In face of climate change, time to retreat

We can only help those who want to be helped

ON MARCH 1 a symposium attracted 250 people to learn how various governmental, non-profit and private individuals plan to deal with sea level rise and storm surges. The overall tenor of the event was summarized by quoting General Oliver P. Smith: “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.”

This kind of paradigm shift is what sea level rise, global warming, and climate change requires of us today. We need to understand the need to retreat.

The risk of flooding is becoming better understood by ever more people. Because the impact of climate change can happen suddenly (while its gradual increase appears imperceptible), risk assessment is very difficult. In the face of this, being prepared with plans for moving infrastructure, building assets, and, especially, people seems crucial for leaving a worthwhile legacy to the next generations.

The Mormons, Puritans, and Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in the US, England, and France can serve as examples. Other examples are the immigrants to the US, emigrants from elsewhere who needed to escape pogroms or annihilation – the Russian Jews under the Tsars, the Armenians under Attaturk, the Jews in the face of rising Nazism and Hitler.

In each case, it is individuals and families who had to make the tough decision to uproot themselves – some in justified, others in entirely unjustified, distrust of government, no matter how beneficent or generous the incentives offered. For example, the Isle St. Charles residents in Louisiana refused $48 million in government grants to relocate because the community was ultimately excluded as decision-makers in the implementation process.

People don’t like change when they are comfortable because there is a lot to lose when you leave the familiar. But a move can have a very positive result, beyond the lowering of risk to being exposed to flooding. Families who decided to move to form cohousing communities are a case in point. Well-considered planning will not only create an improved physical environment, but – if people participate in the process of planning – will knit communities together. This applies not only at the level of neighborhoods, but also to entire districts.

Some families (or even municipal officials) will never understand good advice, no matter how well-intentioned. So we who care to help must accept that evolutionary principles will prevail, and not attempt to save all.

The fundamental choice: do I or my family stay and see our holdings (or even our lives) perish, or do we move? Some will stubbornly choose to stay, others will undertake the very hard task of uprooting and moving.

We who try to help must operate within a conceptual framework of pushing for what is feasible, not what is ideally possible. In our democratic environment, we cannot force anything on people who refuse to acknowledge looming disaster. But we can help those who wish to be helped.

We must assume the mindset of the wagon masters of our pioneers moving westward, or of Moses, who led. Led by persuasion and cajoling and supporting and convincing and at times kicking ass. This will take teams from government, from NGOs, and from community members. Especially a group or team will need to form within the community which will take on the multiple roles of the wagon master of these modern pioneers. But both outside helpers as well as community leaders will need to consistently stay on message that it is time to move.

Meet the Author

Peter Papesch

Architect/developer, Retired
Meet the Author

Franziska Amacher

Architect, Focus on sustainable communities
All of these skills will be required in the tough-love undertaking of helping those who understand the need to “advance in a different direction.”

Peter Papesch is a retired architect-developer and educator and Franziska Amacher is a practicing architect who specializes in zero net houses and cohousing communities.