Saturday, December 09, 2006

By what right?

Shreveport associate professor of political science Jeffrey D. Sadow's makes a claim widely repeated in the past year, that the people of New Orleans (and the hurricane coast in general) have no right to live where we do at the general expense of the rest of the nation.

Why, he and many others ask, should the costs of hurricane protection, coastal restoration and flood insurance be borne by a nation that does not choose to live in such a dangerous place?

While he grants that there are compelling reasons to be here--the oil-and-gass, the port, and coastal fisheries and agriculture--he misses the real question lurking behind that assertion: does the rest of America have the right to live where ever they choose, if their choice requires they own an SUV or large truck and drive it 100 miles or more in their daily commute? Does that right extend to the destruction of coastal Louisiana in the name of oil-and-gas exploitation to feed their bad decision, if that cost is to be borne by the people of Louisiana?

I put this question another way in a post back in June:

If we applied Louisiana's coastal erosion rate to the L.A. coastline (which
Google tells me stretches 76 miles from Malibu to Long Beach), the city would
have to move back from the sea a little under one mile a year. Would the Hummer
continue to be so popular in SoCal if it were their land they were giving up at
such an alarming rate in the name of cheap gas?

Clearly the nation is full of people who will cheerfully send their sons and daughter off to fight wars to secure their right to live in exurbia, and to drive that SUV so that they feel safe traveling in a bumper to bumper crowd at 70 mph from their semi-rural castle to where ever it is they make their daily bread. These same people will clamor against us if we try to require they pay the hundreds of billions of dollars in deferred costs for doing so, to repair a half-century of damage to our coast.

There are vast untold costs for the decisions of the last century, and those bills are now coming due. If global warming shifts climate enough that the semi-arid midwest becomes unsustainable as an acricultural region, when then should I pay them any compensation for the loss of their homes and livihood, or shell out the millions of millions it would require to divert the Great Lakes to water their crops, all so that we can all continue to live the post-war dream of a house as far out as we can stand to drive, and a fleet of large gasoline engine vehicles to carry us there and back again?

New Orleans and the rest of the hurricne coast (say, from Brownsville, TX to Savanna, GA) are not the only places people choose to live that are in danger. According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study, the coastal strip of the United States comprises about 17% of the nation's landmass, but almost half of the population chooses to live there. In an era of massive climate change, and when by our settlement we disrupt the fragile coastal ecosystems we all choose to live in close proximity to, can this be sustained? Or will we require the millions who make the coast their home move to Omaha?

The simple fact is this: European people have lived on this coast for 300 years, and the native populations longer because it is economically attractive. There are vast resources of prime agricultural land (created by the silt transport of the Mississippi and other rivers) and fisheries, the opportunity for water-borne commerce, and in the last century the extraction of oil-and-gas. Living here was tenable because we settled in places that were protected to the best possible extent from flooding.

Even before we outgrew the highest and safest land, efforts were made to make sustainable coastal cities through the construction of larger and more extensive flood protection system. If the levees around New Orleans had been built and maintained to their authorized standard, we would not even be having this conversation. The first issue is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through murderous negligence failed to build and maintain the levees we paid for with our tax dollars. In my view, they should be held to the same standard as the contractors of Massachuetts's Big Dig project, and be tried for their murderous negligence. But that's not the real issue.

The problem we on the Louisiana coast face is that the barrier land that surrounded our places of settlement is being lost at a precipitous rate, only in small part due to natural subsidence. The lost is largely the result of man's own works, to channelize the Mississippi River for commerce and to exploit the oil-and-gas found in the coastal zone. One of the hidden costs of a cheap oil-and-gas economy was to expose cities like New Orleans to flooding which the coast previously protected them from.

Now that cost, like other costs from our fossil fuel economy, are now coming due. Yesterday's vote in Washington to begin paying reasonable royalties from offshore exploitation, the money appropriatde to pay for damage from the Federal Flood, are only a start, a downpayment.

Clearly the nation is full of people who will cheerfully send their sons and daughter off to fight wars to secure their right to live in exurbia, and to drive that SUV so that they feel safe traveling in a bumper to bumper crowd at 70 mph from their semi-rural castle to where ever it is they make their daily bread.

An inspired statement and sadly, so true.
Excellent post!
Well said, as usual, Mark.
Ironically, Louisiana is the only coastal state that actually "works" its coast to benefit the nation, yet Louisiana is the only state being castigated for having population in proximity to its coast.
your preaching to the choir in my case.
that doesnt mean you should stop preaching.

the more sane voices that keep making your point the better chance we have of the rest of the country hearing the truth.
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