We’re All Venice Now
by Gray Brechin
Three days after superstorm Sandy devastated New York CIty and New Jersey, an exceptionally high tide flooded nearly 60% of Venice but few outside its region noticed. I try to visit that city every winter since I don’t know which year will be my last chance to see humanity’s most audacious work of art. Aside from its miraculous beauty, I enjoy Venice as a material symbol of the wealth, savagery, and self-reflective folly of all imperial cities, New York included.
It was for John Ruskin as well. In his three-volume epic The Stones of Venice, Ruskin envisioned the decayed palaces and churches slumping into fetid canals as a warning to Victorian London. Doubtless few of the millions of tourists who descend on Venice every year have ever heard of Ruskin let alone read his book. That includes the world’s glitterati who congregate there for the Carnevale in winter when the grand hotels and palazzi radiate with something of their ancient splendor. They then recall past centuries when La Serenissima terminated the Silk Road as it ruthlessly dominated the eastern Mediterranean.
Revelers flaunt the most lavish costumes and jewelry while using the city’s Piazza, bridges, and canals as backdrops for their fantasies. They must often use elevated catwalks and unsightly knee and hip boots to make their way from one extravagance to another. Unlike the ever fewer Venetians who have to deal with acqua alta,, however, such inconveniences mean little to those whose fortunes so frequently derive from energy and the weaponry needed to get more of it. For them, there are always other festivities in other playgrounds to which they will move on when Carnevale is over.
Out in the Venetian lagoon, engineers and contractors are belatedly hard at work building mammoth tidal barriers that, they hope, will save the city from ever more frequent and severe inundations. In particular, they hope that the MOSE project will prevent a repeat of the perfect storm in 1966 when wind-driven tides piled atop one another, combining with torrential runoff from the Alps to nearly dissolve the city as if it was made of marzipan rather than marble, brick, and wood.
I thought of that harrowing night as Hurricane Sandy shoved a ridge of ever warmer, higher, and more acidic seawater toward New York City under a full moon. No one knows whether the MOSE will work since it was designed decades ago before climate change and sea level rise possibly made it obsolete even before it is finished. But at least the Italian government trying something, however costly and futile it may ultimately prove. Losing Venice is as unthinkable as losing New York City.
We have all endured the seemingly eternal season of folly that is a U.S. presidential campaign in which body language, facial tics, and quips have substituted for substantive issues. Although increasingly alarmed scientists have tried to alert the U.S. and other governments to what greenhouse gases are doing to weather patterns and to the oceans, little has actually been done but to press harder on the accelerator. The subject remained off limits during the presidential debates.
Despite decades of warnings about what might happen if a tidal surge inundated the New York subways, D.C.’s Metro, San Francisco’s BART, or the London Underground, the parties have gone on as if there were always more fun at the end of a short jet hop from the Venice airport. But the global forecast is now for submerged runways as well as subways, for more freakish and frequent superstorms, and for darkened skylines as the price of our energy-addicted dithering. We are all Venice now.
Gray Brechin is the Project Scholar of the Living New Deal at the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.