A case for modernization as the road to salvation

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

SOMETIME AROUND 2014, Italy will complete construction of seventy-eight mobile floodgates aimed at protecting Venice’s three inlets from the rising tides of the Adriatic Sea. The massive doors—twenty meters by thirty meters, and five meters thick—will, most of the time, lie flat on the sandy seabed between the lagoon and the sea. But when a high tide is predicted, the doors will empty themselves of water and fill with compressed air, rising up on hinges to keep the Adriatic out of the city. Three locks will allow ships to move in and out of the lagoon while the gates are up.

Nowhere else in the world have humans so constantly had to create and re-create their infrastructure in response to a changing natural environment than in Venice. The idea for the gates dates back to the 1966 flood, which inundated 100 percent of the city. Still, it took from 1970 to 2002 for the hydrologist Robert Frassetto and others to convince their fellow Italians to build them. Not everyone sees the oscillating and buoyant floodgates as Venice’s salvation. After the project was approved, the head of World Wildlife Fund Italy said, “Today the city’s destiny rests on a pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gamble.”

In truth, the grandeur that is Venice has always rested—quite literally—on a series of pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gambles. Her buildings rest upon pylons made of ancient larch and oak trees ripped from inland forests a thousand years ago. Over time, the pylons were petrified by the saltwater, infill was added, and cathedrals were constructed. Little by little, technology helped transform a town of humble fisherfolk into the city we know today.
Saving Venice has meant creating Venice, not once, but many times since its founding. And that is why her rescue from the rising seas serves as an apt metaphor for solving this century’s formidable environmental problems. Each new act of salvation will result in new unintended consequences, positive and negative, which will in turn require new acts of salvation. What we call “saving the Earth” will, in practice, require creating and re-creating it again and again for as long as humans inhabit it.

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