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.
In 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 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.