Symbolic of a glorious and prosperous past, Venice also is symbolic of the world we’re poised on the brink of – maybe it could be called the Engineero-zoic Era?
Part One: The road to insight is paved with water.
There’s a damp December chill in the air and the morning fog from the Adriatic Sea seems reluctant to completely unwrap its shroud. On a day such as this, the exposed front deck of a Vaporetto ferry is a lonely and bone numbing place for a full length passage of the Grand Canal, the main artery through Venice, Italy.
Regardless, I’m determined to gain full exposure to all the sights, sounds and smells this city has to offer in the weeks before Christmas. With most of the water-bus riders opting for the relative coziness of the indoor cabin, I have my choice of the seats in the front of the boat. I distract myself from the biting cold by focusing on the photo-opportunities.
The gray and white stone buildings that line the canal stand like wizened and grizzled elders, nobly displaying the scars of their age with varying degrees of grace and submission. The scene is like an old black and white photograph, with the odd splash of color from canal side vegetable markets and stylish scarves and hats on a public that doesn’t hide behind car windshields – there are no cars in Venice. I gaze upon the small waves as they lap against foundations, and can’t help but notice the high water stains well above the level of walkways and ground floors of the buildings.
People, bundled up against the cold, move about in their varied city routines. Several older Venetians at a newsstand enjoy an unhurried conversation. A large group of school-aged children squeezes through the narrow streets with brash joy and energy. A deliveryman rolls an impossibly big load on a two-wheeled dolly up and down the steps of a canal bridge. Tourists, juggling cameras, maps, and shopping bags, stand out no matter how appropriately attired they are in trendy Italian fashions.
The comforting warmth and aroma of cappuccino occasionally escapes from one of the countless cafes and wafts across the canal air. The coffee-coated tendrils infiltrate a rooted heaviness of exhaust from all the motorboats, and the slight mustiness and salt-tinged edge of the murky water of the Venice Lagoon, which neatly wraps the city in canals like tightly tied laces.
On this day, like every other day, traffic in the Grand Canal is bustling. The relaxed “old-city” experience of a gondola ride valiantly tries to turn a blind eye to the motorized matrix of dutiful Vaporettos that endlessly and briskly retrace their same paths on impressively tight schedules, and gritty barges that ploddingly move commerce through the watery streets. Today, although the songs of the gondoliers are defiantly strong in the cold air, the paying clients are bundled up under layers of blankets, sipping warm alcoholic drinks to fend off the chill.
I adjust my position on the hard Vaporetto seat and I notice that the chill is creeping into my joints. Several other tourists join me for short stints, snap a few pictures, comment on the icy wind, and retreat to the heated cabin.
I’m in Venice for two weeks, taking an Italian language course – my dedicated “primer” before I set off on a more adventurous journey to gaze upon the village and family compound my grandfather left behind a century before. I’ve allowed the pulse and flavor of Venice to settle slowly into my awareness over the two weeks, listening to snippets of conversations on my many Vaporetto trips, looking into the eyes of residents and workers, and walking slowly through the maze of allies and plazas that wind through the various islands and neighborhoods.
As any travel book exhorts, Venice is a medievil city with a rich history that’s on display in a fashion that’s unique on Earth. Border to border, the city is one historically significant church, castle, mercantile, and home after another. A unique network of canals take the place of roads as the veins and arteries of the city, and it’s packed with quaint shops and galleries where you can buy everything from the most expensive fine jewelry to refrigerator-magnet gondolas. Wandering the off-the-beaten-path streets of Venice and getting lost is one of a handful of true rites-of-passage that differentiates between true travelers and tourists.
The stone arches of the Rialto Bridge behind, the chill creeps further into my core as the Vaporetto passes under the rich wooden arches of the Ponte dell’ Academia. With the peace and clarity of a mind cleared of clutter – the early stages of hypothermia perhaps –the jumbled puzzle pieces of my 2-week immersion begin to fit together and a picture emerges.
The Venice I see relates a different story from the one highlighted in tourist guides.
Part Two: When it Rains it Pours
Symbolic as Venice is, of glorious and prosperous past, it occurs to me that Venice also is symbolic of the world upon which we stand at the brink.
Peering through the Disneyland-façade to stir a cauldron of cynicism, Venice is revealed as an over-indulgent, polluted, and unsustainable city that’s completely dependent on life support. That may seem a bit harsh for a city legendary for romance – anyone wishing to maintain a romantic ideal for a must-see city is invited to look only at the pictures the rest of the way.
I’ve Seen the Future in Venice, and it’s Engineered
Venice – The islands of Venice and the Venice Lagoon are part of an ecosystem that’s been vastly altered by man’s activities on both local and global levels. Venice originally was a highly productive and ecologically diverse estuary on the northern extreme of the Adriatic Sea. Between the 14th and 19th centuries, a number of the rivers and streams that emptied into the lagoon were diverted elsewhere to try to prevent sedimentation of canals. Others were channelized as part of urbanization and poorly conceived flood management of the mainland.
On the open water side, breakwaters were built between 1800 and 1900 in an attempt to keep out sediments from the Adriatic Sea, and maintain shipping channels. It took years for them to read the signs, but coastal engineers now know that constructing hard structures on a shoreline is a sure way to cause even worse shoreline deterioration somewhere else, and in the case of Venice, the breakwaters caused a gradual erosion of beaches on the open water side of the islands.
All these modifications combined to cut off the natural process of renourishment of the islands with new sediment from both the land and sea.
Add to this the long-term withdrawal of groundwater to obtain freshwater, and the result is that, in recent years, the City of Venice is sinking.
To make matters worse, the sinking islands are floundering in higher seas. Global warming is contributing to higher water levels in the Adriatic Sea, and more frequent high tides. The city now is routinely subjected to high tides that flood plazas and erode bridges, walls and foundations from the bottom up. The tides are referred to as the “acqua alta,” and from alarms to portable raised sidewalks, they’ve been accommodated as routine. Many residents who could once step from their homes into a boat, have moved into upper floors of their houses to escape the frequent flooding.
Venice likely wouldn’t be here in the near future in the absence of massive human intervention. Italy isn’t, of course, standing on the sideline watching the prized Venice slowly recede into the Adriatic Sea. The economic activity and opportunity associated with Venice as a tourist attraction make it imperative to do everything possible to ensure that the phrase “Venice is Sinking” never becomes “Venice Sank.”
The solution is another round in the endless ultimate brawl that is man versus nature.
Italy wants to be able to slap a leash onto nature whenever it gets a little too feisty. Officially the project is called the MOSE, which translates to Experimental Electromechanical Module. The plan calls for constructing miles of floodwalls on shorelines, and installing inflatable gates across the three inlets that will be closed when high tides are forecast to prevent the water that floods the city from entering the Venice Lagoon.
The MOSE project seems to me symbolic of mans’ relationship to nature. It’s a relationship based upon control, manipulation, and exploitation. This is nothing new of course, but the scale of it is exceptional.
Ironically, one of the major publicity angles put forth in support of the MOSE is “Defense from nature and the environment.” If it were in America, we would no doubt rename it as a war…something catchy like the “The King Poseidon Offensive.”
Controversy? You bet. In the case of Venice, no one is really sure how this will impact the already brutally compromised ecology of Venice Lagoon. Tidal flushing of pollution is greatest during high water events, and the gates will moderate the best flushing events.
The Earth – Human society is well down a destructive path of unrestrained consumption of fossil fuels and alteration of the atmosphere, exhaustive and disruptive extraction of minerals, clearing of its forests, loss of biodiversity, development sprawl, overpopulation, overconsumption of freshwater supplies, exhaustion of soil fertility, and pollution.
The rationalization for proceeding full steam ahead down this destructive path is deviating from one of denial of obvious limitations of unlimited and unrestrained consumption and development, to blatant arrogance of overreliance and faith in the principle that humans will design their way out of any problem. Our salvation will have to be found in the development of new materials, genes, structures, techniques, processes, and technologies. It doesn’t matter that a disastrous end result is creeping into view, and that most of these solutions exist yet. The “miracles” of a free market economy and capitalism will solve all of our problems.
The key word in this approach is engineering, as in geo-, civil, genetic, climate, environmental, population, structural, chemical, biological, energy, and so on.
In this modern time – maybe it could be called the Engineero-zoic Era? – we unabashedly exhaust natural resources, pollute with abandon, and trash our environment with orgasmic capitalistic glee, and then rely upon engineered duct tape patches to keep the sinking ship afloat. Many more MOSE-like projects will be needed in this Engineered World to defend ourselves from countless other environmental offensives planned and implemented by that “hostile” mother nature.
Climate change is at the top of the news these days. The discussion related to climate change has shifted gradually from one of whether or not it’s going to happen, to one of how severe the impacts will be, and how they will be managed. Those who used to deny global warming exists to justify ongoing air pollution now identify climate change as an economic opportunity.
This alarming argument is summed up nicely by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which believes: “In the unlikely event that global warming turns out to be a problem, the correct approach is not energy rationing, but rather long-term technological transformation and building resiliency in societies by increasing wealth.”
The Earth will need to draw upon this “increased wealth” significantly, because the list of issues that are cued up for engineering is seemingly endless.
Rising sea levels associated with the melting of the polar ice caps? The basic technology already exists for sea walls, levees, and flood gates but it’s expensive and the sheer magnitude of the scale will require major feats of unproven engineering. The discussion will move to what to save. Should we abandon Florida and build a wall around Manhattan?
Bigger storms attributable to global warming? Although not well publicized, there are reports the U.S. has been attempting since the 1960’s to geoengineer the weather, and steer storms from harms’ way.
Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Bill Gates is leading a consortium that wants to dump huge quantities of iron into the ocean to stimulate algal blooms, which theoretically could suck up huge amounts of carbon dioxide.
Increasing temperatures? Geoengineer the climate by dumping aluminum into the high atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space.
Drowning in pollution? Bioengineer plastic-eating microbes, engineer more efficient incinerators, or just move garbage out of our view faster through the use of vacuum-operated tubes.
Reduced yields of agricultural food products because of depleted soils, herbicide-resistant weeds, the dying off of honey bees, or insecticide-resistant pests? Monsanto and Dow Chemical will genetically engineer our way out of that problem by producing hybrid seeds that don’t require pollination or by developing new and more powerful herbicides and insecticides and then engineer ever-changing genetically modified seeds.
The need for increasing yields of meat to feed increasing populations on less and less agricultural land? Cows and chickens are being genetically engineered or fed synthetic hormones to grow even faster or produce more milk and lay more eggs.
A high cost of labor and land to grow natural food materials? How about we engineer more synthetic and artificial food products that we can create chemically to solve food shortages, and higher profits without high labor costs.
A human population that continues to grow and place more pressure on food and natural resources? The Gates Foundation is again at work seeking to engineer the worlds’ population.
Peak oil and reduced supply? Engineer technologies to wring oil out of rock, recover smaller reserves using more efficient methods that make it cost effective, mine “dirty” oil like tar sands, and of course, hydrofracking.
Radiation from Fukishima and, assuming we solve that problem, the inevitable sequel that comes with the next nuclear disaster? Well, no one likes to admit it, but the solution to that one may evade us, and we don’t like radiation so we’ll do our best to pretend it doesn’t really exist.
Engineering, of course, also can be used to create problems. This requires that we engineer solutions to our engineered problems, in a wonderful cycle of engineered economic opportunity. One example comes from the field of Biogenetics, where avian flu’s are being genetically altered to make them more contagious to humans. In turn, Biogeneticists need to engineer corresponding flu viruses that can then be sold to governments and the public to protect the public from the engineered flu. Sounds like a conspiracy theory, but this virus research is ongoing and it’s truly a disaster waiting to happen.
The fundamental principle being applied throughout all of this is that governments and corporations are banking on the hope that engineering will enable humans to forge ahead with the policies of greed, exploitation, and unhindered economic growth. We don’t NEED to slow down the rate of resource exploitation and consumption, discharge of carbon dioxide, and melting of polar ice caps. We don’t NEED to worry about the increasing frequency of contagious diseases, resource bottlenecks, and shortages of food and water. These crises are ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITES for our major corporations that will fuel continued growth, so bring’em on!
“Falling back” on green energy and conservation, sustainability, and peaceful coexistence is counter to everything a good capitalist holds dear because they don’t support “economic growth” as well as carbon fuels, unrestrained development, and armed conflicts. In fact, the words “renewable,” sustainable” and “responsible” likely wouldn’t be found in the imaginary textbook of “The Engineered Future.”
We’ll engineer our way out of it and make it up as we go along. You can gamble the future of your kids and grandkids on it. Call it Casino “Mother Earth” Royale, and pull up a stool. We’ll just have to overlook the one key reality that makes all casinos on earth profitable, which of course is that gambling never pays off in the end for the gambler.
One can argue that we’re already at the stage of trying to stay one step ahead of the problems we’ve created and continue to create. Climate change, though, is in the process of rewriting the rules. To preserve coastlines, agricultural outputs, yields of fossil fuels, and more, will require a staggering input of resources and innovations that aren’t yet even dreamed of at the conceptual phase.
I’ve Seen the Future in Venice, and it’s Tragically Polluted
Venice – Petroleum film on water, floating garbage, toxic fish, untreated sewage, air pollution, boat noise – Venice has all this and more.
Venice has had to live in its cesspool for a long, long, time. There never has been a sewer system in Venice, so residents have always just dumped their raw sewage right in the canals. The tide was relied upon to carry everything out into the ocean, but with barriers cutting off the tide, all the sewage just sat.
Heavy development of the mainland shore for industry occurred throughout the 1900’s, including a major petrochemical center, which dumped large amounts of contaminants into the lagoon and polluted the air. Extensive areas of marsh were filled, and shorelines along the mainland were hardened as part of industrialization and urbanization. Salt marshes and mud flats that helped to naturally ameliorate pollution were lost or devastatingly degraded.
The combination of the industrial waste from the mainland and human waste has caused the canals to be, in a word, filthy. The natural rhythms of the ocean can no longer handle the overflow, and microbes and pollution fill the water and the sediment at the bottom.
Not surprisingly, both the ecology of the lagoon and the movement of water have essentially been crippled, and the environmental quality of life is low.
The Earth – In the future, it’s very likely we’ll deal with worsening pollution on a worldwide basis. The priorities of the “powers that be” aren’t a mystery: economic concerns almost invariably trump environmental concerns, and the cost of “economic development” usually includes environmental degradation.
Western, or “First World” countries partially reversed some aspects of their worsening pollution trend associated with the Industrial Revolution decades ago. Unfortunately the trend towards lessening pollution is slowing or reversing. The U.S. EPA, in response to corporate pressure, is methodically relaxing pollution thresholds and attainment criteria so that the polluters can release greater amounts before the words “violation” or “health hazard” can be applied.
Things continue to get worse on a worldwide basis, largely because more countries around the globe continue the march toward becoming “developed” and this generally means consuming more goods and generating more pollution. Added to this, though, is the reality that large corporations have shipped polluting industries to less developed countries where environmental controls are absent or rarely enforced.
The environmental situation in developing, or “Third World” nations is dire, and poor and indigenous cultures have borne the brunt of many of the worst environmental conditions. The “Earth Day” revolution of the 70’s never hit most developing countries – they’ve had to be concerned with feeding their poor and striving to maintain “classist” societies, to keep the poor from improving their lives and maintain cheap labor for producing reasonably-priced goods for the “FirstWorld.”
A more recent attack on environmental standards are the international trade agreements, which facilitate enforcement among all member countries of environmental rules of the least restrictive country in the trade agreement, thereby clearing major roadblocks to profitability for corporations. In the U.S. and countries like it, oil and gas companies like to portray themselves as model citizens with sustainability initiatives, and zero carbon green development. Overseas, they need no facade. In cases like the massive Chevron toxic oil spill and waste dumping in the Amazon of Ecuador, corporations spend little in actual cleanup, but untold millions protecting themselves against having to be accountable. Whether it’s gold and silver mining, chemical production, or any of the pollution-intensive industries, corporations have an abominable but rarely publicized international record of dumping, filling, discharging, and emitting pollutants, and of turning their back on restoration.
Meanwhile, nuclear waste continues to pile up around the world, and the oceanic islands of plastic continue to grow. Fossil fuel burning shows no sign of abatement, and some of the dirtiest fuels (coal and tar sands) are just getting cued up. The policy of “Better Living through Chemicals” is being universally implemented from lawns to farms, and from detergents to water supplies.
Movements towards true sustainable resource use, reduced garbage production, and recycling on scales that would be meaningful seem far off at best, unattainable at worst. Like Venice, we all will likely have to get used to poorer quality air to breathe and water to drink, and to seeing more garbage.
I’ve Seen the Future in Venice, and There Are Very Rich People…And Everyone Else
Venice – Venice is too expensive for common folk to live there, but it’s a playground for those with money. A stroll past the Rolex, Cartier, and Gucci shops makes it clear what segment of the population is being targeted for commerce. The wonderful architecture of its historical buildings now serves as token amusement park marquees for the well-stocked shelves within – buildings that stand for the best of human creativity paradoxically serving up the worst of modern consumerism and materialism.
At its peak, Venice was home to about 174,000 people, but it’s now under 60,000 and falling. It’s an economy based on service, provided by people who can’t afford to experience it themselves. The working class now mostly live on the mainland, and they are bused in to work in the stores and restaurants at low wages. You have to search far and wide to uncover the student enclaves for a reasonably priced meal, or be willing to eat pizza every day.
The Earth – In the free-market economies of the 21st century, there is an ever-widening gap between rich and everyone else. If the well-to-do of dominant capitalist societies have their way, this is likely to be the norm for an increasingly globalized world. The economic reality of the world in the 21st century is that a horribly large percentage of people on earth live in miserable poverty, and the percentage is increasing.
Formerly prosperous western nations are imposing austerity measures on their people and cutting or privatizing basic governmental programs. Wages for the working class are dropping, and unemployment is soaring. Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer. If society continues on its current track, there will be only an elite upper class, and the miserable masses, a lucky fraction of whom will serve the upper class.
Part Three: Growing Flowers in the Desert
My Vaporetto voyage through the Grand Canal is complete, and I arrive at the Piazza San Marco, the main plaza of Venice. I try to stand up, and when I do I realize I let myself get way too cold. I wobble to the dock just as the gate is closed and the boat rushes to the next stop.
I was sobered both by the cold that permeated my bones, and by the peek at the frightening future I saw in Venice.
Venice….enduring into a polluted and class-segregated future only through massive engineering and intervention to try to control ecological imbalance brought on by man’s insatiable appetite for fossil fuels and material possessions. Not exactly front page fodder for the Venice Chamber of Commerce.
My cold bones are remedied by warm showers, hot tea, and blankets. Simple remedies like those don’t exist that will stave off the future Earth that Venice represents. Many are convinced the condition of the Earth and the human societies on it will get worse before it there is any hope to better. Encouragingly though, there is stirring evidence that both the Earth and a large portion of its human population are beginning to wake up to the urgency and are saying enough is enough.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that thoughts of our looming future filled my head on the eve of the much-publicized end of the Mayan Calendar. Among the many interpretations of the “end”, the indigenous of the world are choosing to interpret it this way: the 21st of December 2012 marked the end of the era of selfishness, and the beginning of the era of brotherhood….the end of individualism and beginning of collectivism.
Individualism manifests in greed, materialism and disregard for environmental balance, all of which are on display in modern Venice. Inherent in collectivism is common good, moderation, and sustainability. For indigenous people the relationship to the earth defines an individuals’ existence and provides the basis for cultural integrity. As Paul Harkin (Blessed Unrest) wrote about the philosophy of indigenous people, “Every single particle, thought, and being, even our dreaming, in the environment, and what we do to one another is reflected on earth just as surely as what we do to the earth is reflected in our diseases and discontents.” Indigenous people approach life with the simple philosophy of “Living Well” or in harmony. In western cultures, we are imprinted with the approach of striving to always “Live Better,” with all the implications of intensive resource use, energy needs, and generating of waste.
My trip to Venice also occurred in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and I fought off some of the gloom and doom of my “future vision” with thoughts of Charles Dickens and the Christmas Story. Everyone knows that, having glimpsed a horrible future, Scrooge turned it all around. Heading off my Scrooge-like future vision for the earth is most likely dependent on the “miserable masses” of the earth rising up and imposing those very principles I cited earlier as being anathema to corporations: “renewable,” “sustainable”, and “responsible” and a life of simply Living Well.
It may come too late to save Venice, but the Earth and its inhabitants likely have better odds in gambling on a future based on those guiding principles, than on rolling the dice on a future engineered.
SDSU Scientist Doing the Dirty Work to Save Sinking City of Venice. http://newscenter.sdsu.edu/sdsu_newscenter/news.aspx?s=70986
Voluntary Moratorium On H5N1 Research Ends; Fate Of U.S.-Funded Research Unknown http://globalhealth.kff.org/Daily-Reports/2013/January/24/GH-012413-H5N1-Moratorium-Ends.aspx
http://guardian. Population decline set to turn Venice into Italy’s Disneyland