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Our Water, Ourselves PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kim Ogren, BT Contributor   
January 2020

A line in the sand won’t hold

Tbigstock-Osphronemus-Goramy-Or-Albino--311444236he late David Foster Wallace’s famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, “This Is Water,” opens with a parable:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says: ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

Wallace continues, “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

Our reality as Floridians is that our relationship with our waters, once the source of our celebrated identity, has all but evaporated. Now we’re all water warriors. Our values have been severed from the true nature of the thing -- by the socioeconomic and political tools we have chosen to define our association with water.

These human management tools segment information, dialogue, and actions into categories like costs, place, or utility. They further subdivide we into us and them, leading everyone down an ever more divisive path, leaving our hearts, memories, and whole consciousness behind.

But we need our hearts most right now, to inform how we become whole again. We have to be willing to be vulnerable in the face the conflicting values that misalign our hearts, minds, and actions. We have been ignoring what surrounds us -- all of us.

Headlines from late 2019 illustrate the contrast between our heartfelt ideals as Floridians and the political predicaments in which we find ourselves. First, the 11th Annual Southeast Regional Climate Leadership Summit last month unveiled a flurry of new information and government responses to that information. The Miami Herald reported that the expected sea level rise for the region in 2060 has risen from between 14 and 26 inches to between 17 and 31 inches. “That’s going to be a problem forever,” said one expert, “knowing the exact rate of rise.”

The summit marked the moment that Monroe County officials introduced as a matter of policy their plans to invest in raising some roads in one area and abandoning roads in another area. I read this with a mix of emotions. Sadness for those hard-working Keys residents that may be abandoned. Relief because the decision is so honest, it brings forth the financial and social implications that we should be discussing. And hesitation because this local headline might get hijacked out of context by national press to further a conversation that does not benefit us.

I’m reminded of the power and influence of the questions we ask ourselves -- how the question is what drives the response. For example, the Miami Downtown Development Authority asked the Urban Land Institute, an international association of land researchers, how to design riverwalks that “provide residents with amenities and access to their waterfront, and protect them from the impacts of sea level rise and storm surge.” The assignment addresses water as a threat. It recommends higher sea walls. It’s like the time I had knee pain and went to a surgeon to ask what could help my knee. He recommended surgery.

Further illustrating how a man vs. nature framework is steering our real-life actions is the Army Corps of Engineers’ Miami Back Bay feasibility study. Due out this month, recommendations will include floodgates in response to the question of how to improve safety and reduce the risk of damage to buildings and infrastructure. We seem bound to underestimate the superpowers of our shapeless villain. I’m reminded again: Pride goeth before the fall.

Michael Grunwald’s 2007 book The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise not only provides us lessons in hubris, but also in nature’s revenge. Organizing Everglades restoration into a series of projects framed by different political, spatial, and economic lenses has been the very thing that has bogged the renaissance down: us vs. them.

In a recent interview with The Nature Conservancy, America’s leading naturalist, E. O. Wilson, admits that our pre-human ancestors evolved and had success because they favored aggressive interaction between tribes that resulted in damage to the environment; they remained favorable toward impulses of group competition; they cleverly and constantly expanded and improved ways to convert the environment to their immediate needs of survival. Reproductive tribalism is the default human experience.

Wilson’s observations usher in a fresh and honest dialogue that we desperately need. We can release ourselves from the shackles of shame and expect leaders to serve with humility rather than ignore certain truths and hide behind overconfident solutions. I don’t want political decisions that reject the obvious laws of nature.

We can’t draw a line in the sand. It won’t hold. But marrying heart and mind may be our most valiant effort of all.

 

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