Book of the Week: Humans and their shores

Hurricane Sandy was a dominant note in Gov. Christie's State of the State address on Tuesday, and it promises to be again in New York Gov. Cuomo's address today.

Both have vowed to rebuild, and both are strong voices seeking federal dollars to help out.

human shore

But the cautionary sentiment from many environmental groups is that we can't just build the same as we have, setting ourselves up for similar future damages in the worsening storms that climate change likely will bring. We have to do things better.

And then there are the voices that say we should build VERY differently...and perhaps, in some places, not at all. Or, at least, not with the guarantee of a federal bail-out the next time.

All of this brings new focus to our relationship with the shore. John R. Gillis has explored it thoroughly in "The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History," published last November by the University of Chicago Press. 

Gillis, a Rutgers University history professor emeritus, looks at our evolving -- and somewhat treacherous -- relationship with the edges of continents.

"Around the world there is an unprecedented surge to the sea," he begins. "Half of all the globe's people now live within one hundred miles of an ocean. In the United States, coastal populations have increased about 30 percent in thirty years."

Although there are environmental elements, this is also a cultural exploration.  Humans have, in a very real way, remade the shore. We have drained its wetlands, bolstered its beaches and created ports. 

In turn, the shore has remade us, imbuing our culture with symbolism.

Yet, oddly enough, he contends that coastlines "are not found in nature. They are the product of human initiative, first imagined, then discovered, named and, ultimately, surveyed and settled. As a historian, my task is to tell the story not of a physical object but of a cultural process, one by which our modern understanding of coasts came into being."

Part of that understanding is that coasts should be rigid. Or, rigid enough to allow the building of hotels, homes and other structures within feet of the water. And in that way, we have shown how alienated we have become from the sea, he writes. We need to better understand the "folly" of shoreline engineering and let nature protect itself, he contends.

"The armoring of coasts, meant to protect coastal dwellers, has produced a false sense of security," Gillis writes. They certainly couldn't stop the tsunami of March, 2011, that hit Japan's coast.

As the debate continues over how best to recover from Hurricane Sandy -- and prepare for future storms -- Gillis' book provides a valuable perspective.

"We must rethink not only the relationship between land and sea but that between humanity and nature, giving up distinctions that separate us from other creatures," he writes.