The Coastal History Blog 6: “The political economy of sand”

I just finished Lena Lenček and Gideon Bosker’s The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth. [1]  There’s a lot to think about here, but the most intriguing part of the book for me was the discussion of how many well-known modern beach resorts were—in various senses—built on reclaimed land, and cannot survive in their present form without extensive human intervention.  This has implications well beyond the history of leisure.

Equal to the pyramids

Incorporated in 1915, the community of Miami Beach, Florida was the result of extensive engineering.  To create a sufficient quantity of attractive beach to satisfy the developers’ ambitions, several miles of mangrove swamps had to be obliterated, fresh channels dredged, and the dredged material reshaped into new islands, transforming the flow of water in the bay.  As it turned out, this new configuration blocked the natural cleansing action of the tides, so additional cuts and dredging were needed to prevent the enclosed area from turning into a fetid swamp.

A glance at a population map of the United States in 1910 captures some of the audacity of the developers’ vision.  This wouldn’t be like investing in Coney Island or one of the New Jersey beach resorts, each an easy day trip from the country’s major population centers.  The South was thinly populated, Florida lagged behind its neighbors, and the population of Dade County in its entirety was just shy of 12,000 people.  In order to coax vacationers from the North down to what had been an out-of-the-way provincial location, the beach developers helped sponsor and organize the construction of a “Dixie Highway” as a pipeline for tourism. Lenček and Bosker summarize: “Rivaling the Egyptian pyramids in scope, engineering, and the sheer number of its builders, Miami Beach was a living monument to modern America’s passion for instant gratification.” [2] The pyramids have turned out to be remarkably sturdy.  The same cannot be said for Miami Beach and its many imitators.

Have you groomed your beach today?

By the 1970s, enough scientific evidence had accumulated about beach erosion that the U.S. National Park Service decided to abandon all efforts to stop it in the shoreline regions that it administered. [3] Allowing the sand to migrate miles down the coast was hardly a palatable option, however, for resort owners.  Colossal investment in landscaping, hotels, and infrastructure in specific locations imposed a logic of its own.  It was time for heroic remedies.  In the second half of the twentieth century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $900 million “nourishing” depleted beaches with sand dredged from elsewhere. [4]

Tragically, the more we intervene, the faster the beaches erode.  Bulldozing sand dunes strips out natural defenses.  Groins and jetties interrupt the natural flow of sand, starving beaches “downstream.”  Waves bounce off of seawalls, protecting one area but accelerating beach erosion in the places where they now hit the shore.  And that “nourishment” dredged in from other locations?  It creates an unstable beach that is likely to just wash away with the next storm. [5] The vocabulary gets more elaborate—“sand jacking”; “geotextile revetment”—but the results remain disappointing.  There are also unintended consequences to beach-dwelling animals; the practice of “grooming” beaches with heavy equipment to make the sand fluffier and more attractive has caused mass extinction events on the local level.

It appears that more tinkering will simply result in the need for more band-aid fixes down the road.  Lenček and Bosker sum up the problem neatly: “beaches, dunes, and barrier islands must move or they die.” [6] It would be cheaper and more effective to lessen the human footprint.  Of course, no one is going to become a millionaire inventing and advocating such an approach.  As Naomi Klein has noted in her TED talk, it is more than a little worrying that one of the most popular responses to anthropogenic problems is “geo-engineering,” in other words more of the same attitude that got us into trouble, with added expense and unpredictable side effects.  And on the principle of privatized gain and socialized risk, taxpayers will often be expected to foot the bill for “restoring” oceanfront property, whether from hurricane damage or beach depletion caused by reckless development practices.

It’s likely that this century of rising sea levels will take us, not to a serene hands-off approach, but to new heights of playing God with the coastline.



[1] Lena Lenček and Gideon Bosker, The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth (New York: Viking, 1998).

[2] Lenček and Bosker, Beach, 241.

[3] “Scientists find severe loss of coastline,” New York Times, June 21, 1983.

[4] Lenček and Bosker, Beach, 280-281.

[5] Leo H. Carney, “Environment” column, New York Times, November 10, 1985.

[6] Lenček and Bosker, Beach, 278.

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