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Living in Tucson inspired book about how protecting ourselves from climate change often backfires

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2024 - 12:07pm

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Portrait of bald man next to book cover
Andrew Cullen, Island Press
Stephen Robert Miller and his book.

Journalist and author Stephen Robert Miller grew up in Tucson. And now, he’s written a book taking a different look at his childhood home.

In "Over the Seawall," Miller investigates how lofty attempts to control nature and protect ourselves from climate change often backfire — and how vulnerable people are the most affected by it. It’s about unintended consequences and good — and sometimes bad — intentions. And, in Arizona, it’s about water – and our often futile attempts to get more of it in our ever-growing metropolises.

But, Miller traveled all over the world in reporting this book, from Japan to Bangladesh.

He’ll be at Changing Hands in Phoenix on Tuesday, April 2, to talk more about the book, and stopped by The Show.

Interview highlights

How his Tucson upbringing led him to this project.

STEPHEN ROBERT MILLER: It's the reason I wrote the book for sure. You know, I, I didn't love the desert. When I first got here, I moved to Tucson with my family. I was about 9 years old. I came from Pennsylvania, grew up in a place where I had, you know, woods and green hills behind my house and got to the desert. It was pretty, you know, kind of jaw dropped with how, how brown and dry it was. It took me a long time to really fall in love with the desert. Although I eventually did, but I also always had this kind of underlying sense of wonder and kind of, I don't know, uneasiness about the fact that so many people like myself, my family were moving to the desert. You know, because you live there, and you do hear about water issues constantly.

Obviously it's very hot. It's clearly an area that's stressed and, and yet people are coming in and drove and that had never quite sat well with me. I think when I, as I got older, I went to college, I studied journalism at the University of Arizona, started to dig into the stuff a little bit more deeply. And that was the kind of the underlying thought that I was having when I was working on this book. Although it wasn't until I really wrote the book that I kind of started to understand what it was that was bothering me so much.

On traveling the world to learn about a false sense of environmental security.

MILLER: So, I mean, "Over the Seawall" is a book about solutions that have backfired. It's about big techno fixes that have ultimately caused more problems or kind of lock people into futures where they have to make even more difficult, harder decisions down the road. And one of the ways that happens is by giving people a false sense of security. So early in my research in this book, I came across a story of this tsunami that hit Japan just about 13 years ago. Exactly, almost, right. It was March 11, 2011. This huge tsunami of 9.1, 9.2 earthquake hits Japan. Tsunami rolls in and kills 20,000 people, horrific disaster.

But what one of the things that I discovered in my research on this issue of adaptation was that the sea walls that had been built to protect people in towns that were hit by the wave had actually, in some cases caused the death toll to be higher. They had kept people from evacuating, they had encouraged people to build homes and industries and places where they were, you know, especially vulnerable to tsunami. And so researchers discovered that like these walls had actually been part of the problem and it, because they had given people this false sense of security.

So when I discovered that research, I knew I had to go to Japan, I knew I had to understand the story there, you know, on the ground by talking to survivors. And the one thing that really struck me with doing that was, you're asking people as a journalist, you're asking people day in and day out, like, tell me about the absolute worst moment you've ever experienced in your entire life. Just the most horrible thing you can imagine. Now, tell me about that in excruciating detail, you know, for my personal benefit. It's hard to do. But I was surprised to find that people didn't shun me when I asked that question. And they actually were eager in some cases to talk to me about it because their biggest fear was not really like remembering the tragedy, it was actually forgetting the tragedy. They were afraid that we would forget the lessons of it. So, I found that really fascinating.

Looking at agricultural water use in Arizona.

MILLER: So I focused a lot on agriculture and, obviously, you know, as everyone kind of does and you start writing about climate change and especially Arizona, because ag uses so much of the water, right about three-quarters of the whole system. And so what I discovered is looking to got really into the history of it and discovered, you know, our history in Arizona has kind of, we set this precedent, I think of, of kind of believing that we can solve all of our problems with these one-off techno infrastructural fixes, right? If we need more water, we'll just, we'll build a bigger dam or a longer canal or, or desalination plant or something. But all these things come with these huge costs.

I mean, desalination in particular, right is, is incredibly costly, huge environmental impact, takes a ton of power, costs a lot of money for the people when they finally do get the water. And I kind of discovered that, you know, after a century of, of expanding our reach to further and further sources of water and building bigger dams and all this techno stuff, we're kind of right back where we started, except now we have even more people. We have even more agriculture, that's all depending on this water, right?

And we also have stressed ecosystems that are desperately trying to get a drop here or there. We have rivers that don't flow. And, and so to me, it's like, I think it's caused me to feel like we, especially in the desert, in areas where we're vulnerable to climate change, whether you're on the coast or you're in the desert, we need to shift our thinking around the idea of a solution and think about solutions as not just one-off techno fixes but as more malleable, long-term solutions that, that change over time. And that are more about the way we think about the problem.

Do you think we should stop trying to solve climate issues?

MILLER: Absolutely not. No. So I should preface, you know, for years, I worked as a, as a senior editor at a magazine called Yes, which is based out of Seattle. And their whole thing is solutions journalism. I was concerned that too many of the solutions that I was writing about and that we were talking about in the media are kind of too simple. They're simple solutions to complex problems.

I wanted to give people, with "Over the Seawall," I wanted to give people the information, you know, the knowledge about how some of these simple solutions have fared in the past and kind of expose the ways how they can fail when they get, for instance, you know, when they get corrupted by politicians who just want to put their name on a plaque outside of the big project or you know, when they become a profit making mechanism for an industry, like the concrete industry, for instance, in Japan, which has really pushed after the 2011 tsunami, after the walls that were existing at the time in 2011, those walls failed. Well, now the Japan is building even taller walls, much, much taller walls, huge portions of the, of the eastern coast are covered in concrete now and the walls, there are not even tall enough to have stopped the wave that came in 2011. So a lot of locals think, why are we even doing this? And a lot of it comes down to the end of the economic benefits of, you know, creating jobs by pouring concrete.

So I wanted to give people, not just to tell people that, hey, these solutions suck. Don't, don't try to solve anything. I wanted people to think about, OK, what's a real solution to this problem? Let's not just think about a temporary fix that's going to make me feel better. What's actually going to help us down the road?

On how researching and reporting the book changed the way he thinks.

MILLER: You know, I think I saw that really the most in Bangladesh, where centuries of people have tried to control this enormous river delta and their efforts to control it have only made things worse over, over those centuries. And it made it especially worse for people who are already in an incredibly vulnerable position. When I was there, I came across a solution that, you know, had kind of risen up, some might call it indigenous knowledge or traditional knowledge solution, had come out of the ways that people have lived in that delta region forever. And in that way, people were living with floods, they were. They were allowing the floods to, to, to spread across their farmland and to kind of push them off the land once or twice a year. And they had just, they had long accepted that way of living people there, have multiple words for different types of floods.

You know, it's not just good and bad flood or just floods, there's all these different ways that, that rivers can flood. And so I think, you know, obviously that's an extreme example and you're not going to have, you can't just directly apply that to Phoenix, right? This huge metropolis. But I came away thinking that, you know, in previous previous iterations of my career, I maybe have looked at the traditional knowledge thing as maybe just a bunch of woo woo. You know, like it's just, it's just a lot of hype. It doesn't really have the potential to do that much. We have, our problems are too big for that kind of a solution. Well, after reporting it over the sea wall and seeing especially what happened in Bangladesh, I have come to think that there's a huge wealth of knowledge that we have not even begun to tap and that we will desperately need to tap as we head into the future we've created for ourselves.

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