Orrin H. Pilkey, shoreline expert, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am a retired professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke and am still actively engaged in research and writing. The North Carolina Coastal Federation is the only environmental organization I belong to because I want to make sure my views bear the stamp of science; I don’t want to be written off as an environmentalist.
What are you working on at the moment?
Trying to preserve our ocean beaches for future generations of people as well as for the flora and fauna that depend on them. We must devise ways to stop development along our ocean beaches.
A few years ago, I co-authored A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands with artist Mary Edna Fraser, who used beautiful batik images to show barrier islands as seen from the air — a unique combination of science and art. We are currently working on a similar book about river deltas.
What long and winding road led you to this point in your career?
I was once a deep-sea sedimentologist, spending at least a month per year at sea on research vessels, specializing in the study of abyssal plains on open-ocean floors. In 1969, I went to Waveland, Miss., to help my parents clean out their house after Hurricane Camille and was astounded and fascinated at the power of the sea. I then wrote a rather elementary book about coastal hazards (with my father, an engineer) called How to Live With an Island, which sold for $1.50 and was three-eighths of an inch thick. It was a huge hit. All kinds of people asked permission to quote it. The public never once asked me a single question about abyssal plains. I had found a niche, and I was hooked on the coast. I’ve subsequently authored numerous books on the coast and edited a series called Living With the Shore.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Manhattan and grew up in Washington state, where my father was an engineer on the Hanford Nuclear Project. I now live in Hillsborough, N.C.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Twenty-five years ago, when I began speaking and writing about seawalls and how they destroy beaches, I was shocked at the tenor of the response to this idea both from professional engineers and from developers and politicians. The attacks on me were often quite personal, and letters damning me were written to my university president and to the papers. As a scientist, I was unaccustomed to such personal attacks.
Now, I consider such reactions to be a badge of honor and a measure of effectiveness, but it took some time to get to this point. When the Folly Beach, S.C., town board drafted a proclamation pronouncing me a “persona non grata” in their town, I proudly displayed it on my wall.
What’s been the best?
I spent two decades fighting the Army Corps of Engineers over their proposed installation of jetties at Oregon Inlet, N.C., a gigantic project that would result in significant down-shore erosion if allowed to be built. At one point, it looked as if they were on the verge of winning based on a very favorable prediction of fish catch. I was really down for a while, until we discovered, in the fine print, that they had figured that fish would be brought from as far as New England all the way to Oregon Inlet! I went from a depression to being overjoyed. The Corps is rarely defeated in the long run, but this made them (once again) go back to the drawing board.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I am most infuriated by the destruction of New Orleans at the hands of the ever-dishonest and ever-incompetent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We as a society have focused on the problems of inept recovery, but we should also focus on the root cause of the flooding: our greatest engineering disaster ever. The Corps, which runs rampant over the environment in so many ways, has finally fouled up in a huge and very visible way. They caused the flooding through a century and a half of orchestrating environmentally destructive policies on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, leading to marsh loss on the Mississippi Delta, and then compounded the problem by building inadequate levees.
Who is your environmental hero?
What’s your environmental vice?
Using too much gasoline.
How do you spend your free time?
I spend a great deal of time cutting up the many trees on my property that were brought down during Hurricane Fran in 1996 or were weakened by Fran and came down in the ensuing years. I’m also building a curving stone wall with rocks gathered from my land.
Read any good books lately?
I just read Woody, Cisco, and Me by Jim Longhi, a memoir of life in the Merchant Marines during World War II written by a colleague of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a memoir of an African childhood by Alexandra Fuller.
What’s your favorite meal?
Fresh Alaska salmon.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Shackleford Banks in the Cape Lookout National Seashore, N.C. It is uninhabited by humans. Accessible only by boat, Shackleford Banks boasts beautiful dunes, pristine beaches, and ancient maritime forests — but no roads or buildings.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would get the Army Corps of Engineers under control. This means I would get them out of the army, out of politics, out from under Congress, and keep them honest through strong oversight.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite movie?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Though taller by a head, admittedly slimmer, and arguably more handsome, Harrison Ford.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Think of ocean beaches as being sacred, and do everything in your power to preserve them.