A TALE OF TWO CITIES
two cities are Bologna and Venice. The environmental problems threatening both,
despite well-publicized "remedies," have not improved but worsened in
recent decades; the cities, their problems, and their failure to deal with them
exemplify all too well what is happening all over the world. For purposes of
"qualification," I begin with a note on my experience in Italy.
first went there, for a year, in the late 1960s, to study the economic history
of certain Italian cities, and to teach in Bologna. There were many return
visits in the '70s and '80s. In the mid-'80s I married a Bolognese; subsequently
I have lived in Bologna about half of every year. Over those several decades I
have of course visited much of the rest of Italy; most often, Venice. What has
been happening this year prompted this essay.
physically and culturally, Bologna and Venice are beautiful, Venice exquisitely
so. What are now major problems for both had just begun to emerge in the 1960s;
in the all too foreseeable future, disaster awaits. Their troubles are seemingly
quite different -- Bologna gasping for air, Venice near to drowning -- but their
origins are the same: the "triumph" of contemporary industrial
capitalism, led and shaped by the USA.
was generally seen as the best-run city in Europe ten to fifteen years ago; now
it sits in the bottom half of that spectrum, shoved there by its foul air and
its foul politics -- outdone in both, sadly, by Milan, Naples, Palermo and Rome.
The lethal air comes from under- or uncontrolled industrial pollutants mixed
with the CO2 from always more numerous motor vehicles. Linked with that, in
recent years Bologna's politics have swerved from Left to Right, marching in
lockstep with an always more feverish consumerism. The latter (not, of course,
only in Bologna or Italy), in addition to creating what has become a fanaticism
for owning and using motor vehicles, has also substantially eroded a once
notable Italian sense of solidarity; its place has been taken by the successes
of the "consciousness industry" in leading people "to want what
they don't need and not to want what they do." (as Paul Baran once put it).
If there is anything left of civic consciousness, its energies are dissipated in
rooting for the local soccer team -- the Italian equivalent of the U.S. passions
for NY-Mets/Jets, SF-49ers/Giants, et al. (Except that, more's the worse, we've
never had much civic consciousness, let alone solidarity, to erode.)
"acqua alta" that floods Venetian streets from high tides did not
begin recently, but what was once very rare is now very common: two to three
years ago it was occurring a stunning 100+ days a year; a few years from now
those will be remembered as the palmy days. Setting off for a weekend in Venice
recently, expected high water led us to postpone for a day. The day after was
dry, we went, and Venice was its usual marvelous self; but we left hurriedly the
next morning, as water was breaching the pavements.
describe Venice as "marvelous"is to refer not only to its
architecture, its canals, its museums, its food, etc.; it is marvelous -- and
unique -- also in that it is the only city in the world where there are NO motor
vehicles (on land); if present trends continue, one day there will be no people.
Venice is not "sinking," as the news misleadingly puts it; the sea is
the face of these severe problems, what have the two cities done? They have
adjusted; and in this they are representative of the world as a whole. Thus, in
Venice, in the middle of most streets there are now what are called "duckboards,"stacked
upside down. They are wooden "paths" to walk on, about two feet in
width and in height, easily placed rightside up when the waters rise. This year,
something new has been added: now, all over Venice, one may find shops that sell
pullover rubber boots (of the consistency of rubber gloves), just in case the
tidal forecast was overly optimistic. They cost little, are used just once, and
thrown away. Soon, they say, the duckboards will be made broader and higher (and
be left standing rightside up). Also soon, one hopes not too soon, Venice will
be under water more than half the year; some day.... Meanwhile: adjust.
regular flooding of Venice is caused by global warming, of course, not by the
activities of Venetians. Notwithstanding, the Venetian authorities have sought
to do something about the problem. Thus there have been several years of
squabbling over a multibillion ($$$, not lire) project to put down some kinds of
"gates" to hold off or divert the tides. The project has bogged down,
not because of its unworkability (according to experts), but because of
rivalrous factions who would profit more from some other (also unworkable)
Bologna the authorities have for years dealt with the motor vehicle/air problem:
no personal car use inside the city (ha!), no cars at all on certain days (ha!),
and, two years ago, unleaded gasoline and emission controls required (at last!).
The air stinks and tastes of car fumes always more: in November, 2000 the
official reports were for the worst air ever, in a rising trend. Also in
November, as much of Italy suffered from disastrous and unprecedented floods, an
Italian meteorological center reported that the rains this fall had, for the
first time, become like the monsoons of Asia; and that for five cities, among
them Venice, rainfall rates this year were the double of the annual average for
the preceding 30 years.
for the air, it is relevant -- shocking would be the better word -- to note that
the deadliness of the air mostly harms the very young and the very old, both
traditionally treasured in Bologna (as in all of Italy); wittingly or no,
Italians' love affair with their automobiles (40 million for a population of 53
million, plus countless trucks and many millions of two-wheeled polluters) has
come into deadly competition with that familial love. Step by step with
restrictive measures to lower pollution by motor vehicles, their use has
heightened: the tightly and often double-parked streets have led increasingly to
the gradual and official transformation of once beautiful piazzas into parking
lots, and the horrific buzzing and gas emitting motorini and motocicli now park
in row after row under the once beautiful porticoed sidewalks: adjust!
much for the deteriorating lungs and hearts of numberless people over the globe;
then add this: is it not likely that, some day soon, there will be vehicle
gridlocks in Bologna -- and in Milan, Rome, Florence..., Manhattan, London,
Mexico City, Beijing, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg....?
only way for gridlocks to become unlocked is with cranes; so, just as there are
duckboards all over Venice, it is not joking to ask: Will there be cranes at all
major intersections in all major cities? And like the duckboards, would the
cranes -- which of course cannot get through a gridlock -- not come to be left
in place? And, as with the prison-industrial complex, mightn't we expect the
crane industry to lobby against "cures" going beyond that
that dark future Venice will come to be known only through books and old
photographs; already by this time, Bologna, once known as "the buckle on
the red belt of Italy," has installed a rightwing mayor, and he and his
cronies are busily unadjusting what little was done by their relatively
tides are rising and heavy rains fall all over the world, while the air is
already or is becoming lethal. Most of the damage from heat-trapping gases is
done by the top industrial countries, 25 percent of it by the USA alone: with
only 4 percent of the world's people, we have three times the per capita
responsibility of any of the other rich countries, and, to boot, ours has the
largest population by far. After the USA, Russia and China lead that race to
in 1997 the so-called Kyoto Protocol was enacted; it was aimed at cutting 1990
emissions levels of the leading countries by 5 percent by 2012. It remains
unsigned. It is universally agreed that the USA has effectively blocked that
agreement, by stalling and dealing -- "dealing" to sign if and only if
it can meet the requirements by doing something other than cutting emissions: 1)
by counting as reducing emissions what our existing or new forests do (or could
do, many years after their planting) in absorbing them, and, 2) by using the
U.S. invention of buying and selling "rights to pollute" (call for
George Orwell!) absent any essential limiting/enforcing regulations.
U.S. proposals, opposed by the Europeans, have essentially made Kyoto a memory,
despite a last ditch attempt in November. At a special UN meeting of about 180
nations at The Hague, desperate attempts were made to frame an agreement that
would allow Kyoto -- whose 5 percent aim was, in any case, about one-tenth of
what is a minimally safe goal -- to become real. However. Under the headline
"Climate Talks Fail Amid Deadlock" (NYT, November 25, 2000) we read
"A bitter wrangle between the European Union and the United States over how
to curb greenhouse emissions brought a U.N. climate conference to an ignominious
sure, a few big corporations (such as Ford, Sunoco, Du Pont and Texaco) have
recently announced that they think they can make profits by making
environmentally acceptable technologies; that was accompanied by a statement of
one of their leaders that "this has nothing to do with altruism."
Indeed it does not. And that's the catch. "Altruism" in this context
would mean doing something to save the environment in order to save the
environment, and not because you can make a profit from it. And if you can't? Do
these guys have some other planet to move to when this one can no longer support
life? Are they all childless, as well as heedless?
to the point: are there enough profitable ways to deal with global warming,
ozone depletion, water and soil contamination, the destruction of forests...,
and to do so in time and everywhere? To be sure a few big companies, even some
hundreds of big and small companies, can make money with new technologies, etc.;
but the fact remains that the numberless changes in technology and in behavior
required to save the planet entail also numberless efforts that will be helpful
but not be profitable; moreover, they will require much in the way of
coordination, subsidization, regulations and planning. And thank you very much,
we do not want the giant companies, who, seeking profits, created the problems,
to do our planning for us.
wrong things they know how to do very well, and continue to do. In the very
period since 1997 as Kyoto has been under debate, the auto industry in the USA
announced that it must and that it plans to increase its annual sales by three
percent; and the hoped-for markets (and new investments) are critically outside
the rich countries: item: in the past month, China has reported its expectation
to have 170 million automobiles running about before too long -- although
Beijing and Shanghai are already among the worst polluted cities on the face of
in England in 1925, T. S. Eliot produced the famous dirge that begins
are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
without form, shade without colour
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion....
And that closes with the unforgettable
is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
will be whimpers to be sure, even more than Eliot expected, for we are always
more infantile as a people; but to those, add gasps and gurgles, gridlocks and
screaming -- and, given the way the world now spins, probably a very big bang.
But all that is not likely to happen for many years.
Altogether now: adjust! And mourn, if it suits you.