I often imagine what I’ll say to my grandchildren 20 years from now, when we can no longer eat shellfish from our harbors because of lawn and garden chemical runoff and septic contamination (some shellfish are already off-limits because of contamination), when the landscape is entirely obliterated with obscenely massive houses that are heated and cooled 52 weeks a year but lived in for only 10 or 12, when Montauk is an island (or more than one island) during big storms, when the rising oceans have filled many of the drinking-water wells with seawater, when the term Bonacker is found only in history books — essentially, when anyone will be able to plainly see that life-giving and stunning nature here was systematically devastated between 1990 and 2030.
“How could you have let this happen?” they will surely ask. “What did you do to try and stop it?”
The truest answer is: “Not enough. We were making a living, making money, as much as we could. We didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.”
Jaine Mehring, an Amagansett crusader, might well be whistling in the wind with her community-minded activism (buildinkind.com) and recent eloquent letters to The Star about the desperate need for town and village code revisions to limit the size of new houses and to require that they be net zero in emissions and chemical-free. Especially considering that the leaders of the Village of East Hampton, in an astonishingly cynical move given the general awareness of the existential perils of overconsumption and the need to live smaller, recently revised the municipality’s already too generous regulations to allow for ever larger houses to be built. Ms. Mehring is hardly alone in her alarm and fear at what we are doing to this place.
The soothsayer Rachel Carson of course had it right so long ago when she said that “man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” Nature on Earth is already in a man-made death spiral, but imagine how much faster we would be killing life as we know it if everyone on this fragile orb followed the lead of America’s most “successful,” those who have really “made it” in the American sense.
The South Fork is Exhibit A for the supposed best of the American promise, a magnetic jewel drawing the world’s wealthiest — a beacon for the folks around the world who charge into each day as wannabe millionaires. Yet here at the very summit of American success what we see all around us is a perilously and hastily overbuilt environment, with oversized and underused houses, with little consideration for our history or sense of community, amid landscapes dangerously poisoned by chemicals and sewage waste (to say nothing of staggering inequality and a soul-crushing lack of affordable housing, but that’s a separate, though related, tangent).
Recognizing their harmful effects, dozens of communities across the United States have banned pesticides and chemical fertilizers from public spaces and playing fields, and in many cases have banned selling them or using them at all. Not here. You can use as much poisonous Roundup, permethrin, chemical fertilizers and fungicides, and other unnecessary noxious applications as you like (so long as you put a little “chemical hazard” warning sign along your property line, as if that does anything at all), all of which eventually ends up in either the aquifer or the nearest bay or pond, or both.
Similarly, towns across America have wisely begun limiting the size of new houses, for aesthetic and energy-use reasons. Martha’s Vineyard almost a decade ago limited the footprint of new houses. On three acres in the townships of West Tisbury and Chilmark, for example, the maximum is 3,500 square feet, with more square footage allowed under some circumstances. By contrast, in East Hampton Village you can build a house of as much as 15,000 square feet on three acres under zoning rules that are equally generous throughout the area, although some villages, notably Sagaponack, North Haven, and Southampton, have tighter restrictions.
East Hampton and Southampton have pockets of zoning and environmental enlightenment — smart local Planning Departments doing their best, the recently enacted requirement that all new septic systems meet low nitrogen standards, among other local government initiatives around energy and water pollution; and thank goodness for the local farms — but it’s hardly enough.
Whether we like it or not, and whether it serves our economic interests or not, we here on the South Fork have a responsibility to our land and to the larger world. We seem to believe that as beacons of “success” we can do what we please, build the biggest houses imaginable and shower the ground in chemicals against ticks, a few hints of brown in our lawns, fungus (all of which can be dealt with without chemicals, by nontoxic means, by altering behaviors and our ideas of what is beautiful). What would happen if, instead, we were leaders in forward-thinking change, in radical steps toward longevity and sustainability? What if we could honestly say to our grandchildren that we changed the course of history?
By and large the defeated response I likely will have to muster for my grandchildren, however, is, as Carson observed, “We were at war with ourselves.” Unless we begin right now to be totally honest about our perilous course, we will lose this war. And, in the process, we will lose what’s left of the very soul of this place we love.
Biddle Duke is a writer, member of East Hampton Town’s Energy and Sustainability Committee, and the founding editor of The Star’s magazine, East. He has no grandchildren.