A Matter of Time: Sea Level Rise, Retreat, and Resistance along the California Coast
From the Series: Coastal Futures
From the Series: Coastal Futures
There’s a house in Pacifica, California that I think about a lot. This house was listed in late 2021 in the high $900k range. The introduction of the listing started off sounding pretty typical:
Come see this one-of-a-kind magical oceanfront hideaway with opulent flourishes and infinite ocean views … Interior is clad in Saltillo tile and hardwood floors with 2 bedrooms plus upgraded kitchen and bath downstairs plus a vaulted loft upstairs, all set to the mesmerizing view of the Pacific Ocean.
Everything seemed normal: just another coastal home right on the bluff. But then came this line:
The property extends out to the beach, with an estimated 35' portion of bluff lost in a single high-water event several years ago, when [the] view deck and walkways were lost to the sea.
This is generally not the kind of information you will see in a lot of coastal real estate listings: Thirty-five feet of bluff, lost to the sea. Strangely, after providing that bit of alarming information, the listing went right back into a description of the property, as if that previous line didn’t happen.
A grand side courtyard with trellises and outdoor fireplace remain, providing a setting for world-class entertaining.
Don’t worry, it’s still paradise, the writer of that listing seemed to be reassuring us. But then the text shifts abruptly, once again.
The property has been red tagged, being sold in as-is condition with existing plans for bluff stabilization. With cash purchase Buyer should be able to get construction financing for seawall and renovation work.
It was a jarring description, revealing two competing realities: The status quo of the coastal real estate market, and the risk of erosion, rising seas, and coastal change. I received Zillow updates about this place from September 2021 until April 2022, which was just before the peak of pandemic home values. While most home values were rising sharply, this one just kept dropping. It went from $995,000 all the way down to $499k.
The listing was a race against time. The longer that house was on the market, especially with those risks in the listing, the more its value kept sliding downward. It’s a case of wagering on how much value can be extracted—and retained—before all the social, political, and material infrastructure that holds it in place collapses.
For me, that house speaks to broader issues and tensions along the California coast. It exemplifies the temporality of coastal capital—a tendency to defend property values until the very last possible moment, while also sidestepping the deeper histories and processes that shape coastal landscapes. It was just a single high-water event, after all. For many residents, that appears to be the plan: stay in place until it becomes impossible.
Retreat is just not an option. Why? Well, much of it comes down to money and economic value. It is also, of course, about attachments to place. But I think there’s also a deeper, conceptual aspect to this resistance as well. Much of California’s shoreline was developed during a relatively stable time period, from the 1940s to the 1970s, in which ocean-related storms and risks were relatively calm (see Griggs et al. 2005). This was the time period when California’s coastal population boomed, and it shaped how many people relate to and think about the coast. These generations grew up with the coast and California’s beaches as stable, reliable things. And that’s how many want to keep them.
One community group in Southern California, for example, is focused on saving their beaches and bringing them back to a “natural” state. But their beaches are anything but purely natural things. They have been shaped by human interventions since rivers were dammed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Piers, jetties, groins, and seawalls followed in the ensuing decades. The end result is a highly manufactured coastline that many residents don’t conceptualize as such. They see and know places as they once were, and want them to return to a similar state. They want life to go back to how it was in the recent past, when there was sand on the beaches and life was good. They want to make their beaches great again and recapture a nostalgic coastal past.
One of the most striking aspects of all this, for me, is just how ahistorical many of the conversations about coastal planning and management can be. This temporal shallowness is a key element that holds much of the status quo in place. Coastal residents are attached to their beaches, homes, and coastlines as they remember them. All of these desires exist within a very limited timeframe. There is little mention of who or what came before, let alone how these coastal landscapes came to be.
There is rarely any mention of the Luiseño or Kumeyaay peoples, for example, whose histories extend far deeper back in time. This is, of course, because those histories have been pervasively extinguished from public memory (see Chilcote 2019; Gilio-Whitaker 2017). Some of the primary claims to place along the Golden State’s coast are rooted in a system of property rights, born out of a pervasive pattern of violence and dispossession in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which such erasures were foundational (Lindsay 2012). As the saying goes, time is money. In this case, time and erasure are money, and this dynamic often dominates the politics of coastal planning. Here, shallow time horizons do tremendous ideological work, whether rationalizing the sale of a “magical oceanfront hideaway” before it falls into the sea, or serving as a justification to “protect” small bits of sandy real estate in the name of community, nostalgia, and property rights. Time will tell how this plays out.
Chilcote, Olivia. 2019. “‘Time Out of Mind’ The San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians and the Historical Origins of a Struggle for Federal Recognition.” California History 96, no. 4: 38-53.
Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. 2017. “Appropriating Surfing and the Politics of Indigenous Authenticity.” In The Critical Surf Studies Reader, edited by Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman, 214-232. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Griggs, Gary Bruce, Kiki Patsch, and Lauret Savoy. 2005. Living with the Changing California Coast. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lindsay, Brendan C. 2012. Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846-1873. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.