I heard the news this November that Venice was underwater a month to the day that we arrived there. At first glance, all the historic places that my spouse and I had just visited for a special anniversary appeared flooded. The squares, the ancient buildings, the citizens, and many tourists were dealing with a crisis that came when water in excess of six feet hit Venice - the result of Acqua Alta (high water) a storm, high winds, and an elevation that is essentially at sea level and sinking. Seventy to eighty-five percent of the city was affected, and the cost to repair buildings, boats, livelihoods, and cultural treasures will be staggering.
The photos of the damage and the aftermath have been stunning. People walking in the Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square) in thigh-high water. The basement of Saint Mark’s Basilica flooded, threatening the foundation that has supported the church in its various iterations since 829. Shops still open for business despite a foot or more of water inside, aiming to serve at least some of the city’s 53,000 residents and 2.2 million daily visitors. A vaporetto (a barge-shaped water taxi that moves residents and tourists around the canals in this car-free city) lifted out of the water, stranded on a sidewalk. Rows of iconic gondolas, moored until they pass safety inspections. NPR’s reporter Sylvia Poggoli posted footage taken by her niece, a university student, showing her toilet purging the contents of the swollen canals onto her floor.
As the waters receded, hope arrived- as it does in many places after a natural disaster -in the form of students who answered the call to help. They dried books, blotted ancient sheet music, carried objects to safety, and took direction to salvage what they could. What, however, will it take to remove the mortar-eating salt that made its way behind pieces of mosaic? What happens to rugs, wood, and walls that have been exposed to seawater as well as Venice’s rather shockingly untreated sewage (everything is flushed right into the canals)? How much energy will it take to dry these buildings to prevent them from becoming moldy and unhealthy? What will the long-term damage be to the art and historic structures that are literally everywhere you look?
Venice hosts its famous Venice Biennale, which ran from May 11 to November 24. This year’s appropriately entitled May You Live In Interesting Times included many works addressing climate change, fake news, and our interconnectedness. One work inspired by the elevated walkways that Venetians set up during high tides; another mused about a post-fossil fuel future; and one particularly poignant piece addressed immigration. Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s work Barca Nostra (Our Boat) displayed the actual ship which sunk off the Sicilian coast, trapping and drowning approximately 1000 North Africans trying to reach Europe from Libya. The work forced discussion about the plight of immigration and whether this was art, a call to action, sensationalism, or (as Charlotte Higgins in a Guardian article called it) “a mass grave.” If applied to climate and climate refugees the takeaway message is this: we are all occupants on the same overcrowded and vulnerable boat and we are taking on water. We have the luxury of standing on a shoreline and we can take action, or as appalled viewers lamented, we can take selfies.
Venice’s mayor appropriately blamed the flooding of his city and the deaths of two people on the climate crisis, yet residents called for increased climate action long before the waters rose. As was reported, their city legislature voted “no” to taking additional climate actions just minutes before water entered their chambers.
This unique, sinking, and fragile UNESCO World Heritage site, unlike other places, has planned but not yet installed barriers to hold back rising seas. Their MOSE plan (named after Moses, who parted the waters) to build a barriers in the lagoon is behind schedule and billions of Euros over budget, delayed by corruption and cost overruns. How much can one city afford to spend to protect itself? Is it possible to create an effective barrier when the climate catastrophe is coming from every direction? Do the gates open when desperate people in sinking boats need to come in? Would this flooding have received this much attention had it not been in a European country?
This city deserves better, as do all of our cities, towns and wild places around the world. The reality of this is a call to action.
Aside from limited choices of staying home, paying carbon offsets to alleviate some carbon mile guilt, or traveling without giving a care, rationalizing that one is helping to support the countless tourism-dependent jobs, we need a new set of options. Buoyed by the art, we need to rise up to protect the beauty that makes this world more than a patchwork of cultures, geographies, histories and stories, and work to ensure a different future than the one we are facing. Examples of courage and action happen daily by the brave people around the world, literally on the front lines, who are fighting corporations, deforestation, mining, and the destruction of their lands. Good work is being done by Extinction Rebellion, 350.org, Sierra Club, and many large and small groups across this country raising awareness, fighting in court, and standing up for the planet. There is an amazing amount being done at UMass to make strides toward a better future, including the efforts of my own in my Greening students who help an arts or humanities case study organization become sustainable and resilient. Most of all, it is the artists, writers, filmmakers and others who are both holding us to account and holding us together, reminding us that while much is terrifying and tragic, we are in charge of our shared destiny, and while we have the power, we also have limited time to reinvent it. As the Biennale’s chair, Paolo Baratta, said at the exhibition closing, “In the difficult times of these last weeks, we have felt ever more strongly a sense of responsibility deriving from our work, which happens in and for a city that hosts us and gives us beauty, a city to which we would like to give back at least a portion of what we get from it.”
Venice, beloved by many for its canals and bridges, its confusing network of walkways ,and its gorgeous multi-floored buildings is flooded with more than 36 million tourists per year who (like us) wanted to be there even if only for a few days to drink in that beauty. One way to give back would be for the tourists who have visited over the last decade to send in a few dollars or retroactively pay the new visitor tax (12 Euros, or around $14) for repairs, and then call on our leadership to demand climate action and prioritize clean energy. This of course brings me to the reality that all of us, and in particular, I, have contributed to this mess by flying, by living a privileged life in a country that holds 4.2% of the population, but produces 16% of the carbon. My spouse and I decided that this is our last vacation trip by air, and purchased carbon offsets for our flights, which were invested in an ethical infrastructure project, ironically, for water.