When a storm comes at sea—when the sky turns black and the rain falls in deafening sheets upon the deck, when the awful wind howls through the rigging like a nightmare, and the waves build to ugly gray mountains beneath, and you starkly see that nothing stands between you and oblivion except a thin and fragile hull—there is no time to focus on anything except survival. What little comforts exist on a boat melt away into irrelevancy. There’s just no time. Each moment is a fight to the death between you and the ocean. You try to claw to keep hold of life as each clobbering wave tries to wrench it from you. They come in an endless succession. The ocean never tires. Your only reward for making it over each wave is the chance to do it again, to keep fighting.
This is the moment we are currently in on our ship called Earth. We, the human species, are fighting the echoes of ourselves: the worsening effects of anthropogenic climate change we have helped propel. As the waves of sea level rise, stronger, wetter, and more frequent hurricanes continue to batter our ship. On the Cape Fear coast we are way out front on the bowsprit, absolutely exposed.
While the storm rages, our officers argue about the best way to weather it, while little actual work to save the ship is getting done. Some continue to deny there is a storm at all. Strangest of all, the only voice which seems to make sense is that of a young Swedish woman of only 16, Greta Thunberg. Born on the ship as the storm approached, she echoes the voices of the scientists who told us for years, the only way to save ourselves is to cast overboard the heavy practices of burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases. “I want to live!” the young woman screams, but few officers take her seriously, least of all the captain—her cries drowned out by the howling wind.
We are passengers on this weary and wave-tossed vessel. I am young, with still hope for future voyages ahead, but as I look around, I notice many older passengers don’t look worried. More of them exist than people my age; they have comfortable berths which weigh much more than the thin ones of youth. Most of my generation is angry about the way things are. We don’t think it’s fair we should all have to drown because of a few greedy, ignorant, and shortsighted people. We are beginning to recognize the truth of our situation—that the number of young people aboard the ship is starting to catch up. There are whispers of mutiny on the lower decks; something drastic needs to happen and soon. We are tired of waiting; waiting to take action is a luxury we can no longer afford.
I am tired, too, of writing happy little essays with optimistic endings. (That’s what this was originally supposed to be, by the way.) I attended a lecture on Tuesday, the first in a monthly series of Coastal Community Resiliency Seminars put on by UNCW and the Center for Marine Science. Speakers included Tancred Miller, the coastal and ocean policy manager for the NC Division of Coastal Management; Dylan McNamara, chair of the department of physics and physical oceanography at UNCW; and David Gessner, author of many environmental nonfiction books and chair of UNCW’s creative writing department. I planned on taking notes, grabbing quotes, and publishing a story that could end on hope. Instead, after the lecture I found myself in a bar surrounded by other young people, with a pint of Guinness and a 1,000-yard stare.
If anything is really going to happen, it’s time to face some uncomfortable facts. David Gessner, quoting legendary (and local) poet A.R. Ammons, said it best: Firm ground is not available.
Tancred Miller agreed. “We are trying to manage our way out of a crisis.” According to Miller, it is inevitable we will have to abandon some areas of the coast and retreat. Reflecting upon his words, I had a weird image of taking a jon boat through the streets of Myrtle Beach—waves lapping against the still forms of abandoned concrete hotels, or the ruins of souvenir shops, as fish swam through the mouth of the giant plaster sharks at their old doorway.
Dylan McNamara predicted in the next 50 to 150 years we can expect two meters of sea-level rise. Wrightsville Beach, for example, has “looming instability.” In layman’s terms, that means it is going to get swallowed up by the ocean. And it’s happening while hurricanes like Florence will continue to drown our coasts and the rivers further inland. Hundred-year storms are now occurring a few times a decade.
The most surprising figure I heard came from local Rep. Harper Peterson. Despite all this, in 20 years our local population is expected to grow 50 to 60 percent. That equates to 120,000 new residents. So we will see more clear-cutting of our already blown-down canopy in a city that used to be more green than gray. That will look like more hideous cookie-cutter condominiums springing up all over the place, as people who already live here struggle to find affordable housing.
Our situation in Wilmington, as well as worldwide, is unsustainable. To imagine we can continue on this track in any capacity is nonsense. Quite frankly, I’m sick of it. The 16-year-old prophet told the UN last week: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth … how dare you?!”
The same words must be uttered to Wilmington’s City Council and the mayor, to the NC General Assembly, to Congress. The land developers and corporations, like Duke Energy, need to listen, too. So do we. The three biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in America are industry, transportation and electricity generation. Why aren’t we embracing nuclear power as a stopgap while we transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, like wind and solar? Why are we allowing gas-guzzling vehicles to be built and driven? What is preventing us from making these changes? We desperately need a paradigm shift at every level—and it’s up to us to make it happen. If you don’t believe this is happening, or you think it’s not your problem, you’re wrong. Globally and locally, it’s time to call the situation what it truly is: an emergency.
To continue my metaphor, our ship is fucking sinking. There are no lifeboats to get into; there is no magical Coast Guard helicopter coming to whisk us away to safety. There is only the faceless, uncaring sea, which continues to rage as it has since time began.
Decisions we make now and in the next five to 10 years will determine whether the human race and much of the life on this planet gets a chance to keep fighting. Or are we destined to vanish beneath the waves forever?