We’re Going Down: Coping With Louisiana’s Land Loss

By Andy Swicord

Josh Fox is a longtime consumer and player of music. A devout fan of the electronic band LCD Soundsystem, he shows up early for their set two nights in a row. At the first set, where the band headlines Halloween’s famed Voodoo Festival in New Orleans, Fox waits patiently, donning an inconspicuous cap and Apple earbuds, astonishingly unperturbed by the amalgam of dehydrated teens oscillating rapidly between concerning distension and unchained hyperactivity. The second night, he shows up early again, but the crowd is defined less by the adolescent mania and nauseous vibrato of the previous evening. Earbuds sheathed in his pocket, this time Fox listens to everything, chatting with anyone. Before the house lights dim at the Orpheum, he professes that he once owned a piece of art in his New York apartment which visualizes one of singer James Murphy’s myriad lines dissecting his hometown: “New York’s the furthest you can live from the government.” While this may have been true in 2003, Fox posits that cities change over time. To avoid content nausea, he relocates fittingly to New Orleans, a city famed for its lackadaisical government and way of life, which now may be endangered by the very corruption and greed from which it was birthed.

“New York. Boston. Philadelphia. Washington D.C. New Orleans. Miami… Some of the estimates show two meters by the end of the century. That means absolute devastation for people who live along the coastline, and what it means is eventually you either have to build a sea wall around the entire coastline, or all those cities have to move.” The claim that America’s major coastal cities could be underwater within a few centuries might seem frivolous, even alarmist to some, but Fox, a filmmaker, dismisses these trepidations with confident ease. “There are some people that believe that pigs can fly, that aliens exist. Those people are crazy. Anybody who says climate change is not man-made and caused by burning fossil fuels is incorrect.” Fox’s calm demeanor bestows him with an everyman’s approachability, but a little probing reveals a fiery environmentalist impulse which renders him a walking encyclopedia cultivated through first-hand experience and extensive research. After first butting heads with the hydraulic fracturing industry in Oscar-nominated Gasland and a sequel aptly titled Gasland 2, Fox concerned himself with bringing attention to the struggles of the Standing Rock Tribe, a native group displaced by the construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, a project which aims to cut to the very core of the United States both physically and symbolically.  

“Each pipeline project is part of a huge global system that continues to burn fossil fuel. Venus used to have an ocean. Because of a runaway greenhouse effect, it is now 700 degrees on the surface of Venus. Planets can do that on their own, but humans are changing the climate by burning fossil fuels. That is one hundred percent absolutely certain.” Fox has fielded similar questions hundreds, if not thousands of times. At this point, he knows how to paint an image. To anybody who subscribes to the belief of greenhouse gases, Fox’s statements are far from revolutionary, but these comparisons motivate deeper inquiry. Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company tasked with the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline, plans to extend the pipeline well past Texas, seeking to erect an entirely new leg extending from Lake Charles to Saint James Parish. Saint James, which houses a modest rural population and landmarks such as the Oak Alley plantation, sits about an hour outside of New Orleans.

Things are looking grim for those protesting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline: Louisiana has a well-documented history of passing ambitious legislature prioritizing immediate economic gratification over long-term environmental repercussions, and the fallout from such choices has only recently become evident. The most prevalent case study is the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a project undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a canal stretching from New Orleans’ Industrial Canal into the Gulf of Mexico. The outlet, also known as the MRGO, claimed to provide a much-needed increase in jobs and eventually hasten port travel, and was constructed despite empirical evidence suggesting a litany of adverse environmental impacts. The most important residual damage from the project is an increased salinity, causing affected areas to be uninhabitable by integral parts of the ecosystem. An increase in salinity results in the death of cypress swamps, a natural barrier which can drastically reduce the impact of storm surges. The loss of cypress swamps furthered coastal vulnerability, increasing rates of land loss and magnifying the destructive potential of hurricanes such as Katrina.

While the MGRO channel was closed to any traffic shortly after the devastation of Katrina, the damage was already done. Dr. Mark Ford, a wetlands ecologist for the National Parks Service, places part of the blame on invasive practices of the oil industry. “Abandoned oil canals continue to contribute to the loss of wetlands and undesired salt water intrusion. There are literally thousands of miles of canals that can be filled, which will replace lost land and restore the hydrology. At the Barataria Preserve, roughly 16 miles of canals are scheduled to be filled from money from the RESTORE Council, which was established post BP Oil Spill to fund restoration throughout the Gulf of Mexico. That project is roughly a $9M project, which should give some idea of how much money is needed just to fix the canal problem alone in coastal Louisiana.” In cases such as Barataria, finances have been allocated to fund the restoration process in response to the catastrophic oil spill which decimated gulf ecosystems in 2010. Despite these steps in the right direction, however, a comprehensive effort to rebuild the fragile ecosystem is an absolutely massive expenditure. “The last estimates I heard to fix all of our losses exceeded 100 billion,” Ford states. “We are nowhere close to having that much money. So the real problem is deciding, in a form of coastal triage, what we can save and restore, and where we need to cut our losses. The bottom line is, we are doing a lot, but it’s not enough.”  Ford’s metaphor of a triage is deeply perceptive. The resources aren’t available to treat everything at once, so environmentalists are forced to prioritize certain projects, often to the detriment of others.

According to an oft-cited study by USGS wetland specialist Brady Couvillion, Louisiana lost on average a football field worth of land every hour between 1985 and 2010. Agreeing, Dr. Ford claims “Sea level rise is not a subject of debate. For all those who deny, this is something we are measuring and have over 150 years of modern data, not ‘theory’ to support. Unless someone is close to climate change science, they really don’t know how solid, and scary, the data is.” Empirical data may appear discouraging for anybody remotely concerned with the environment, but those who dedicate their livelihoods to preservation maintain an optimistic outlook. In addition to being a prolific documentarian, Josh Fox is also a founding member of The Solutions Project, a group of scientists and environmental activists which aims to prove America can feasibly switch to renewable energy within the next thirty years. According to Fox, “It’s a total lie to say that the oil industry is needed. There are many people who worked on building laser disks, cassette tapes, and answering machines. Those people all were retrained to do other jobs. We know very well how to retrain workers, take care of them, make sure they are put into roles in society that are helping society, not harming it.” By offering tangible data projections, The Solutions Project attempts to display the long-term positive effects of a transition to sustainability on a state-to-state basis, showcasing adoptable technologies and providing estimates of long-term job growth spurred by a switch to sustainable energy.

As a scientist, Dr. Ford shares Fox’s optimism, even if numbers may entice alarm. “Economic health, much less development, cannot survive without a healthy coast. So much is dependent on a healthy coast, including commercial fisheries, recreational fisheries, the oil and gas industry, the shipping and transportation of commerce in general, and tourism.” Ford places faith in the intrinsic value of land in the Gulf, even suggestion that the oil industry may be on the cusp of a moment of recognition out of sheer necessity. “Loss of infrastructure would be a major economic blow to the oil and gas industry. I’m not sure they have a backup plan as losses continue to occur and will accelerate as the sea level continues to rise.”

Aleutia Scott, an interpretive ranger at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park, is tasked with educating visitors about the current state of Louisiana’s marshes. As a federal employee, she must avoid editorializing with guests. To circumvent this, she stresses that the experience of the park can speak for itself. “In interpretation and education, the park service believes in what’s called an interpretive continuum. Say we’re giving a museum talk on the wetlands, and we’re standing next to a big coastal map. One thing that I would say to those people is ‘this is depressing, and you’re probably bummed out right now, but go out and enjoy the wetlands. Appreciate and think about what they mean to your life, the economy, and what they mean to you personally.’” The first step of the continuum places the power in the eye of the beholder, establishing an organic bond between the visitors and the endangered ecosystems which are being preserved. “With interpretation in the National Parks Service, we do believe that it has to resonate with you first. You have to have scaffolding that makes you want to care emotionally and intellectually before you can jump into planting trees, giving money to a friend’s group, or going door to door for Gulf Restoration Network.”  The interpretive continuum is meant to ease visitors into emotional investment through direct experience, then exposure to data, and finally a tangible role within the stratum of environmentalism. “After interpretation, the continuum moves on to understanding, where you are getting an in-depth talk (or walk) on a specific subject such as wetlands loss. And then you move through to stewardship. We do have an annual cypress tree planting in January. People can volunteer to monitor and remove invasive species. In some other parks, you can get involved with membership, and support in that way.”

When asked if she remains hopeful for shift towards sustainability and preservation, Scott pauses for a good ten seconds, looking out of her office window into the marsh below, seemingly lost in thought. When she breaks the silence, she doesn’t mince words.

“Yes and no. I mean, I think I’m just generally an optimistic person. And I do think that humans are very innovative. It will start affecting them personally and economically, and then they’ll be forced to figure something out. But will they do that before they are personally affected, individually and economically? I’m not so sure. There have been so many behavioral studies about how people react to climate change issues, and if it’s something in the future, something that happens slowly and steadily, it’s difficult to maintain that sense of urgency. So, I have pessimism about that. I can even just think of my own life. I try to be sustainable, I compost in my worm bin, you know, but I don’t try to carpool to work, and I haven’t radically looked at the power usage in my house and insulation and haven’t tried to get together my whole neighborhood to come up with solutions. There are pretty radical things you can do, but you have to be willing to be harsh with yourself, spend a lot of money at this point in time, and truly be ready to reach out to your neighbors and community.”

Scott points out the crucial social and financial hurdles hindering conversion to a greener lifestyle, but believes that changes can and will be made out of necessity.

Earlier in the conversation, Scott discusses a recent survey concluding that approximately 80% of Louisiana citizens believe that land loss is a crucial issue which needs to be addressed as quickly as possible. Focalized through the interpretive continuum presented earlier, this statistic makes even more sense. Unlike citizens of landlocked states, Louisianans confront the repercussions of land-loss, deforestation, and invasive drilling on a daily basis. Family fishing businesses, an economic and cultural cornerstone of the state, face extinction due to recent changes in the ecosystem, which has brought forth a new form of environmentalism which attempts to convey a message while remaining decidedly apolitical.

The Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, a non-profit dedicated to the protection and maintenance of one of America’s most integral and ecologically productive basins, is built upon this apolitical approach to environmental protection. Founder Dean Wilson is a crawfisherman himself, undoubtedly motivated by personal experience. Abbie Marks, the development director of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, vocalizes a certain weariness when asked about the political undercurrents which shape environmental preservation. “It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and if it is, we shouldn’t vote for people who make it partisan… As far as the money is involved, it’s a whole other kind of story.” Because lobbying firms yield the power to supplant politicians with vital funding for the campaign trail, some candidates may become outspoken advocates or critics of issues which many believe shouldn’t be politicized, but viewed as objective fact.

As Dr. Ford stated earlier, over a century of empirical evidence indicates that the sea level is rising at a dangerous rate. To environmentalists such as Josh Fox, denying the validity of such claims is akin to a belief in aliens. But Ranger Scott, who is deeply involved with the interpersonal communication of this issue, recognizes that it is an issue of proximity. The people closest to environmental decay may be the most outspoken, but sometimes the message can be diluted by “greenwashing,” companies and politicians who hide ulterior motives under the guise of environmentalism. As 2017 draws to a close, Louisiana continues to serve as both a case study of the tumultuous relationship between economic expansion and environmental encroachment, but more discretely, a narrative of cautious optimism penned meticulously by those on the front lines.

Andy Swicord is a Senior at Tulane from Saint Louis, Missouri, studying English.

 

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