Books about climate change aren’t exactly in short supply, but it’s fair to say that there are few like this one. The Drowning of Money Island deals with the immediate consequences of climate change, focusing on the people whose lives it is actively washing away. However, the real story is one of chronic disrespect and lack of communication.
The book is both personal and investigative. Author Andrew S. Lewis grew up on New Jersey’s Bayshore, a working-class fishing area including the communities of Bivalve, Money Island, and Gandy’s Beach, where residents have long lived in defiance of shifting sands and eroding beaches. Since long before he’d been born, the Bayshore, forgotten cousin to wealthier, nearby tourist areas like Cape May and Atlantic City, had been digging in against natural geological and meteorological shifting that was already present in a healthy climate system.
Lewis spends a little time in The Drowning of Money Island on the history of this place, as well as a great deal more on the current entrepreneurial efforts of its remaining residents. Reading of their historic struggles to make this unliveable place home, it is not hard to imagine that the Bayshore selects for stubbornness. Whether this trait is noble or lamentable is in the eye of the beholder, although the Lewis consistently implies the former.
Either way, it is clearly doing the residents of the Bayshore no good now, and Lewis is aware of that too. He’s not without bias; he very much wants the Bayshore preserved and doesn’t ever fully acknowledge the near-inevitability of its disappearance. That’s beside his point, though. Unlike the Bayshore, the rest of New Jersey is experiencing the same phenomenon, but it gets beach replenishment and climate change mitigation because of its relative economic importance to the state.
Lewis isn’t arguing that the residents should leave or stay, but simply that the system isn’t fair. He points this out that low-income Americans who had “become nothing more than numerals in a cost-benefit equation,” meant that the Bayshore went red in 2016. “No wonder,” he writes, “they voted for a man who promised, if nothing else, to blow up the system.”
The Drowning of Money Island can be read as a small-picture view of climate change, an important perspective in an age when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change throws around figures so apocalyptic that the brain shuts down at the thought. Lewis describes Bayshore residents who react to realities that are financial as often as they are climate-related. Regardless of whether Bayshore residents seem proud or just ignorant, the recognition of the residents’ primary concern (their lack of money) is undeniably valuable.
The Drowning of Money Island strongly validates the general wisdom that climate change will affect low-income people first and hardest, and shows how political and financial neglect can help stir the brew of resentment in these communities at the worst possible time.
Trust is gone, Bayshore residents believe nothing they’re told, and the government that could help them is perceived as an enemy. Tony Novak, a wealthy businessman who owns a Bayshore marina, posits that Blue Acres, a buyout program aimed at compensating victims of Hurricane Sandy in exchange for their land, is part of a campaign of intimidation. Local permitting and regulations become tactics to “scare Money Island residents into selling out to Blue Acres.”
Lewis treads carefully around the “No Retreat” movement, which is the grassroots push for lifelong Bayshore residents to hang onto their homes in defiance of the Blue Acres program. He also walks a slippery beam as he balances his personal feelings about the Bayshore, his birthplace; his outsider status after over 15 years away; and his desire to bring the legitimate mismanagement of this area to light in a convincing way.
It’s hard to say that he presents an unbiased case. For example, the author speaks briefly to one environmentalist, Larry Niles, about the difficulties the Bayshore residents encounter and the necessity of preserving the area, but the trials of the Bayshore residents dominate the book in place of the usual valid environmental concerns.
The average American hasn’t heard as much about the people who are actually living at the edge of the climate cliff. Flipping the script could help to fill what increasingly appears to be a large gap. Nowhere does this become more obvious than when the National Fish And Wildlife Foundation proposes nature preserves located directly on top of two current Bayshore neighborhoods. As they show their proposed maps to a room full of skeptical Bayshore residents, they realize their error in cringeworthy real time. “It appeared that NFWF [National Fish And Wildlife Foundation] had forgotten to note Money Island or Gandy’s Beach, or hadn’t known that they existed altogether,” writes Lewis.
The book’s microcosmic focus on the Bayshore helps bring into perspective how alien the outside world must look to these survivors. A Bayshore fisherman recounts how New York City oyster bars reject perfectly good, organic oysters in favor of farmed varieties because the natural oysters have sand caked on them.
Residents equate environmentalism with the do-gooders who come to the Bayshore just to flip over upturned horseshoe crabs. The bitter sting of this anecdote is that across the bay in Delaware, medical companies capture and exsanguinate the creatures for their valuable blood. Ecologist Larry Niles points out that conservation agencies may be all that stand between the Bayshore and exploitation by industry, but his words ring hollow. Lewis has already spent the entire book showing us how bureaucracy often lets low-income people down in a climate crisis.
At the same time, it’s hard to ignore what this book does not talk about. Thus far, the climate landscape has been disproportionately harmful to communities of color. Gullah Geechee Island is experiencing very much the same long-term problem as the Bayshore, and New Orleans and Puerto Rico have both experienced the effects of hurricanes made worse by warming seas.
But there’s no Gullah Geechee book, and Puerto Rico has seen a mass exodus without the benefit of its own Blue Acres program. Despite the fact that the book focuses on how hard the predominantly white Bayshore residents have had it, it’s hard not to wonder exactly how much worse things are for communities that have been consistently even more neglected.
The question this raises is whether the book is actually about how climate change affects poor communities, or if it’s really just about the Bayshore. The author’s particular care for his childhood home is understandable, even touching. The book remains a good case study of how climate change affects a poor area sociologically. But by not discussing race, and how race might affect how New Jersey reacts to the plight of the Bayshore, the book reveals some significant missed potential.
Considering the twin facts of the “No Retreat” mindset and New Jersey’s neglect, it’s not hard to imagine what will happen when the Bayshore is inevitably visited by the next catastrophe. Even residents who believe that the climate is changing live in denial about their ability to weather it. Lewis details their homegrown mitigation efforts, like sealing their furniture in resin, for example, but doesn’t present any workable solutions. The book, while not itself a contiguous story, ends in the same place where it began: the Bayshore is a mess. The people who live there are vulnerable.
The Drowning of Money Island provokes outrage, but beyond that, it suggests that the main problem is respect. Lack of communication and what looks like official adherence to attitude that the ends justify the means on the part of the New Jersey government has led to mistrust between all of those who wish to save the Bayshore. There may not be enough time to repair this rift of mistrust before water takes New Jersey. However, Lewis explores the solutions proposed by some: he introduces Tony Novak, a wealthy climate believer and recent Bayshore resident whose solution to the Bayshore’s chronic neglect is to make Bayshore wealthy.
Novak’s efforts to introduce tourism and farm fishing may be admirable, quixotic, or both. After all, his idea seems to amount to gentrification, and it’s not one that the rest of Bayshore residents appreciate. Lewis even relates that one of Novak’s neighbors once tried to run him down with a truck. This is where Lewis shows his journalistic abilities. His ability to gain the trust of both Novak and working class families indicates an ability to see a broader picture than the Bayshore residents can themselves. In Lewis’s account, as different as they are, residents of the Bayshore share a goal and, possibly, a delusion about the future. It makes one think that maybe they’re not so different, although the book makes it clear how they may seem so to the people involved.
The Drowning of Money Island shows a new side of climate change, a side that is still emerging. It isn’t a warning, but an in situ account of a situation that is already dire. While Lewis’s writing leans in favor of Bayshore residents, it doesn’t shy from their rough edges or shortsightedness. Instead, it presents a view of people who are in fact rough-edged and short-sighted for valid reasons that need to be taken into account if they are to be treated fairly during mitigation of the climate crisis.