Spring/Summer 2002 Baruch Magazine of Baruch College
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Faculty and Staff news
Baruch Welcomes Family BUsiness Expert Ramona Heck

Ramona Heck

A robust cast of characters. An impending tragedy. A journalist from New York City to record its many dimensions. From this formidable gumbo comes Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle for America’s Natural Legacy on the Gulf Coast, a book by Baruch Journalism Professor Christopher Hallowell. Chronicled in exacting and terrifying detail is the current loss of the Mississippi River delta in south Louisiana, the country’s largest unpreserved wetlands, America’s Gulf Coast. The wetlands, described by Hallowell as “a 300-mile swath of natural luxuriance that skirts the Gulf of Mexico” from Mississippi to Texas, are being lost at a rate of 16,000 acres per year, or a football field every 15 minutes.
So what? Why should we care? Hallowell explains why. At issue are some basics (not just ecological issues), foremost among them food and energy. Louisiana produces 25 to
35 percent of the nation’s annual seafood catch (excluding Alaska’s). The coast and its offshore waters either produce or serve as a conduit to 17 percent of this country’s oil production and 25 percent of its natural gas. Loss of these vital but vulnerable energy supplies would signal an energy crisis that would make the famed OPEC crisis of ’74 look insignificant in comparison. The ramifications for business and the American (even the world) economy are large indeed.
Not trivial, either, is the issue of New Orleans, a city the media has begun to label the “new Atlantis.” Its historic streets are sinking in response to manmade levees and canals and global warming. The protection offered by the wetlands from full frontal hurricane assault dwindles as the wetland acres dwindle, the barrier islands erode, and the cypress forests are lost. Like fearful San Franciscans, Louisianans dread ‘The Big One,’ a Class 4 or 5 hurricane that is predicted to leave their city 25 feet under water. “The dangers include more than the loss of human life,” says Hallowell. “Storms now have leeway to topple oil rigs, destroy the 20,000-mile-plus maze of pipelines that zigzag across the coast carrying gas and crude oil to refineries, to wash out roads and railroads, . . .” Cataclysm is not too large or too dramatic a word to describe the aftermath of such a storm.
Although the local people—conservationists, fishermen, hunters, trappers, oilmen, politicians, scientists, engineers, and policymakers alike—are surprisingly in agreement about the need to take steps to preserve the wetlands, little of consequence is being done. Holding Back the Sea captures the human drama of the wetlands and uses it to expose a classically American “cultural characteristic, or flaw”—our country’s inability to recognize the finiteness of nature (a tragic shortsightedness) and to deal with nature on nature’s terms. Hallowell’s book also shows the necessity of closing the gap between the environment and business: when environmental health is at risk so is economic health.
Holding Back the Sea was partially funded by the CUNY Research Foundation and is published by HarperCollins (2001).

—DH

 

 

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