We all know nature is humbling. We experienced it when the coastal storm this month heavily damaged our beaches and we were powerless to do anything to stop it.

One swim in the surf on a day of normal waves tells us we cannot hold back wind and tide.

But our confidence in our ability to understand nature and to adapt and control it for our benefit is not humble. We believe we do not need to change because we can make nature do what we want, only to find out we made big mistakes because our understanding was severely lacking.

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We did not think about the consequences when we started putting up "permanent" buildings on the barrier islands more than a century ago.

When beach erosion problems started, we did not rethink development. We fixed the problems with impressive feats of engineering, building massive jetties and sea walls, which turned out to be expensive errors that worsened erosion, often by passing it to the next beach.

Time to rethink permanent development? Not by a long shot, since we have doubled and tripled building in the meantime.

Now, we favor increasingly expensive refilling of beaches with sand (and everything else sucked up) from the nearby ocean floor.

Another impressive feat of engineering, beach replenishment actually works - temporarily. Nature takes the sand away and we replace it, ready to be taken away again, sometimes soon.

Maintaining sand levels with giant sand pumping operations is expensive. From 1999 to 2006, in New Jersey alone, we spent about $740 million on beach replenishment projects.

That bought us about 48 million cubic yards of beach fill, according to shore-protection databases of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

Not only is it a job that will never be done, but it will also grow more expensive and difficult, as sources of useful sand become harder to find and exploit.

The three-day storm this month alone will require more spending. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has not put a figure on beach damage, but local officials estimate it will cost about $175 million to restore beaches in just Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties.

Beach erosion will almost certainly get worse in the years ahead. Even if global warming does not bring more damaging coastal storms, it will certainly lead to higher, more destructive sea levels.

But we have trapped ourselves. We could rethink our decision to cover islands that nature wants to keep moving with buildings that don't, but that's too costly and too politically difficult.

Instead, we may see federal legislators from shore states forming a coastal caucus to ensure taxpayers keep subsidizing the beach, the same way the rural caucus keeps the subsidies flowing to farmers.

We are compensating for our lack of understanding and self-control with enormous expenditures of money and power.

Nature is humbling us far more than we realized.

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And maybe the next expensive engineering feat will be to build miles of breakwaters to slow the action of waves upon the shore.

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