Review: The Geography of Risk by G. Gaul

This well written book hasn’t any philosophical implications on which to comment. I put this here in my rapidly expanding “book review” subsection because of its relevance to my commentary on Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. My commentary on the Zizek book ended up being mostly about climate change and ecological disaster, something that Zizek mentions but doesn’t much talk about. My point in that commentary was that the re-making of the world’s social, political, and economic orders that are the focus of Zizek’s book (many of his books in fact) will be made mostly irrelevant thanks to the utter destruction of the present global order beginning with its economics.

That’s what I said about Zizek. Specifically, with regard to the United States I said that climate change would soon bankrupt it, and that long before the impact of the twin phenomena (climate change and [partial] ecological collapse) was fully felt. Now a couple weeks after writing that commentary, along comes this book which, while focused on a singular aspect of the problem (the U.S. East and Gulf coasts), illustrates and puts numbers to my claims.

The Geography of Risk by Gilbert Gaul (2019)

Only two weeks ago I wrote a blog essay commenting on another book I recently reviewed (Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”). In my commentary I pointed out that the on-rushing phenomena of climate change will shortly (next few decades) overwhelm the social, political, and financial capacity of any national or even supra-national organization. I accused Zizek of ignoring “the elephant in the room”. Only a few days after that essay (see my Amazon profile for blog address) this book by Gilbert Gaul appeared on my radar. Its title alone seemed a validation of my claims. I was not disappointed, though as it turns out, the focus of the book is geographically very narrow.

Dr. Gaul is an expert in the economics, geography, and risk of coastal and near-coastal communities of the United States Eastern and Gulf coasts. That, specifically is what this book is about. He is easy to read, gives us all the important numbers, but isn’t dry. He tells the story historically through the eyes of many involved: developers and politicians one one side, scientists and some of the engineers tasked with fixing a hopeless situation on the other.

Why this region? First, the U.S. Eastern seaboard, especially from New Jersey to southern Florida, and then throughout the Gulf of Mexico is riddled with barrier islands made mostly of sand, and then behind these barriers lots of shallow bays, estuaries, and low-lying land sometimes extending inland hundreds of miles. Second, all of this coast is among the world’s great hurricane and “rain bomb” bowling alleys. Third that same coast, all those barrier islands, have evolved demographically from a few fishing villages in the 1940s through inexpensive (once middle class) small summer homes costing a few thousand dollars, to multi-million dollar mansions. Fourth, back in the 1950’s the Federal Government covered 10% or 20% of the cost to rebuild thousand dollar homes when storms destroyed them, today the government covers 90% of the cost to replace a like number of million-dollar homes!

The net result of all this is that the taxpayers of all States, not just the coastal states affected, were, 70 years ago, on the hook for a few millions of Federal dollars spent on this process. Today, the number is in the hundreds of billions! As it turns out, according to Gaul, the cost to U.S. taxpayers to repair hurricane and rain damage to places that are destroyed by these weather phenomena every decade or so (sometimes more) is higher than damage from all other disasters (inland floods, fires, earthquakes) combined and by a big margin.

How this all came to be is much the focus of this book. In the end the answer is politics and economics. Take a barren piece of sand and put a few homes on it. Soon you begin to need services, sewers, roads, traffic control, bridges, banks, and so on. There come to be small towns with mayors, police, fire fighters, contractors (building and repairing homes), bankers, and so on. These are jobs paid for by property taxes. When the properties are destroyed (repeatedly) the tax base disappears and all these jobs are threatened. The solution is always to build back as quickly as possible and to make up for the temporary losses faster, to build more and bigger. As all of this re-construction occurred, the homeowners themselves could afford a smaller and smaller percentage of it all. To save the jobs (and ever larger community tax bases) Federal tax payers assumed a larger percentage of the replacement cost until today, this often comes out to more than 80% of costs to rebuild homes of millionaires and 100% of the ever growing network of roads, flood control projects (which never survive more than one next storm), bridges, sewers, and so on.

Of course all along these decades there were individuals in and out of government who pointed out that this cycle was absurd and would eventually become un-affordable not to mention physically unsustainable as the islands became smaller (erosion) and bays and wetlands were filled in to make yet more homes (and roads), further increase the tax base, and in consequence make it more difficult for high water to drain exacerbating the problem. The solution of course is to stop the building, abandon the islands back to small fishing villages, and let the waters do what they will. But repeatedly re-building small homes and a few services back on line meant jobs and now re-building big homes and greatly expanded services means even more jobs and trying to protect those towns (a hopeless endeavor) is always wasted work (Gaul gets into some of the crazy numbers). But millions of jobs are now invested in the continued functioning of those economies! The cycle goes on!

All of this and I haven’t even mentioned climate change. The economics and politics of this process is the focus of Gaul’s book, but he doesn’t ignore this. The bottom line here is that it would be bad enough to be loading American tax payers more and more economic risk as the economies of these storm-prone places get larger. Even if the storms and sea levels stayed constant the economic burden on the American taxpayer is already onerous and growing. Climate change will only make this worse. Gaul’s focus is the American East and South coasts whose risk grows disproportionately because of its exposure to more frequent, bigger storms and sea level rise. But he is well aware also that interior climate-related disasters, fires and floods, will grow in severity and so cost.

In my blog commentary mentioned above I said that this problem generally, this growth in the cost of disasters, would, in another decade or two, bankrupt the United States. Gaul’s book, though narrowly focused, is an argument for my claim.

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