By Ray Bert

Over the Seawall: Tsunamis, Cyclones, Drought, and the Delusion of Controlling Nature, by Stephen Robert Miller. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2023; 224 pages, $35.

On Jan. 1, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck near the Noto Peninsula in Japan. The temblor triggered a tsunami that in many areas approached or surpassed 10 feet (and in one case more than 20 feet), overtopping some seawalls. The disaster claimed more than 240 lives.

The tsunami was the most significant in Japan since the one triggered by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, which caused nearly 20,000 deaths. While significantly less catastrophic, the 2024 event was a stark reminder of the constant threat of these deadly events and of human efforts to protect ourselves from them.

Further reading

Those efforts, in particular, are the focus of Over the Seawall: Tsunamis, Cyclones, Drought, and the Delusion of Controlling Nature. The subtitle is a none-too-subtle indicator of the book’s thesis: that we frequently put too much faith in our ability to engineer our way out of bad situations while ignoring options that try to work with, rather than against, Mother Nature.

Author and independent journalist Stephen Robert Miller is no stranger to writing about climate issues, having written pieces for many major news and scientific publications. Over the Seawall is his first book, which he was moved to write after learning about “maladaptation” – a term to describe situations when solutions intended to mitigate problems make matters worse. Miller chose to tell three extended case studies of maladaptation: in Japan (tsunamis and seawalls), Bangladesh (reengineering rivers), and his home state of Arizona (desert cities with exploding populations).

In the book’s introduction, Miller notes that “We’re living through the first wave of climate adaptation; there will be mistakes.” But his examples, the case studies, are large-scale projects or trends that are too myopic or simply too full of blinkered hubris and which gave people a false sense of security.

Over the Seawall notes that as the 2011 tsunami approached, many were so assured that the massive concrete barriers would protect them that they stood atop them, taking pictures as the water approached. In the wake of that disaster, Miller notes that the country has doubled down on seawalls and other mitigation efforts, spending some $255 billion, in part to allow people and industries to exist in large numbers right on the coast – and to feel safe doing so. Coupled with sea-level rise, the stage is therefore potentially set for another future tragedy that is larger than it needs to be.

Another example – and one that helped set him on the path to write the book – is the Central Arizona Project, authorized in the 1960s and operational by the 1980s, which built an aqueduct more than 300 miles long to bring water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona. It helped fuel population and agricultural growth, but drought and overuse have seen some farmers who previously received CAP water cut off and forced to rely on pumped groundwater from an uncertain supply. Meanwhile Arizona’s population and water needs continue to swell, so much so that talk of expensive new solutions – from desalination plants to a new water pipeline running 1,000 miles from the Mississippi River to the desert state – are being seriously proposed. Conspicuously not being seriously proposed on a large scale, Miller notes, despite being vastly less expensive and energy intensive: recycling municipal water. Or simply putting limits on the state’s growth in line with its available resources.

book cover image depicting title and an image with natural disasters

Island Press

In the third example, the manipulation of land in the Ganges River Delta in Bangladesh has left the people in the southwestern part of the country perpetually at the mercy of the fickle river flows and persistent flooding. This practice dates to European settlers three centuries ago, who created polders to create artificially protected areas of marshy land from the water around it. But much the same strategies are reemployed even today, at great expense and with the same results, in the name of preserving things as they have been. “In Bangla we say pagal,” says a man quoted in the book. “Madness! … It is the definition of madness to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result.”

The focus on just three problems – albeit complex ones – gives Over the Seawall the space to go in depth on each, tracing the roots of each to their beginnings and exploring the forces that, while understandable at times in short-term human, economic, or political terms, often lead to questionable decisions that merely put off bad results. Miller notes that ultimately, we can’t give up trying to find adaptive solutions because “we must be willing to fail on some scale to find what works.”

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.