Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mike Davis's 1995 article "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn" is just about as provocative as the title suggests. Seaside Malibu is gorgeous, exclusive, and full of mansions. But it is also surrounded by hundreds of acres of kindling: dry chaparral and scrub that depend on, and are defined by, frequent wildfires. This means Malibu homeowners face inferno year in and year out, and must mobilize massive government resources to protect their homes. Davis draws a bitter contrast with Westlake, an LA neighborhood that likewise suffers frequent fires. Westlake fires, however, are the product of overcrowding, landlord greed, and negligent governance. They are thus entirely preventable, unlike those in Malibu, which will keep burning every year.

Rebecca Greenfield's article The Green Case for Not Rebuilding Jersey Shore Beaches (published today) is not so provocative. The Jersey Shore is not a wealthy enclave, and any anger in her article is environmental, not social. But her argument is fundamentally similar: rebuilding Jersey beaches means large-scale dredging--a long, costly, destructive process. Moreover, it is only a temporary fix. Hurricanes are beyond human control (like chaparral fires), and, as Emily pointed out, they will keep happening. This means that dredging sand to rebuild beaches could become as routine as filling in potholes--as may already be happening in Singer Island, Florida (link from Greenfield's article).

Telling New Jersey to give up on its beaches seems just about as popular as telling Malibu residents to abandon their mansions. The beach is vital for the local identity and economy, and Greenfield doesn't present a solution beyond Cuomo's "rebuild[ing] better." Putting the sand back doesn't solve anything, but I also feel pessimistic about more elaborate plans. Blame it on reading about the 2011 destruction of the world's deepest breakwater, or maybe my similarly pessimistic classmate Ira. Do I have a right to tell New Jersey what to do? Perhaps not, but this isn't just a New Jersey problem. Recovery money comes from federal, state, and private sources, and habitat destruction is everyone's problem.

(Malibu isn't the only California city where development has plowed headfirst into fire-prone hills: check out this visualization of an expanding Oakland)

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