Rising, Dispatches from the New American Shore, by Elizabeth Rush


Book Overview By Marj Davis and Jim Kremer April 15, 2021

RISING – Dispatches From The New American Shore (2018) is a compelling non-fiction narrative of personal stories by Elizabeth Rush, an environmental journalist and professor of creative non-fiction at Brown University. Rising was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction.

Rush interviewed individuals living near the sea around America, sometimes with repeated visits over five years. Extended local visits in person allowed her to come to know them, their situations, their recollections, their emotions.

She traveled from New England where coasts are receding, to communities in Staten Island inundated by storm surge, to low-lying areas of Florida flooded by hurricanes, to Louisiana’s disappearing coastal islands with relocated climate refugees, to wetlands restoration efforts in San Francisco Bay. Yes, the Bay Area is included – there is a chapter on Alviso and the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project to convert the Cargill salt ponds back to wetlands. There is even mention of District 1 Supervisor in San Mateo County. So it quite literally hits close to our coast-side home.

Local note: The wetlands dilemma of SF Bay is how to allow for wetlandescaping. As Rush describes, wetlands respond naturally by moving up and landward as sea level rises, continuing to provide us with a protective buffer against the surge energy and flooding – UNLESS manmade structures prevent this. “Wetlandescaping” is a neologism capturing this natural inland migration of wetland habitat in response to sea level rise unimpeded by manmade barriers. Marj Davis was inspired to create this word while reading Rising and participating in the “Pacifica Futures, See Change” project at Sanchez Art Center in collaboration with the The Bureau of Linguistical Reality.

Most chapters are recounted as interpreted narratives from Rush’s insightful perspective. Some appear in the first person so it seems they are by co-authors, probably transcriptions from recordings, and are especially impactful and poignant.

Rising is not a science book, yet the science is subliminal. Rather, the scope of human experience explored by such intimate stories of geographically dispersed people who faced and are facing personal, property and financial loss is Art. Her approach is very effective. Accounts of lived human experience on the front lines – the waterlines around America – is thus an account of evidence. As has been said, “the plural of anecdote is evidence”.

We learn that: FEMA in some cases has revised their requirement that insurance payments be used only to repair/replace storm damaged properties allowing owners to move; in some communities, all residents have been offered buy-outs at full market value if they relocate, with funding patched together by federal and state sources; the entire South Bay town of Aviso is 16 feet below sea level due to extraction of groundwater for irrigation and now sea level rise.

Well into the book, the author takes a brief diversion seemingly off topic, when she extends her view of the responsibility of decision makers with authority into a wider socio-cultural context. But she soon brings it back home, using her deeply personal and timely story of risk and responsibility as a general example of underappreciated impacts on vulnerable individuals.

Environmental justice, actually injustice, is a theme which gathers momentum. “Climate change impact and environmental injustice often overlap” says Rush, and monies for climate response will likely not be equitably distributed. But solutions can provide “transformation and hope” as neighbors help neighbors and become “agents of change”. Personal stories clearly show that climate change and sealevel rise are real, that all of us face a changing landscape, and that we need to plan.

The Chicago Tribune, in their review of Rising, noted, “with empathy and elegance, [Rush] conveys what it means to lose a world in slow motion”. This book gives one a broader view and perspective of what is going on in our country on every coastline. Rush’s personal stories humanize this very challenging situation. One realizes that we are not just making a decision for today but a choice for future generations in how we deal with the effects of climate change. Reading this book encourages us to consider what we HAVE done in the past, what we CAN do today, and what we SHOULD do FOR the future.

Rush concludes her book [hopefully] with the thought that “the sea is rising and so are we”. As reported in The Nation, we need “to consider more just ways of dealing with the immense challenges.