The new nonfiction book Over the Seawall is about what writer Stephen Robert Miller terms “disastrous adaptation.” In a nutshell, that means the delusional actions humans take to try to control nature as they adapt to changes in climate and environment.
The book looks at three parts of the world: tsunami seawalls in Japan, reengineered waters in Bangladesh and artificial waterways supporting farms and cities in Arizona.
Miller, who lives in Longmont, came to Colorado about five years ago as a Ted Scripps Fellow in CU Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism program. This book is a direct result of what Miller pitched to land the fellowship.
While he was at CU, Miller spent much of his time researching water law in the American West, which became the Arizona section of the book. He was also auditing an environmental course taught by Amanda Carrico, who has done extensive research in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Miller asked to tag along on her next research trip to Dhaka.
“That was the first time I really saw maladaptation happening on a large scale on the ground outside of the U.S.,” he said.
In the Bangladesh section, Miller describes how humans have arrogantly tried to control sea tides and the Ganges River Delta through huge engineering projects that have had disastrous results for the local population.
That part, along with the opening Japan section, meant Miller had to report and write two-thirds of the book about countries where he didn’t speak the language. And he reported most of it during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A shred of hope
After the reporting was done, Miller says he started writing the book from a place of anger. He was mad at policymakers and government officials, “everybody who’s not doing anything to stop this crisis from happening now. I was just pissed off at so many people in positions of power,” he says. “We’re doing so little.”
Then Miller’s life changed in a major way. He became a father to a son about six months ago, just as he was working through the copy edits on the book.
“When I found out that he was coming, I found it difficult to be so negative and cynical. I was still angry, but I found myself feeling like I have to find some shred of hope in all of this,” he says. “I can’t bring a kid into the world with the mindset that he’s screwed.”
What choices we leave for the generations to come after us is one of his biggest concerns with maladaptation.
“It limits our choices in the future. We make decisions now that have these ramifications that go on down the line,” he says. “They don’t only cause other environmental problems … they also limit the amount of options people in the future have to address those problems.
“The last thing I wanted to do is leave my kid with fewer options to deal with this crisis when the crisis is only going to get worse.”
Over the Seawall is Miller’s way to get people to care about the long-term impacts of their decisions, whether that’s trying to build monstrous walls along the coast of Japan in a futile effort to stop ocean rise and tidal waves, or the unsustainable agricultural practice of pumping water into the Arizona desert to grow alfalfa for horses overseas.
“[Having a child] made it even more imperative to me that we don’t fall into these traps of making short-sighted decisions, only thinking about our immediate interests,” Miller says.
Adapting our environment to handle problems like tidal waves in the present moment is much different than adapting for future generations. The sea walls the Japanese built before the tsunami in 2011 were maladaptive, according to Miller, because they created a false sense of security that led people to stay behind after the earthquake. “They felt the walls would protect them,” he says. Nearly 20,000 people died in that disaster.
“The Japanese reaction to the tsunami is to build even bigger walls that wouldn’t have even stopped the wave that came,” Miller says. “It’s a … tragic example of our tendency as people to just build a tall wall to solve the same problem without thinking about the deeper implications of what’s causing the problem and why we’re vulnerable to it in the first place.”
Miller acknowledges that a book like this can be pretty heavy on the doom and gloom, especially when he points out the solutions that people have engineered aren’t actually going to save us.
“But my whole point is that it’s our tendency to fall for simple solutions that keeps putting us in these predicaments,” he says. Plus, there’s money to be made in building huge embankments or desalination plants or large-scale dams.
Miller points to natural solutions as better options than man-made fixes. In Bangladesh, for example, the people know how to plan their agricultural seasons when the river floods, rather than try to control it.
“It’s a great example of people working with nature using what might be called ‘Indigenous knowledge,’” he says. “When I talk about working with nature or nature-based solutions, it sounds cornball and soft and gooey, but it is really powerful.”
ON THE PAGE: Over the Seawall: Tsunamis, Cyclones, Drought, and the Delusion of Controlling Nature author event with Stephen Robert Miller. 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28. Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St. Tickets here.