Book Review: Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

risingRising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
by Elizabeth Rush
Nonfiction/Climate Change
300 pages
Published 2018

Content Warning: Sexual Assault

This is actually the second book on climate change I read. The first one, The Water Will Come, by Jeff Goodell, was quite good until halfway through the book when it abruptly was not. Because halfway through the book, we get this tiny little scene from the signing of the Paris Climate Accords:

Standing among them, I watched French president Francois Hollande stand at the podium in the front of the hall and slam the gavel down, marking formal acceptance of the 2015 Paris climate accord. Everyone cheered. Some cried. To my surprise, I hugged the person next to me, a young Asian woman I had never met or talked to. I felt her pull away, perhaps shocked that a stranger would grab her so suddenly, but then she hugged me back. I never learned her name or even what country she represented, but our shared expression of the power of the moment was genuine. (p. 165)

I stared at this paragraph in shock. He really just – just sexually assaulted a woman he’d never met, and just moved on to other things. He didn’t realize what he’d done, to the point that he put it in his book with absolutely no idea what effect that paragraph would have on any survivors reading his book. I skimmed through the rest of the chapter, and he never mentions this scene or woman again. He felt her pull away, he says, but assumes her hug back means she’s excited too, not that she’s decided hugging back is the best way to avoid further violence.

I set aside the book. I couldn’t read any further. Up until that point it had been quite good – lots of facts and investigation, interviews and adventures with climate scientists and geologists and other neat stuff. But I could not continue, and instead picked up Rising.

Halfway through the first book on climate change, I find a depiction of sexual assault perpetrated by the male author. Halfway through the second book on climate change, I find an entire chapter devoted to the sexual assault of the female author.

“Hold on,” he says, turning my body away from him. Then he reads aloud the E. E. Cummings quote I have tattooed on my back, the final line of which reads, “will never wholly kiss you.”

Suddenly I feel his damp lips pressing into my skin, into the letters inked there. My stomach slams into the roof of my mouth, locking my words in instead of out. And my body takes over. It wants to punch him but knows it shouldn’t. Instead it walks straight out into the ocean, into a flotilla of spawning jellyfish at the northernmost edge of the Gulf. It starts to swim.

What are the chances? Yes, it’s only an unwanted kiss. It could have been worse. (How often have we heard, or said, THAT statement?) The first part of this chapter, titled “Risk” had been devoted to the calculated risk taken by people living in flood plains, and her initial fear upon going to interview a man by herself who might have been a threat. It’s revealed, after this scene, that she wasn’t actually alone; the man in this scene, her colleague, was with her, as a kind of safety net. It turned out she’d misjudged who was a risk and who was not. The rest of the chapter weaves these ideas together, and extends to one of the author’s students, who was also sexually harassed in the field.

I was struck by the difference in the two books; the male author casually mentioning forcefully hugging a woman he didn’t know, and not appearing to realize he’d even done anything wrong, and spending a single paragraph on it, vs. the female author freezing up when the victim of a similar action, and spending an entire chapter on the topic. She turns down an advancement in her career because of this interlude; it was offered by the colleague who kissed her. She’d intended to take it until then. She eventually tells him why, and his reaction is telling.

Eventually I tell Samuel that I cannot continue our professional relationship and I tell him why. First he says, “Oh my god.” Then he says, “I had no idea.” Followed by, “I don’t remember.” And then, “I had no further intentions.” He says, “I love my family.” And, “Let me know when you get over it.” The words spill out of him fast like floodwater.

He can’t stop talking, so I invent a student knocking on my door and hang up. I don’t present at the National Academy of Sciences. I don’t take the senior fellowship. I don’t coauthor an article with him. When I put down my cell phone, I realize I have been shaking.

In the era of #metoo, how can men not understand the effect these things have?

*deep breath*

All of that unexpectedness aside, Rising is an insightful, evocative book. Elizabeth Rush spends time not only with climate scientists and biologists, but with the people that actually LIVE in the places most affected by sea level rise. It’s an intimate look at the real, human cost of sea level rise and climate change. Spaced throughout the book are letters from people she interviewed, writing to her weeks to months after she met them, telling her of changes in the areas she visited. When she first visited the Isle de Jean Charles, for example, the Native Americans there weren’t interested in leaving the island. Then she includes a letter from one of them, saying they were leaving together, selling their land to the state and being provided a new community, together, farther inland. She then goes back to visit.

While Goodell is taking helicopter rides over glaciers, Rush is slogging through rotting tidal marshes with teams of scientists and grad students, and that is really indicative of the difference between the two books. Rush is on the ground, getting her hands dirty, while Goodell interviews and gathers information about the big picture. And that would make the two books an excellent pair, were it not for the casual sexual assault in the middle of his book. That isn’t to say that Rush doesn’t talk about the big picture; she does, it’s just not her focus.

If you’re interested in climate change, you’ll probably enjoy Rising. The Water Will Come was also very enjoyable, at least the half that I read, but I don’t believe in giving a man like that more of my time. So you can make your own decision there.

From the cover of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore:

Harvey. Maria. Irma. Sandy. Katrina. We live in a time of unprecedented hurricanes and catastrophic weather events, a time when it is increasingly clear that climate change is neither imagined nor distant – and that rising seas are transforming the coastline of the United States in irrevocable ways.

In this highly original work of lyrical reportage, Elizabeth Rush guides readers through some of the places where this change has been most dramatic, from the Gulf Coast to Miami, and from New York City to the Bay Area. For many of the plants, animals, and humans in these places, the options are stark: retreat or perish in place. Weaving firsthand accounts from those facing this choice – a Staten Islander who lost her father during Sandy, the remaining holdouts of a Native American community on a drowning Isle de Jean Charles, a neighborhood in Pensacola settled by escaped slaves hundreds of years ago – with profiles of wildlife biologists, activists, and other members of the communities both currently at risk and already displaced, Rising privileges the voices of those usually kept at the margins. 

At once polyphonic and precise, Rising is a shimmering meditation on vulnerability and on vulnerable communities, both human and more than human, and on how to let go of the places we love.

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