Wednesday, January 30, 2002

This morning, I watched an middle-aged woman drive her Toyota SUV the length of my block to mail a letter in the corner mailbox. My street is six houses long; running from the northwest to the southeast, it terminates at a creosoted wooden sea-wall nine feet tall. The Atlantic Ocean is one hundred and fifty feet south of that wall.

I live on an island; nowhere does Absecon island rise higher than twenty feet above sea-level. Two hundred years ago, this barrier island was covered with grass-cloaked dunes, and it sheltered one of the most productive East Coast coastal estuaries. Today, this island is gridded with asphalt streets, sprinkled with tourist shops, casinos, and vacation beach-houses. Four causeways link this island with the mainland; they funnel road traffic, water, and electricity in, and pump garbage, sewage, and wasted labor out. The Great Egg Harbour estuary is now protected: migratory birds nest here; sportsman fish the fecund waters from gaudy powerboats; clammers palpate the bottom silt for quahogs with their feet. There is no significant natural difference between the developed barrier islands, mainland, and causeway-blocked estuary of Great Egg Harbour, and the similar uninhabited natural complex twenty miles northeast, at Little Egg Harbor and Great Bay, designated the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge. Only the accident of development and the persistence of non-development determined which region would be paved, and which would be preserved.

Unrefreshed by persistent flow of stream-carried silt and sand, Absecon island suffers severe wind and water erosion at its margins – each winter dredgers make their doleful way up the diminished coastline, chewing up the ocean bottom and dumping it on shore. Over my life, the beach has shrunk. At high tide in Ventnor and in Atlantic City, the ocean reaches the concrete sea-wall, above which hotels and villas perch. Storms, irregular high tides, and strong winds encourage the water to encroach uncomfortably close to the edge of the neighbor’s property. In winter, nearly every lavishly-appointed house less than two blocks from the shore is empty; they are second homes owned for summer recreation. Yet all homes are heated and, at night, lit – a pantomime of human presence. This place became a tourist destination because of its natural features, and later, because of the infrastructure that was installed to enable humans to appreciate those natural features easily and cheaply; finally, now, people go to Atlantic City ignorant of the beach – poker and slots have superseded sand, sun and surf.

Atlantic City, the other towns of Absecon Island, and the rim suburban communities of the mainland perfectly encapsulate the unstable relationship between modern development, individual material consumption, and the punishments and rewards of living in close proximity to a gracefully degrading natural environment. These communities exist because of Promethean vanity (the natural adjunct of the modern industrial and commercial economy) and individualist aesthetics (handmaiden to laissez-faire consumption). Corporate hospitality and real-estate developers took the pulse of material demand, and harnessed the power of economic demand to remake this landscape. The communities instituted extensive municipal government to channel and regulate the remanufacture of the marshes.

Here, nature is objectified, quantified, subdivided and packaged for human use, as it has been everywhere and everywhen people have lived:

Man’s world is imperfectly programmed by his own constitution. It is an open world…it is a world that must be fashioned by man’s own activity….Man must make a world for himself. The world-building activity of man, therefore, is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man’s biological constitution. Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion

This island, this crafted world, produces the venom that is destined to strangle it. The profligacy and waste of energy, water, and other raw materials used to construct and maintain this community provoke environmental damage; human-caused global warming, and the expected two meter rise in sea level that will follow, will end this place. If the seas do not rise, the increasingly energetic ocean storms that lash the shoreline will destroy property and life. The insatiable demand for fresh water, coupled with runaway suburban sprawl on the mainland, will divert and deplete available fresh water sources; already, development has constrained and poisoned the run-off from which the estuary feeds.

How can this fate be reconciled as product of what is understood to be an unalloyed human good: pleasure and enjoyment of the physical word? People live here because they take pleasure from the human community that lives here and the natural surroundings. I enjoy this place because of the salt breeze, the crashing surf, the golden dawns, and the warm, welcoming Jewish community. How can I condemn the existence of this place?; how can I conceive that this human place might better be if it were not? I can’t. This warm, large house by the shore is pleasant and I want it. I want everything that it implies – I want abundant physical culture; I want the products of our industrial/technical society. I want the freedom to travel at whim. My wants are the wants of the vast majority; Their denial, for the protection of “the natural world” (a product of an alternate value system) will fail, because people want, and they vote their want with dollars, and dollars build beach houses and Bradlees’.

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