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Small Change

Irony by the Sea

Hosting a climate change conference on a sinking sandbar

by Bill McKibben

Published in the March/April 2011 issue of Orion magazine




WHEN I ACTUALLY saw the setting for December’s big climate conference, I wondered if perhaps the UN—bulwark of bureaucratic earnestness—had somehow acquired a sense of irony.

If you never made it down for spring break, here’s what Cancún looks like: There’s a lagoon with a narrow strip of barrier beach, all white sand and lined with hotels. Ritzy hotels—the Ritz, for instance, where “A Tranquil Spirit Of Elegance And Enchantment Prevails. Here Guests Can Explore An Underwater Dreamland, Marvel At Nearby Mayan Ruins Or Simply Relax On the hotel’s 1,200 Feet Of White Sand Beachfront. Minutes From The Exciting Nightclubs Of Downtown Cancun, the Resort Features Such Distinctive Touches As A Five-story Atrium With An Impressive Stained-glass Dome, while also reflecting Mexico’s Rich Spanish Heritage.” (It’s not just upper class, it’s uppercase.)

I can’t testify to the actual height of the atrium, because I didn’t stay there, nor at the Hyatt, where “the trendy landscaping is highlighted by the brand new beach cots right on the side of the ocean,” nor at the official conference headquarters, the Moon Palace Resort, whose spa offers the slightly scary sounding “250 min. Therapeutic Massage.” I was with a crowd of youth organizers in the downtown hostel next to the bus station, where you can get a 10 percent discount with a membership card from Lonely Planet. Downtown means on the other side of a bunch of machine gun–toting soldiers, in a city center that’s solidly middle-class Latin America. But walk a few blocks farther and you’re in recognizable Third World—scrawny dogs lounging in front of tiny bodegas, potholed streets.

In other words, Cancún is like an economic Epcot Center, the whole socioeconomic spectrum of the globe condensed into a few square miles. You’ve got a literal peninsula of privilege, where everyone is overcosseted (250 minutes of massage!) and overfed. (You can spot the people staying at the all-inclusive resorts, because they wear little bracelets, like infants in the maternity ward, that apparently entitle them to suckle margaritas on demand.) You’ve got a small city of perfectly reasonable comfort, the kind of thing a self-respecting planet might legitimately aspire to. And you’ve got your slums with your poor people, who presumably are mixing the margaritas in the hotels. That’s how it works.

But, in fact, it’s More Ironic Than That: Five Stories of Irony. Those beach hotels weren’t there a generation ago; by most accounts the human population of what is now the Zona Hotelera was . . . three, all of them working on a coconut plantation. To make the white sand beaches more gringo-friendly, the beaches were stripped of coconut trees, and indeed of all native vegetation (and most of the sea turtles that had nested there for time immemorial). The lagoon on the inland side—scene of Jet Ski “jungle adventure tours”—is pretty badly polluted now, but that’s nothing compared to the problem of the strand itself.

For one thing, the hotels are built on sand (does no one read the Bible anymore?) and are so heavy that they’re literally pressing the peninsula into the sea, which is of course rising. That doesn’t usually matter all that much, except when storms come, which of course they do more frequently in this hot era. Consider 2005. The Atlantic had already produced Katrina and Rita, but it was saving its biggest for later in the year, when Hurricane Wilma (the first time we ever got to W in the tropical storm alphabet) became the most intense storm ever recorded in the ocean. It stalled for a good long time over Cancún, churning the seas to a frenzy; waves pounded against the hotels themselves, and when they finally receded they took the white sand beach with them.

The first answer to the problem was a quarry, which, as it turned out, was immediately adjacent to the suburban warehouse where the NGO groups at the climate conference spent their days, miles from the actual negotiating session. That $19 million hole in the ground provided sand enough to replenish the beaches, until Hurricane Dean arrived in 2007 and washed that sand away. This time, authorities contracted with a European firm, which sent a pair of boats offshore that sucked sand from the bottom and sprayed it onto the beachfront. Seventy million dollars this time, but that wasn’t the only cost—the dredging, according to a recent Associated Press story, is also hurting conches, sea cucumbers, and octopi. Meanwhile, the fine sand pumped onto the beaches is filtering back out onto the reef, where it is blocking sunlight and causing the coral to, in the reporter’s words, “secrete mucous-like substances.”

“In a year or two, another hurricane will come and the same thing will happen all over again,” one astute tourist told reporters. “This is an absurd waste of money.” Except that the beach hotels turn over about $3 billion annually—a quarter of Mexico’s tourist economy on this one stretch of beach.

Which makes the place not very ironic after all. It makes it tragic, a perfect metaphor for the planet as a whole. It clearly can’t last—but it will keep running until there’s no more money to feed it. If you were going to inhabit Cancún successfully over the long term, you’d have to do without the giant hotels; you’d have to let the beach shift with the storms; you’d have to let the vegetation grow back and anchor the beach. But that would cost you the $3 billion, most of which goes to the people who control the decisions that governments make. Similarly, if you wanted to inhabit the planet successfully, you’d need to back off some. You’d need sun and wind powering our lives, which would mean using somewhat less energy overall; we’d need to be mostly home, not jetting around in search of beachside cots. We could do it, but the transition would be wrenching, and the cost would be high. Not as high as the cost of doing nothing, but change would take money straight out of the pockets of the powers that be, and oil barons are even more powerful than hotel barons. And so we’re going to go on hoping that somehow the storms will stop coming, that somehow the present arrangements can be jury-rigged to last a little longer. 

And in the meantime, the sea is undeniably beautiful—breath-mint blue as it washes up against the Mayan ruins scattered along the shore. 

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Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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