Saturday, January 18, 2020

Christopher Knowlton's "Bubble in the Sun"

Chris Knowlton is a former staff writer and London Bureau Chief for Fortune Magazine. He currently serves as Chair of the Board of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Sea Center.

His previous book was Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West.

Knowlton applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Bubble in the Sun: The Florida Boom of the 1920s and How It Brought on the Great Depression, and reported the following:
The ninety-ninth page of Bubble in the Sun is the opening of a new chapter and reads as follows:
Chapter 9: Trail Blazers

When Marjory Douglas first began to explore the Everglades, in the process developing her passion for bird watching, she would drive down a forty-mile unfinished section of a road that dead-ended deep in the Everglades. The unfinished road, known as the Tamiami Trail, was originally planned as the last leg of the Dixie Highway, a leg that would bridge the cities of Tampa and Miami by traversing the Everglades at a point roughly level with Miami. Carl Fisher and the other proponents of the road believed it would be a boon to land development on both coasts, as well as an attraction and convenience for tourists traveling around the state. For years it had been the holy grail of Florida road building, championed by newspapers on both coasts.

The story behind the road’s construction is notable as a cautionary tale because road and land development so often go hand in hand, and in turn, have impacts on the environment—too often to the detriment of the environment, sometimes to the detriment of the development, and occasionally both, as we shall see in the larger story of the land boom.

The road’s construction began in 1916. After a promising start, with spurs of highway extending towards each other from the opposite coasts, the project stalled with neither county able to procure the funds to complete it. Then, in early April of 1923, a group of Tampa businessmen dreamed up a promotional stunt to rekindle interest in the project. Twenty-three men in nine automobiles led by two Miccosukee guides decided to traverse the Everglades along the projected route, still made up mostly of old Indian trails and rough grade roads known as “Wish to God” roads—short for “Wish to God I had taken another road!” The convoy included seven model T Fords, a brand new Elcar limousine, and one Overland commissary truck. None of the men had any significant experience as woodsmen.
Happily for this author, the excerpt validates Ford Madox Ford’s clever adage. One third of the way through the book, with the setup mechanics complete and the lives of the protagonists set firmly in motion, I chose to make a slight digression from the central thread of the narrative to tell the side story of the construction of the Tamiami Trail. This brief, breath-catching interlude doubles as a historical analog for the all the reckless and heedless development that took place across Florida—and the country as a whole—in the 1920s and teed us up for the calamity of the Great Depression.

What makes the passage so apposite thematically, as well, is that it explicitly marries the economic story in the book to the environmental story. A central argument here is that we can no longer separate economic wellbeing from environmental wellbeing. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, an unlikely spokesperson for the environmental movement, may have put it best in an address to The Royal Society some thirty years ago, when she remarked that “the health of the economy and the health of our environment are totally dependent upon each other.” The World Wildlife Fund elaborated on this sentiment when it noted in 2018 that, “all economic activity ultimately depends on services provided by nature.” In this chapter, Florida’s major aquifer is eviscerated in the name of progress and development. What could be more shortsighted than that?

The passage also conveys the haplessness of the Trailblazers, who were every bit as ignorant of the ecology of the Everglades as Florida’s great developers were of the coastal environment that they so systematically destroyed. So page 99 provides something of a tip-off to the reader on how to interpret the book as a whole: as a high stakes morality tale where the price of environmental and/or economic ignorance can be ruinous.
Visit Christopher Knowlton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue