Professor talks risks of living near coast


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Photo by Julian Chokkattu |

John Gillis, professor emeritus of History, said the beach has become a romanticized recreational space. The view of the horizon is what is valuable, as opposed to the land.


The shore is no longer a setting for books like Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” where a fisherman battles a large marlin. Rather, TV shows like “Jersey Shore” have contributed to the image of the beach as a popular recreational space.

Rutgers Professor Emeritus of History John Gillis agrees.

“The shore provides something no other landscape provides, and that is a horizon,” he said. “A horizon where you look out and you can see nothing, you can see only what you imagine to be a horizon, and a horizon has become to people a kind of liberation.”

The sea view is the most valuable property in the world, he said.

“It’s not the land the house is sitting on, it’s the view that you have that makes it incredibly realistic,” Gillis said. “No previous generation ever purchased their houses on basis of the view it provided. Now that’s commonplace.”

According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 52 percent, or 163.8 million, of Americans lived in 673 coastal counties in 2010.

Gillis has taught at Rutgers for almost 40 years in the Department of History. He retired seven years ago and moved to California, where he lives in Berkeley near the shore.

His book “The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History,” explains how most people look upon shores as natural phenomenon, whereas he looks at shores as the product of human and natural interaction — the interface between the land and the sea.

“When I go down to the shore … I don’t see just nature as a lot of people would, but I see history,” he said. “And with the trained eye, what I see when I look at the shore is human evolution and the enormous changes which have occurred over very long periods of time.”

Up to the 19th century, Gillis said humans were drawn to the coast for the best kind of living they could aspire to, as the coast has an abundance of food, seaweed, shellfish and an extremely rich environment, which hunter-gatherers had explored for tens of thousands of years.

Then, instead of people being drawn to the shore to earn a living, he said the people who began to travel to the shore were not looking for work but romanticism.

“The idea was that the sea had a special spiritual and aesthetic power, that it was awesome, it was sublime, something you wanted to go out and experience,” he said. “Then it became a spot for popular recreation and consumption by the end of the 19th century.”

As the 20th century began, the building of beaches and the construction of elite resorts, which then expanded into popular resorts, led people to want to live by the sea, instead of visiting while on vacation, he said.

“The shore has been completely altered,” he said. “Fishermen and the workers have disappeared. Now we have landlubbers on the shore that know the least about it. In other words, it’s what we call coastal amnesia — people who have no idea about the environment they are encountering and are always surprised about when things like Sandy come along.”

Education of the effects of the shore and living with nature is important to Gillis.

“I think we need a lot more education, a lot more intelligent discussion in the uses of coasts, and that has been largely missing because, for example, in my field of history the coast is a sort of empty vacuum, a hole in the historical curriculum,” he said.

With no real education, Gillis said people are going to raise their houses higher and higher in a race against inevitability. Ideas like putting up storm barriers and sea walls will not solve anything.

“There are possibilities of building some innovative floating cities, which will literally ride out the storms, but I think the strong sense of putting up a storm barrier across the entry of New York Harbor is absolutely nonsense,” he said. “That’s somebody waiting to make a profit.”

Gillis believes storms seem to bring out a sense of militarism among people as well, alluding to the militarized rhetoric surrounding hurricanes.

All summer, Gov. Chris Christie said, “We’re stronger than the storm,” in TV commercials aiming to stir tourism at the Jersey shore.

“We see them as the enemy,” Gillis said. “The language of climatologists for too long has been militarized language, like ‘battling storms,’ or ‘fending off the invasion of the water.’ It confuses the public and produces a strange type of what one might call patriotism. We wave flags in the face of hurricanes. It’s just absurd.”

Going back to education, Gillis said Rutgers should create a course on the coast and the ocean in its core curriculum for all first-year students.

“I don’t see why Rutgers … shouldn’t have this knowledge foregrounded in the curriculum,” he said. “You know this is a public service, my god, you spend 1/10 of the football programs’ money on educating them on what the state is facing, and you would get a much greater return on that.”

One year ago, Hurricane Sandy swept across the Eastern seaboard. The Rutgers-New Brunswick campus was shut down for a week, and currently, according to The New York Times, at least 26,000 people are still out of their homes.

Gillis said in the wake of the anniversary, it is important not just to remember the event itself.

“If you knew you had an episode of cancer, you had some cancerous growth on your body, you wouldn’t just remember that and forget it,” he said. “You would go into the deeper processes of how that cancer came to be there and what caused it, for example, smoking.”

He said after learning the cause, a person would take the lessons learned and would apply it more generally to stop smoking.

“It is possible to remember that we are observing a deeply human process here,” he said. “A process which humans have put themselves at risk and canned through their will and can remove themselves from … if they wish to do so.”


By Julian Chokkattu

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