Jeff Goodell Knows The Water Will Come: Physics, Change and Humanity

We’re in a serenity prayer moment. Our world is changing, regardless of what we do. By the end of this century, the sea levels will have risen at least three feet, though the odds are it will be twice as much, or more. Unfortunately for us, we’re also in a boiling frog moment. It is already too late. The physics are measurable and immutable. The damage has already arrived. We need to understand what is happening and decide what we will do.

goodell-the_water_will_comeIn The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World Jeff Goodell bears witness to the world we have now. It’s not a pretty picture. Sure, the big changes have yet to happen. They’re a generation or two out. But, as William Gibson once wrote, “The future has arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed.” Which is to say that if you’re a canny writer with an eye for science, you can tell a terrifyingly true story about climate change and rising seas right now. Goodell’s book is subtly researched (he does not shove the science in your face) and reported with on-the-spot interviews from the parts of this world that serve as previews for coming (un)attractions. But The Water Will Come is not a eulogy. It’s a snapshot. How we react to the picture, what humans do, is still up to us.

Goodell’s book is a compelling, page-turning journey from our inundated past (floods, Biblical and otherwise) to the edge of the present. Now begins in Florida, where residents and homeowners are playing real-estate roulette, calculating property values with a bizarre combination of disbelief and canny gambling. Our own mortality allows us to build skyscrapers a couple of feet above sea level. Mortgages (and buildings) that are literally underwater won’t matter to the dead. But our own frog-boiling talents allow profit in the present to pre-empt efforts towards future self-preservation.

Goodell really gets around, from glaciers to sea walls, from Venice to New York, and from drowning islands to endangered high-rises (see above). He interviews scientists, businessmen, and citizens to give readers a ground-level view of just what will happen when the sea-level rises. And while it is not good news, Goodell is not here to offer a preview of the apocalypse. For, as much as we are surrounded by climate-change denial and the potentially awful consequences of ignoring reality, we’re also able to shape our own destinies and, more importantly, our own reactions.

And this is where Goodell’s book takes a welcome and unexpected turn. In Lagos, he tours floating slums, temporary cities where our relationship to the coast has been shaped not by a stubborn insistence on permanent housing, but instead by an adaptive perception of home. We are all, by and large, quite used to having one permanent home in one place, but that need not be the case. Returning to Florida, things look dire, but only because we’re on the wrong side of serenity. By showing us how the world actually looks now, how the future has already arrived in coastal regions around the world, Goodell suggests that (because it is too late, alas) we need to accept what we cannot change (rising seas), find the courage to change what we can (our relationship to life near the coast), and discover the wisdom to know which is which. The joy of reading The Water Will Come is the discovery that if reality is immutable, we are not.

jeff_goodell-2017-smJeff Goodell should, in theory, be a poet or prophet of the coming apocalypse. In person, he’s a down-to-earth reporter who knows how to find the most interesting people on earth and engage them in conversations about what Stanislaw Lem called the pericalypse, that is, the apocalypse that has already happened but went unnoticed in the general haste. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the general haste, download our lightning round interview by following this link, or drop in and listen below.

For our in-depth conversation, we talked some of the highlights of his travels, but also and more importantly, about how our ability to change our understanding of home and life on the coast can allow us adapt to our future. You can begin your course of adaptation by following this link to the MP3 file of our conversation, or take your time, seat yourself in a shallow pot of water, turn the burner on low and get ready to boil while listening below.

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Beth Macy Traces Truevine: Stories, Webs, Traps and Truth

We like our truths straightforward and simple, served up as stories, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Reality, alas, is disinclined to offer up truth, or anything else for that matter, in a direct manner. First-person accounts are both notoriously unreliable and unverifiable, even as they are presented as documentary evidence. Historical records become fragmented, with promising motherlodes trailing off into scattershot marginalia. Color everything through the lenses of present mores and emotions and the prospects of coherence and completion seem dim.

macy-truevineAll of this makes Beth Macy’s Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South an astonishing accomplishment even before you get to the explosive emotions explored here. Macy keeps her focus at ground level, and in so doing challenges herself because the story and the truths you find here are both complicated and contradictory. Bits of the broad outline only seem simple. The power of Truevine is Macy’s ability to speak to and of hardscrabble lives that are horrific in terms of the world today, and yet illuminate those aspects of the present that remain difficult to discuss. Truevine asks lots of questions and offers lots of answers, but as in reality, the two do not always line up neatly.

In theory, we should know the story, which played out in the press and public some 100-ish years ago. George and Willie Muse were albino black boys born to sharecropper parents who worked a tobacco farm. They were lured away from the fields by a white man with candy who turned them into circus freak-show superstars. Their mother spent 13 years trying to get them back. We think we can piece together this much from uncontestable public records. In Truevine, Beth Macy carefully rebuilds all the worlds traversed in this seemingly succinct narrative. What the public records tell us is not even a small part of either the story or the truth of what happened.

Truevine is an utterly compelling exploration of history, story, narrative and the human. Macy takes us inside freak shows, places where the outcasts of this world could find equality and acceptance as well as the utterly bizarre. We see the world of the Jim Crow, the supposedly post-slavery South that ripples uneasily into the present. Macy spent years getting to know the descendants and relatives of the Muse family. Yet, as complex and contradictory as the stories she is told are, the reading experience is detailed immersive and crisply told. And because, of necessity, the story goes many different places, there are lots of fascinating subcultures to enjoy… or at least witness.

The Muse Brothers’ experience is ultimately unknowable; neither of them left records. What we can know is the sum total of what has been said and what has been written. As you find yourself compelled by the smart, nuanced storytelling you find in Truevine, you’ll realize that stories, truth, and history do not, in fact, cannot, tell us what we want and need to know. We humans need other humans to build us worlds of words. The worlds you find in Truevine are astonishingly engaging and entertaining, but never neat and tidy. This is the stuff of life, understandable and inexplicable.

beth-macy-2017-smThere’s a bit of irony in the fact that by choosing to write of sharecroppers, Beth Macy gave herself a tough row to hoe. This book is dives straight into the uncomfortable, served up by the unconfirmable. As Beth and I discussed her book, we talked about the complicated tangle of data that she unearthed as she tried to merge truth, story and history. Her book is meticulously documented and exciting to read. And yes, let me mention that I could not help but think of one of my favorite novel, ever, Katherine Dunn’s iconic Geek Love as I read Truevine. And it’s not just the freak show that joins these two. It’s that both offer up the contradictions of life in exciting details. You can hear Beth and I speak to the details and the contradictions of life by following this link to the MP3 audio file. Or, you can just stick around, kick back on the electronic front porch, and listen to the stories, finding life.