Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

I've noticed that the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp marked "Forever." The ostensible purpose behind the Forever Stamp is that it can be used to send mail even if rates go up. But I find the use of the word telling. Forever is a long time. I wonder how useful the stamps will be two hundred years hence. It betrays a bit of the American mentality of the permanence of our country and way of life. Most Americans think, as Henry Ford did, the "history is bunk." The Romans too, called their city "eternal."

This piece is about global warming but it's really about the impermanence of history.
Whether in 50 or 100 or 200 years, there’s a good chance that New York City will sink beneath the sea. But if there are no patterns, it means that nothing is inevitable either. History offers less dire scenarios: the city could move to another island, the way Torcello was moved to Venice, stone by stone, after the lagoon turned into a swamp and its citizens succumbed to a plague of malaria. The city managed to survive, if not where it had begun. Perhaps the day will come when skyscrapers rise out of downtown Scarsdale.

Humans are ingenious. Our species tends to see nature as something of a nuisance, a phenomenon to be outwitted. Consider efforts to save Venice: planners have hatched one scheme after another to prevent the city from sinking. Industrial development has been curtailed. Buildings dating from the Renaissance have been “relocated.”

The most ambitious project, begun a decade ago, is the installation of mobile gates in the lagoons. Known by the acronym MOSE — the Italian name for Moses, who mythically parted the Red Sea — it’s an intricate engineering feat: whenever the tide rises, metal barriers that lie in concrete bunkers on the sea floor are lifted by compressed air pressure and pivoted into place on hinges.

Is the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico — the project’s official name — some engineer’s fantasy? It was scheduled for completion this year, but that has been put off until 2014. Even if, by some miracle, the gates materialize, they will be only a stay against the inevitable. Look at the unfortunate Easter Islanders, who left behind as evidence of their existence a mountainside of huge blank-faced busts, or the Polynesians of Pitcairn Island, who didn’t leave behind much more than a few burial sites and a bunch of stone tools. Every civilization must go.

Yet each goes in its own way. In “Collapse,” Jared Diamond showed how the disappearance of a civilization has multiple causes. A cascade of events with unforeseen consequences invariably brings it to a close. The Norse of Greenland cut down their trees (for firewood and other purposes) until there were no more trees, which made it a challenge to build houses or boats. There were other causes, too: violent clashes with the Inuit, bad weather, ice pileups in the fjords blocking trade routes. But deforestation was the prime factor. By the end, no tree fell in the forest, as there was none; and there would have been no one to hear it if it had.

Contemplating our ephemerality can be a profound experience. To wander the once magnificent Roman cities strung along the Lycian coast of Turkey — now largely reduced to rubble, much still unexcavated — is to realize how extensive, how magisterial this civilization was. Whole cities are underwater; you can snorkel over them and read inscriptions carved into ancient monoliths. Ephesus, pop. 300,000 in the second century A.D., is a vast necropolis. The amphitheater that accommodated nearly 25,000 people sits empty. The Temple of Artemis, said to have been four times larger than the Parthenon, is a handful of slender columns.

YET we return home from our travels intoxicated by beauty, not truth. It doesn’t occur to us that we, too, will one day be described in a guidebook (Fodor’s North America 2212?) as metropolitans who resided in 60-story towers and traveled beneath the waves in metal-sheathed trains.

Looking down Central Park West, I’m thrilled by the necklace of green-and-red traffic lights extending toward Columbus Circle and the glittering tower of One57, that vertical paradise for billionaires. And as I walk past the splashing fountain in front of the museum’s south entrance on West 77th Street, I recall a sentence from Edward Gibbon’s ode to evanescence, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” in which “the learned Poggius” gazes down at the remains of the city from the Capitoline hill: “The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”
Is This The End? James Atlas, New York Times

The idea of the world's greatest financial centers, New York, London and Shanghai under water should give everyone pause. I once imagined a world where goats grazed on the lawn of the White House, Bedouin caravans roamed past the deserted sand-blown towers of Dubai, and Los Angles was a battle-scarred Sarajevo run by gangs. Imagine tall ships floating among skyscrapers.

What will the future look like? Will Navajo once again graze sheep in the Southwest? Will Japan close itself off from the world again relying on geothermal energy to power a sort of twentieth-century infrastructure? And what of China and India? The possibilities are fascinating.

The Archdruid Report this week noted the similarities between the Hispanic takeover of much of the country and the barbarian incursions at the fall of Rome, an analogy I myself have made multiple times. And once again I contemplate just how closely we seem to be replicating Rome's fall. I think of it whenever I pass an empty weedlot being proposed for some sort of urban farm. In the past, urban real estate was too valuable for anything except industrial development; now even plots in the heart of major cities are used for growing crops. We too have our bread and circuses to distract us from a crumbling empire, our wealth class throwing bones to the poor even as they suck up ever more wealth, our moral decadence and decay, and our burgeoning cities in the midst of a depopulated countryside. We have our public interests subsumed by the dictates of private power, our squeezing of the middle class from the top and the bottom, our imperial overstretch, and our eroding tax base. It never ceases to amaze me how a republic that from its founding was designed to emulate the best of Rome is meeting an almost carbon copy fate.

Venice was founded by refugees from Rome. I wonder what climate change will do to our geographical fabric.

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