Beaches for the Wealthy

This summer, I read a fantastic piece in Vanity Fair about class divides and beaches. We’ve always known that such divides exist, with wealthy people trying to claim beaches as their own private playgrounds while working class people fight back for beach access, but the article highlighted another issue I’ve covered here before: the growing problem of soil erosion, which is eating away at the US coastlines from all sides, and hitting some beaches particularly hard.

Wealthy people on the coasts love to build on the bluffs and near the beach. The closer, the better. They want an unobstructed and beautiful view of the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the Gulf, and who can blame them—these waters are gorgeous and incredible whether it’s a glorious sunny day or a thrilling winter storm. Coastlines across the US have sky-high real estate prices and are heavily populated with mansions that push working class people out, forcing them inland or to small enclaves where they’ve managed to hold their ground, albeit sometimes with great difficulty.

But what happens when those beaches and bluffs start to wear away as a result of natural processes? Coastlines are constantly shifting as it is, because that’s their very nature. They break down, they build up, they move. Moreover, human activities like development can change the shape of beaches, and climate change has been pushing the shoreline around even more than usual as superstorms reform beaches, destroy sandbars and breaks, and chew through wetlands that might act as buffer zones.

Which means that many wealthy people are watching their beaches disappear in front of their eyes, with the waves lapping at their doorsteps. Those gorgeous mansions are overhanging the ocean, waiting to collapse with their foundations exposed to the world, because the cliffs beneath them have slowly but steadily crumbled. What was once a luscious back yard spreading out to the sea is now a thin scrap of land, all that lies between a home and disaster.

So what’s the solution? For rich people, it’s extensive measures to attempt to rebuild and preserve beaches in the interest of protecting their housing. They import sand (from the beaches of poor people), they create artificial sandbars, they add retaining walls, they struggle to reclaim and hold ground, fighting the ocean, which they all know will win in the end. They put up rock walls, preventing sand from drifting further down the coast and thereby ensuring that the beaches belonging to lower-class people won’t be nourished with fresh sand supplies, so they’ll erode away even faster. They add concrete walls and barriers.

Some advocates have suggested what’s known as managed retreat in the face of rising sea levels and melting beaches. The idea is that as the ocean eats the land, it’s time to move inland, because fighting it is costly, potentially environmentally damaging, and inefficient. It makes more sense to relocate, though this of course comes with its own costs as communities are rejiggered to meet shifting needs of occupants. Inevitably, dislocation will happen if wealthy people move back from the beaches, because they will still want to be as close as possible, putting pressure on neighbouring regions of housing to give way.

Managed retreat, though, makes sense politically. Governments in Europe are adopting it as an alternative to wasting vast amounts of money on trying to keep the sea back, and they’re thinking ahead in terms of choosing high ground to reduce the risk that they’ll have to retreat again as soon as they put down new roots. It may mean sacrificing some heritage in addition to giving up some land mass, but it’s the right choice in the end because ultimately, the ocean is bigger, stronger, and scarier than any policy could ever be, and there’s no reasonable way to retain it.

The wealthy of the world, however, are opposed to this approach. They want to save their beachside luxury homes and they don’t care who has to pay the cost. Taxpayers are contributing billions to beach nourishment and other campaigns that primary focus on high-income areas, because those are the ones with the citizens who have the time and clout to push for beach protection campaigns. At the same time we’re paying for their luxury housing, our own beaches are being stripped of sand for nourishment, and we aren’t getting the advantage of sand drift because the sand on the beaches of the wealthy is locked in with retaining walls.

Natural environmental processes are being disrupted in service of allowing people to have beachfront chalets, which is troubling from an environmental perspective but also a class one. Why should we be investing so much money in securing housing for wealthy people when we have so many housing issues in this country, and when low-income neighbourhoods urgently need revitalisation and funding of their own? How can we justify closing schools in Los Angeles because of budgetary concerns while building breakwalls in Malibu?

How does any of this make sense in a larger social and environmental picture? It’s a stark illustration of how wealth and power function in society; we are so fixated on these things and so willing to grant them ultimate authority that we give up everything to the wealthy and seem to find it perfectly justifiable. After all, who could oppose beach protection and restoration? Who could advocate for allowing houses to fall into the waves? Who could advocate against well-meaning people who just want to ensure that there’s a beach available for enjoyment?