We need to look to events such as the Venice Flood to adopt our new mode of adaptation, valuing change as opportunity rather than disruption
There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea, are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224
Let me start this piece with a confession and an apology. I am writing in a room with a dry floor. The problem here in California is that we have not enough water, not too much, the latter condition being one that afflicts Venice with alarming frequency and severity. So I confess to being an outsider looking in on a tragedy, a position that one always assumes with a bit of guilt and shame, and for this I apologize.
However, a perspective from the outside is always helpful, as long as it is rendered compassionately and… dryly (I never said I was going to give up on using irony)? Maybe ‘clear eyed’ is the better modifier, a view that is afforded by being able to stand outside of the condition upon which one wants to comment.
The allusion I make in the title is of course to climate change. This is included in all of the dispatches coming out of the flooded city, which is submerged by an acqua alta that is second only to the flood of 1966, which also afflicted Florence, tragedies that by the way were catalysts for the formation of the Unesco World Heritage Program, as was the regular flooding of the Nile and then ultimate construction of the Aswan High Dam around the same time. Of course, none of this is or was new to us, in the 1960s or any other time; floods and flooding have been at the very center of our culture since the beginning of human civilization (I will let you supply your own examples). The sea and water in general may be our origin and the source of our daily life, but we have always lived in conflict with it.
As I see it, there is no longer any hope to mitigate the effects of climate change; our physical and social sciences are inadequate to the task. Nature, and by that I mean nonhuman nature, is far more powerful and sophisticated than we, who exiled ourselves from the rest of the world at the dawn of our history of consciousness, can ever hope to be. Every time we think we have found the perfect solution, nature always presents a new problem for us. So maybe we need to think less in terms of solving more problems and more in terms of creating fewer of them, both materially and conceptually. The sea will go where it wants to go. We need to stop putting our buildings in places where the water will get them wet.
You might say this is all just about opting for adaptation over mitigation, and of course you would be right. But it is the nature of that mitigation, and the new philosophical perspectives, the new senses of what it will mean to be a human being living on planet Earth, that will be the most important part of the effort. We no longer hunt and gather, and even agriculture is practiced by a small minority of us. The city, especially the coastal city, has had a good run, arising during the era of maritime trade and expanding during the industrial period. We are entering a new era now and we will have to do things differently, and will do things differently, whether we are happy about it or not.
A big part of the problem is our own attitude about the past and what it means, and what a place is, in both material and imaginative terms. Conserving the great art and architecture of the past is one of our noblest and most important undertakings; preserving elements of the past — paintings, books, sculptures, buildings — is an essential part of our work as humans living in the 21st century; we have to do it. At the same time, there is something that is fundamentally depressing about it, because while gazing upon a cathedral that is hundreds of years old conveys insight and depth to what it means to be human, and reminds us of the magnificence and beauty of which we are capable, it can also act as a foreclosure on our historical imagination as well as our present and future ideas of what is possible. Perhaps we could escape from this trap by formulating and enacting a new politics of cultural preservation, but history shows that between accident and intent, accident generally plays the stronger hand.
So maybe what we need to do is to look to events such as the Venice Flood of 2019 as ‘happy’ accidents. Instructive to this end is the Italian phrase ‘ben trovato’, which generally means ‘well found’ but which has also the other felicitous translation of ‘happily invented’. Put the two together and you can formulate what I think would be a pretty functional philosophy that will help us weather into the new climate normal of the 21st century, one in which intent borrows from accident with humility and gratitude. We will have to learn how to be more footloose and frugal to adopt our new mode of adaptation, valuing change as opportunity rather than disruption, and valuing temporariness over permanence, which after all always had its limits.
Now, I realize that all of this sounds like the worst kind of hopeful but empty political rhetoric and manipulative management speak, and it will be nothing more than that if we follow the wrong path out of the mess we made of the world. But I see glimmers here and there that we are doing and have done the right thing. Living in small and mobile dwellings is one positive trend I see; the so called ‘tiny house’ movement, whether those tiny houses are fixed to the ground, on a trailer or some kind of hybrid between house and car.
A valid objection to this trend, and the larger philosophy of adaptation to climate change more generally, is that we little people are once again having our lives upended by the politically and economically powerful — wealthy individuals and corporations — and that it does not have to be this way. There is undoubtedly a certain amount of truth to that, but I think it is worth keeping in mind that social, political and economic systems can be just as inaccessible and inert to deliberate and outside intervention as environmental ones, so going with the flow, as Brutus advises Cassius, might be our best and only option.