Lessons in Survival

The Life of Harriet Tubman, #16, 1940, a painting by Jacob Lawrence
Hampton University Museum, Virginia/© 2019 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York
Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Harriet Tubman, #16, 1940

My grandmother Mabel Raboteau fled the coastal town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and the terror of Jim Crow along the northern pathway of the Great Migration, to Michigan, in order to save her life and the lives of her children. The youngest of them was my father, Albert Jr. He was still in her womb when a white man shot and killed her husband, my grandfather, practically for sport. I probably don’t need to tell you that Albert Sr.’s murderer went scot-free. The courage it took Mabel to escape from harm’s way and start her life over was no less extraordinary for being such an ordinary African-American story. What other choice did she have but this? As Mary Annaïse Heglar points out in her vital essay, “Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat,” there’s a shortsighted arrogance to the environmental movement when it claims ours is the first generation in history to face annihilation.1

Two recent books reckon with the existential and financial threat posed to the United States coastline by sea level rise: Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush, and The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts by Gilbert M. Gaul. Both make the controversial case for managed retreat as our best defense, given the scale of the problem. This approach calls for withdrawing rather than rebuilding after disasters, and would include government buyout programs to finance the resettlement of homeowners from vulnerable areas.

Of course, the climate crisis has worsened in the short time since these books were written, pointing to the challenge of a genre that cannot keep pace with its subject. In August, Indonesia announced plans to change its capital to Borneo from Jakarta, which is sinking beneath the sea. In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report showing that low-lying coastal zones, home to 680 million people—about 10 percent of the world’s population—are under severe risk of increased sea level rise, extreme weather, and more frequent and stronger storms. Over half the world’s megacities and 1.9 billion people living on the world’s coasts are in grave danger, and several cities are already disappearing underwater.

This is what the climate emergency looks like now. But how do we ensure that a strategy like managed retreat doesn’t result in unjust displacement? There is a pernicious history in this country of the forced movement of people of color, from chattel slavery and Native American Removal to Japanese internment camps, segregation, redlining, urban renewal, slum clearance, and real estate exploitation. Given our track record, it wasn’t surprising to learn from…

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