Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I was recently in Venice for the third time in my life: it seems that, without so planning, I go to that most splendid city once every decade.
When we miss a destination or decide to skip it, we always say “next time” or “it’ll still be there.” But Venice actually may not still be there by the end of this century. A city of marble built on a lagoon, there is a very good chance that by then it will be underwater, a modern day Atlantis. Mere days before I arrived, the city had suffered terrible flooding. The interior of the iconic Basilica di San Marco was knee-deep in water.
And that’s only as far as our climate projections go. Projections never say what happens after 2100, as though climate change will magically stop the moment the clock ticks over, because we neither can nor want to contemplate the possibilities. Look around Venice and you see the celebrations of the achievements of past centuries: wings in the magnificent galleries are devoted to the trecento then the quattrocento then the cinquecento — the 1300s, 1400s, and 1500s — down to modern times. But there will probably never be a Venetian art of the 2100s. Not only is the time horizon of our climate projections pathetic when compared to the reckoning of the earth, but it is pitiable even when measured against our own humanistic achievements.
As northern Italy gets flooded more and more, the south, along with southern Spain, will experience more and more drought until conditions approach those of a desert. In southern Italy, I stopped by Matera, a town with a natural cave system that made perfect dwellings for prehistoric people, so that it may be the third-oldest continuously inhabited human settlement in the world. Humans have lived here for the last 7,000 years. But by 2100, it may become uninhabitable.
I’m glad that I have gotten the chance to know Venice and Matera, as I’m glad that I have seen polar bears in the Arctic and visited the Maldives. The former will go extinct, and the latter will drown. There is something terribly melancholy about traveling the world in this dawn of the Anthropocene that is the also the twilight of so much that is beautiful on this earth.
Thinking about climate change always brings Sophocles to my mind:
Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
But now it also makes me think about Genesis. I used to find the biblical story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit unconvincing, even a strike against Christianity. What kind of God wants to keep us ignorant?
I understand better now. Sin is only possible when you know the possibility of sin. There is no sin in a lion biting into a gazelle. The lion hunts because it’s a lion. The gazelle dies because it’s a gazelle. Both simply act according to their nature with neither question nor choice. Neither can ever deserve recrimination, because they have no conception of good and evil.
Humans are the only species that knows the difference, that knows what it’s doing. So when we know something to be wrong and we do it anyway, that is sin. That was why the Elohim were so concerned that Adam and Eve tasted the fruit. And we assuredly persist in doing what is wrong while knowing that it is wrong when it comes to climate.
In Greek tragedies like the works of Sophocles, people are playthings of the gods. Oedipus couldn’t have avoided his fate no matter what he did. Since the early modern age, though, Western literature has placed the human hero at the center of his own tragedy. A hero falls because of his character, his personality, his choices. Hamlet falters because he cannot bring himself to commit to a course of action.
Now we do both. We are the protagonist in this tragedy of the commons. We are the anthro- in the Anthropocene. Our fall is due to our own choices, our persistence in our own error, our sin. We are the authors of our own suffering.
Yet the instrument of our doom shall be the forces of nature that our ancestors revered as divine. The awesome power of the sun, of the Egyptian god Ra, now trapped by the carbon in the atmosphere to heat up the oceans of Poseidon, melting the ancient tundras of the Nordic Frost Giants, leading to floods like Noah once saw.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."