January 1, 2012


Evolve: A case for modernization as the road to salvation (MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER AND TED NORDHAUS, September/October 2011, Orion)

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.

MANY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONCERNED people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural. Our animal skins, our fire, our farms, our windmills, our nuclear plants, and our solar panels--all 100 percent natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth.

Furthermore, over the course of human history, those technologies have not only been created by us, but have also helped create us. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the reason for our modern hands, with their opposable thumbs and shorter fingers, is that they were better adapted for tool use. Ape hands are great for climbing trees but not, it turns out, for striking flint or making arrowheads. Those prehumans whose hands could best use tools gained an enormous advantage over those whose hands could not.

As our hands and wrists changed, we increasingly walked upright, hunted, ate meat, and evolved. Our upright posture allowed us to chase down animals we had wounded with our weapons. Our long-distance running was aided by sweat glands replacing fur. The use of fire to cook meat allowed us to consume much larger amounts of protein, which allowed our heads to grow so large that some prehumans began delivering bigger-brained babies prematurely. Those babies, in turn, were able to survive because we were able to fashion still more tools, made from animal bladders and skins, to strap the helpless infants to their mothers' chests. Technology, in short, made us human.

Of course, as our bodies, our brains, and our tools evolved, so too did our ability to radically modify our environment. We hunted mammoths and other species to extinction. We torched whole forests and savannas in order to flush prey and clear land for agriculture. And long before human emissions began to affect the climate, we had already shifted the albedo of the Earth by replacing many of the world's forests with cultivated agriculture. While our capabilities to alter our environment have, over the last century, expanded substantially, the trend is long-standing. The Earth of one hundred or two hundred or three hundred years ago was one that had already been profoundly shaped by human endeavor.

It's always amusing to note that it is theists who believe Man to be a part of Nature and secularists who believe men to be a pathogen upon the natural world.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at January 1, 2012 9:34 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus