation. Resilience attempted a remarkable rhetorical feat, to straddle the gap between business-as-usual for growth capitalism and the fast-gathering consensus for constraint on the left. And, for a while, it succeeded.

***

My first inkling of resilience thinking’s weaknesses came about a year after Sandy. New York City’s official strategic response, the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR), wrapped itself in the newfangled movement’s colors. Shockingly, however, the effort’s primary conclusion—that Sandy was a freak event, a statistically unlikely convergence of tide, landfall, and topography that would never be repeated—contradicted just about every good instinct that the resilience movement represented. What resilience experts expected was a plan to put the city’s coastline to use for sacrificial flood containment, like the Dutch do it. Instead, the SIRR report outlined a revanchist real estate proposal for more investment in the riskiest riverfront fringes, with gleaming new office towers built atop massive flood barriers.

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable and disadvantaged coastal communities delivered a searing response to resilience boosters’ Pollyannaish talk. Nowhere was this clearer than the US Gulf Coast, where the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was followed five years later by 4 million barrels of crude oil spilled by the explosion and failure at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. In New Orleans, a growing chorus of critical voices questioned resilience campaigns focused on bolstering disaster-response capacity, but failed to overlook the “chronic adversities and structural inequities” that afflict the most at-risk communities every day, they fail. Along the Mississippi coast, people tell me of “charrette fatigue”, and wonder when the actual resilience work will begin in earnest. Stress, as it turns out, doesn’t always make us stronger. It can decimate communities over time.
The most recent blow to the resilience movement, which will test its anti-fragility like no other, came in July 2019 when after 6 years Rockefeller terminated the 100 Resilient Cities program. The announcement came in a brief aside buried in an email newsletter. This shock is still reverberating throughout the movement, as  cities scramble to find funding for their resilience czars, communities second-guess the entire cause, and researchers re-assess the approach’s rigor and efficacy. Some $8 million has been set aside to continue running the highly-valued peer network that cities use to learn from each other’s resilience efforts. But more than six months later, at the time of writing,  Rockefeller’s website still urges visitors to “stay tuned for more information on what’s next.”

What had begun with such a triumphant chorus of urban self-affirmation, it seemed, was ending with a whimper.  In its brief decade, resilience had been coopted by capitalists, deconstructed by the disadvantaged, and abandoned by its most earnest backers. Resilience’s future is now in limbo. The concept has proven surprisingly brittle.

***

The resilience movement’s internal crisis of confidence comes as a growing chorus of outsiders are starting to question its central premise—that we can indefinitely maintain a tenuous tenancy along the coast. “Retreat has been seen largely as a last resort, a failure to adapt, or a one-time emergency action,” a leading group of scholars argued last year in Science. Resilience rhetoric has only reinforced these entrenched, negative views of coastal withdrawal. Yet, “faced with… rising sea levels… the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm’s way—but why, where, when and how they will retreat”, they conclude.

Looking back, my decision to leave the floodplain and move to higher ground was prescient. And the methodical, orderly process I followed may be a model for larger future migrations away from high-risk zones. The new school of strategic retreat turns resilience on its head. Not only is the shrinking of seaside cities inevitable, delaying the process not only increases the costs of doing it later—ad hoc evacuation will mean we “miss opportunities [for retreat plans] to contribute to societal goals.”

One of the big risks with any migration, of course, is an inequitable reallocation of land. When I moved to high ground, far from the pricey waterfront, I took up residence among families with much lower incomes. If I left the floodplain as a putative climate refugee, I arrived in The Heights as a gentrifier. Strategic retreat has the time and resources to address these impacts. The  inevitable evacuations of communities where resilience has failed won’t.

Stacked against the squishy feel-good language of resilience, strategic retreat sounds hopelessly cynical. It forces painful long-term questions to the foreground. How much more should we spend defending assets on the coast, versus investing—like I did—on high ground? What actions can be mobilized locally and what must be envisioned and coordinated on a societal and national scale? What trade-offs and sacrifices does all that entail?

I wanted resilience to work. There’s so little hope right now in climate change discussions, we needed the sense of agency it provided. But I’ve come to believe that resilience may be an even more dangerous idea than the denial of climate change. It misleads us into thinking that small deeds can tackle the biggest problems. On the coast, it overstates the prospects for permanent human settlement.

The momentum behind resilience will continue to grow. I have few doubts that the movement will continue its march towards doctrine in the big, rich coastal cities where it emerged, like New York. Coastal cities are growing faster than at any point in history. The same information technologies driving this expansion—sensing, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence—are also providing the tools to make resilience believable. Our machines spur us to dare to take on ever greater levels of risk, simply by making us believe we are more precisely aware of the future. But the tenuous tenancy of our cities along the coast is predicated on precise predictions of computer models of dubious clarity.

And don’t get me wrong. The future of human settlement on the coast isn’t as simple as fight or flee. In practice, things will be much messier. Regardless of whether we pursue strategic retreat, our industrial and agricultural presence on the coast will expand manyfold. The exploitation of offshore wind power and open-ocean aquaculture will draw extensions of infrastructure grids onto the continental shelf and beyond.

Perhaps, in the end, this is what true resilience looks like, and to make the concept really work, we simply need to zoom out and broaden the scale of our schemes.