Since 2015, I’ve been involved in a project to formulate an adaptive course of action for New Orleans as it faces rising sea levels, the unmentionable subject in Louisiana’s slow-moving coastal crisis with huge climatic implications.1 Although the state is embarking on an ambitious plan to invest over $50 billion to restore the coast by 2067, the threat of rising ocean water may offset this audacious effort and still imperil its largest city. Structures, like levees that currently protect New Orleans and are integral to the restoration planning, have design limits that will become obsolete with rising sea levels, and the risk reduction they were intended to provide will degrade over time. I am the lone humanities scholar in a group of scientists, architects, and engineers who have been contemplating an alternative to the state’s coastal plan that relies heavily on levees and other structural techniques.2 Our project considers raising the grade of New Orleans within its ring of levees while also adding forested wetlands on the city’s north shore. There are precedents for such projects, and my role was to consider the historical analogs to this endeavor. The manipulation of Louisiana’s coastal region has taken place over several centuries, and the project leader recognized that a long-term view was vital to account for this protracted process and to identify solutions. He saw environmental historical geography as a complementary expertise to the skills of the other participants. Proposals to raise the grade of New Orleans have been around since the mid-nineteenth century, although none has significantly altered the city’s landscape. Similar plans arose in Chicago and Galveston, where city leaders elevated the land surface to reduce future risks in response to tragedies in the 1850s and in 1900, respectively. Although underlying environmental factors and social, economic, political, and cultural conditions differed in these three situations, they nevertheless offer historical analogs and add value to integrative multidisciplinary research on climate change and rising sea levels. While science has provided the primary set of tools to project climate change and its potential impacts, those engaged in studying how society will respond to changing environments often mention historical analogs as a device for gauging how humans will adapt to new conditions. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Policy Analysis carried out one of the earliest exercises in this vein in the 1980s. It issued a report with the subtitle “Forecasting by Analogy.” Its editor, Michael Glantz, observed that analogies, or “case scenarios,” relying on experienced-based historical examples had far more credibility than scientific models of projected human behaviors. While the set of case studies did not actually predict specific futures, Glantz suggested that “forecasting the future by analogy can be a fruitful approach to improve our understanding of how well society is prepared to cope with the presently unknown regional characteristics of a potential climate change some decades in the future.” He offered the caveat that “we must not expect analogues to tell us what the future will be.”3 While avoiding the temptation to seek a crystal ball, Glantz’s project builds on countless examples of using past records to project future risks. Indeed, the entire specialty of risk assessment is based on inventories of past events and projections of the probability of their return. Flood, earthquake, and extreme weather risks all are calculated based on historical experiences, even if not presented as history. Projecting risk of biophysical events is extremely complicated, but extending our risk assessment to include human decision making and long-term responses to potentially unforeseen social conditions magnifies the complexity. Historians, while reticent to use the term, have noted the value of historical analogs. Boyd Shaffer offered this cautionary observation in 1960: “Even if a historian arrives at objective interpretation of evidence, he cannot with certainty use this interpretation for the purpose of prediction.”4 In one of the few extended treatments of the use of historical analogy, Bruce Mazlish notes that this tool serves three fundamental purposes: (1) to isolate one element in a particular time and place for study, (2) to trace a historical element over an extended period of time, and (3) to study the impact of a particular innovation.5 Joel Tarr, writing about the value of historical analogs in energy policy formulation, argues that past transitions from one fuel to another could provide policymakers with a “device of anticipation” to aid in successful policy formulation—again not predicting the future.6 Writing specifically about the role of historians in the climate change discussion, Paul Sabin notes that “historical narratives also provide some of the only guides that we have for the future,” but not a cartographically precise road map to the future.7 While touting the benefits of history in coping with the future, historical scholars assiduously avoid claiming it can serve as a forecasting tool. In recent years there have been several appeals for the inclusion of humanities and sound historical scholarship in considering how society will cope with future climates. Two articles in a leading climate change periodical spotlighted the glaring need to insert cultural and humanistic considerations into this pressing subject. Neil Adger and associates point out that culture is central to any consideration of procedures to mitigate climate change and aid human adaptation. Human consumption patterns, belief systems, and technological capabilities are all rooted in culture and also are deeply connected to place. Human decisions are framed by culture that guides how society responds to pending change.8 Noel Castree and his colleagues argue that much of the global environmental change research currently is missing human dimension considerations that recognize “humans as diverse, interpretive creatures who frequently disagree about value, means, and ends.”9 Historians have also weighed in on this issue. Scott Knowles makes the related point that risk taking is based in human values, which underscores the need to include this social dimension in addressing how we prepare for and respond to changing climates.10 Matthias Heymann goes a step farther and argues that a reliance on science-framed terms, like resilience and vulnerability, narrows research and thereby places historical variety and complexity outside the bright light of science inquiries. Typically these concepts frame humans as part of human–environment systems or just so many cogs in complex machinery. These terms, as human constructs, can pose more problems than solutions when applied outside the culture hearth of their origin. They become normative and do not always portray culture–environment relations as mutually dependent. Thus they can diminish our ability to infuse climate change discussions with the rich texture and particularity that historical sources provide, at least when defined by typical proxy measures.11 A failure to fully balance global environmental change research with humanistic ideas and a comparable level of scholarship tragically undermines the power of science. While not providing predictive power, historical analogs, when used with care and built on solid historical evidence, can both provide guidance for the future and transcend the limits of disciplinary boundaries. There are, of course, problems with applying lessons from historical analogs to current questions. Among the shortcomings, according to William Easterling and colleagues, are the absence of analysis of temporal and spatial variability of climate, oversimplification of regional resources and economics, and inadequate consideration of adaptive responses.12 Nevertheless, historical analogs can add temporal and geographic texture and reveal the complexity of past human decisions in the face of changing environmental conditions. These historical insights can benefit those individuals shaping policies for the future. My work on the New Orleans project foregrounds some of the benefits while also exposing some of the problems associated with historical analogs. My task in this interdisciplinary effort was to discover and report on past efforts to raise the actual elevation in whole or parts of existing cities.13 I turned to two prominent examples in the United States: Chicago and Galveston. Each was brash in its own right and fundamentally changed the landscape of its respective city. Both shared an impetus for land raising based in tragedies that inspired efforts to mitigate future risks. Chicago endured calamitous epidemic disease outbreaks in the mid-nineteenth century when summer rains overwhelmed the city’s drainage system leaving the streets as open cesspools and also flushed the sewage-laden Chicago River into Lake Michigan, the city’s drinking water supply. Galveston suffered massive hurricane damage and loss of life in 1900. The origins and directions of the land-raising efforts in these two cities were distinct, but the followthrough in each produced enduring landscapes that offered a means to trace the procedures employed to enact such sweeping changes. And it is the cumulative institutional context, framed by culture and history, that offer value for analogs. In the summer of 1854, more than sixteen hundred of Chicago’s residents (5.5 percent) died from cholera or typhoid that ravaged the city. Seeking to eliminate a recurrence of such a massive tragedy, the city brought in the respected engineer Ellis Chesbrough to design a safer sewerage system. In short, he advocated installing large sewers that would collect the city’s effluent and transport it into a dredged and deepened Chicago River where it would be released into Lake Michigan. The city’s topography provided a modest gradient between its high point and the river, and hence little grade to enable gravity to propel the sewage. To overcome this topographic challenge, Chesbrough proposed laying sewer lines on the existing streets and then raising the streets as much as 8 feet to entomb the new infrastructure. To conform to the new street grade, structures in the city center and nearby neighborhoods also required raising. Over the course of several years, business and homeowners, at their own expense, had to elevate their structures. Although private property owners challenged the imposition of the costs, local courts sided with the city and a two-level city arose. This effort began in the wake of a local disaster and unfolded during a period of rapid economic expansion that supported business and individual expenditures, when available technologies enabled structures, even large ones, to be raised or altered, and with municipal fiscal and legal backing of the effort. Although the sewers did not eliminate the waterborne disease problem (sewers still delivered bacteria to the city’s drinking water supply), the risk reduction effort did alter the topography of the city.14 In 1900 a massive hurricane swept across the low-lying barrier island where Galveston stood on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. The powerful storm devastated most houses and killed some six thousand residents. In the wake of the tragedy, city leaders pushed a plan to build a massive seawall to protect the city from future storm surge and waves. In order to avoid hiding behind a 17-foot-high barrier, officials decided to raise the grade of the city to match the crest of the protective wall. Acting swiftly while there was ample public support, the city enacted policies and established a funding mechanism to push the project forward. Tons of sand were pumped into a series of diked basins to elevate the city well above its former height. Structures had to be raised before filling began, and elevated walkways provided access to homes and businesses during the process. Powerful legal backing required residents and businesses to pay for elevating their own structures or they would be buried in the sand slurry. And general prosperity aided with financing. By 1911, some five hundred blocks of the city stood at a safer height, as much as 16 feet above the previous grade.15 New Orleans has endured a lengthy series of floods since its establishment by the French in 1718. Both river and hurricane-induced high water have invaded the city and prompted mitigation efforts that have relied chiefly on levees over the years. Yet the notion of raising the grade of the city is not new. Fearing a limit to the capabilities of levees and drains, a local engineer, Lewis DeRussy, proposed to elevate land in 1859. He argued that building land, rather than the common practice of merely draining it, would enable the city to expand the territory available for habitation while improving the site’s salubrity, and also offer a means to reclaim “useless” wetlands across the state. He called for a series of parallel levees between the river and the lake, and cross levees at the lakefront to create enclosures known as “colmates.” A system of canals, pumps, and drains would provide a means to deliver river water and then remove water after the sediment settled out. He estimated a cost of nearly $2 million, and although the city was prospering, it was a considerable expense at the time. He offered no specific timetable but optimistically observed that the “filling and raising of the swamp land would be much sooner obtained than has been estimated.”16 Government officials were not persuaded of the plan’s efficacy, and they rejected it as they had an even less expensive drainage plan proposed a few years earlier.17 On the eve of the Civil War, the city remained reliant on raised houses built atop the natural levee in tandem with modest levees and ineffective drainage. Revisiting a historical concept for land raising as part of our project in New Orleans draws on both DeRussy’s thinking but also taps newer technologies and experiences that were deployed building new land behind a hurricane protection seawall in the 1930s.18 Landscape architects foresee a multistage process: the first phase will entail dredging sediment from the bed of Lake Pontchartrain, as was done in the 1930s, and restoring a wetland buffer on the city’s northern edge. The second phase will involve using sediments regularly dredged from the river to maintain the navigational channel to widen the levees to the extent that they become elevated residential and commercial zones above flood risks, and the third phase includes the creation of colmates in the low-lying sectors of the city by relocating willing residents from areas targeted for elevation to nearby high-rise housing, allowing the remaining residents to elevate houses within a ring of levees, raising the grade within selected colmates, and ultimately creating a patchwork landscape with flood retention basins and elevated housing. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is one driving force for this plan, along with decades of science exposing the coastal land-loss crisis. Land raising will entail massive costs both in terms of building land and disruption to current land uses and ownership. It differs from the preceding efforts in Chicago and Galveston in terms of the larger footprint of the territory to be modified. Both Chicago and Galveston were in prosperous economic cycles when they undertook their projects. The economic situation in New Orleans and the state of Louisiana is less promising. Although land raising on the city’s lakefront in the 1930s provided a stable base and now offers hope for this project, the state’s entire coastal region continues to subside and faces rising sea levels, meaning there will be competing interests for limited restoration dollars. Furthermore, plans to change the city’s topographic height may not keep pace with regional subsidence and sea-level rise. In addition to questions over the plan’s efficacy, there are concerns over the extent of public participation and support. Fierce citizen opposition scuttled a poorly presented plan to reduce the city’s footprint after Katrina. Like that initial post-Katrina plan, the new land-raising concept is not citizen inspired or driven and will likely face scrutiny by a skeptical population that is weary of more than a decade of hurricane recovery. Moreover, there is historical precedent for citizen opposition. Past projects in south Louisiana have deflected the major environmental alterations to areas beyond the city’s limits. For example, suburban citizens on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain opposed hurricane protection for New Orleans in the late 1960s fearing levees would redirect storm surge into their parish.19 Several discongruities among the Chicago, Galveston, and New Orleans cases expose the weakness of these particular analogs. The past examples were relatively swift responses to tragedies. Local leaders took bold steps while there was ample public support for actions as dramatic as the disasters they followed. General economic prosperity in the respective locations supported the massive expenditures. The elimination of legal barriers to construction provided a means to proceed with little public opposition. And the geologic platforms on Galveston’s barrier island and Chicago’s lakefront site were relatively stable ensuring a durability to the investment in raised lands. Finally, both the Chicago and Galveston projects were largely internal to one civic administrative territory. Greater New Orleans straddles multiple parish (county) boundaries, and the land-raising project would involve state coastal restoration funds, shifting the political decisions beyond the city limits. No analog is perfect, of course, but the process can still provide valuable perspective on past adaptations to environmental change. The finer the texture of the historical reporting and the more complete the inclusion of the full range of social and ecological relationships, the more effective an analog can be, but this also exposes the particularity of each past event in relationship to contemporaneous concerns. At the most fundamental level, history may not be a reliable tool for projecting future risk, but the case studies mentioned here reveal that a more robust incorporation of historical evidence of past social-ecological relationships can offer cautionary signposts as we chart our path into future climates. Craig E. Coltenis the Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University. He is the author of An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (2005) and Southern Waters: The Limits to Abundance (2014). Notes 1. C. E. Colten, “Raising Urban Land: Historical Perspectives on Adaptation,” in Mississippi Delta Restoration: Back to the Future, ed. John W. Day (Amsterdam: Elsevier, forthcoming). 2. The most recent version of the state’s plan is Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency of Louisiana, Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast (Baton Rouge: Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency of Louisiana, 2017). 3. Michael H. Glantz, “Introduction,” in Societal Responses to Climate Change: Forecasting by Analogy, ed. Michael H. Glantz (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988), 1–8; quote, 4. 4. Boyd Shaffer, “History, Not Art, Not Science, But History: Meanings and Uses of History,” Pacific Historical Review 29, no. 2 (1960): 159–70; quote, 162. 5. Bruce Mazlish, “Preface,” in The Railroad and the Space Program: An Exploration in Historical Analogy, ed. Bruce Mazlish (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965), vii–xv. 6. Joel A. Tarr, “Changing Fuel Behavior and Energy Transitions: The Pittsburgh Smoke Control Movement, 1940–1950,” Journal of Social History 14, no. 4 (1981): 561–88; quote, 561. 7. Paul Sabin, “‘The Ultimate Environmental Dilemma’: Making a Place for Historians in the Climate and Energy Debates,” Environmental History 15, no. 1 (2010): 76–93; quote, 77. 8. W. Neil Adger, “Cultural Dimensions of Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation,” Nature Climate Change 3 (2013): 112–17. 9. Noel Castree et al., “Changing the Intellectual Climate,” Nature Climate Change 4 (2014): 763–68; quote, 765. 10. Scott G. Knowles, “Learning from Disaster: The History of Technology and the Future of Disaster Research,” Technology and Culture 55, no. 2 (2014): 773–84. 11. Matthias Heymann, “Investigating Environmental Coherence: Concepts for the Study of Culture-Environment Relations,” unpublished paper presented to the Manufacturing Landscapes: Nature and Technology in Environmental History Conference, May 2015, Beijing, China. 12. William E. Easterling, Norman J. Rosenberg, Mary S. McKenney, and Allan Jones, “An Introduction to the Methodology, the Region of Study, and a Historical Analog of Climate Change,” Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 59 (1992): 3–15. 13. Nancy Seasholes, Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston (Boston: MIT Press, 2003), and Helga Danner, Johannes Renes, Bert Toussaint, Gerard P. Van den Ven, and Frits D. Zeiler, Polder Pioneers: The Influence of Dutch Engineers on Water Management in Europe, 1600–2000 (Utrecht: Netherlands Geographical Studies 338, 2005). 14. Louis P. Cain, Sanitation Strategy for a Lakefront Metropolis: The Case of Chicago (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1978). 15. Patricia B. Bixel and Elizabeth H. Turner, Galveston and the 1900 Storm (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000). 16. Lewis DeRussy, Cost of Draining the Swamp Lands Bordering on Lake Pontchartrain (Baton Rouge: Taylor, 1859), quote, 4. 17. Louis H. Pile, “Report on Drainage Communicated to the Common Council” (New Orleans: Bulletin, 1857). 18. “Raising New Orleans: A Bold New Approach,” in Mississippi Delta Restoration: Back to the Future, ed. John Day (forthcoming). 19. Craig E. Colten, Perilous Place, Powerful Storms: Hurricane Protection in Coastal Louisiana (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 21–23, 68–69. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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