In this week in which UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, doomsaying at COP 26, has imagined the day when climate change-driven rising sea levels will engulf Miami, Alexandria, Shanghai and other metropolises the thinking Canberran is moved parochially to think of Canberra's safety from the ocean's watery clutches.
How admirable the foresight of our federal parliamentarians of 1908! Anticipating extreme climate change and rising sea levels, these prophets chose a federal capital city site so elevated (580 metres above sea level) that waves could never break on the capital's doorstep.*
Coincidentally, coinciding with COP 26 and with its alarmed discussions of sea levels, up bobs in my online Aeon magazine a thoughtful piece: "Heritage At Sea - Must we simply accept the loss of beloved buildings and cities to the floods and rising seas of the climate crisis?"
The author Thijs Westerteijn is a professor of history and art history in Amsterdam. There for decades he's guided students and other visitors along the concentric canals of the city's 17th-century historic centre.
Alas, he grieves now, because of rising sea levels this old Amsterdam "now seems to have a longer past than it does a future", waters encroaching, the old city an urgently propped up place of drastic refurbishments and temporary scaffoldings.
From there, from his Amsterdam, the professor has a meditative look at the world's inundation-vulnerable man-made places. He points to a special grief involved in the loss of "material heritage", of man-made places and edifices.
He shows how emotionally essential it is for us to be in palpable touch with the past and how scary and discombobulating it is/will be to lose, to climate change's ravages, built evidence of our human past. He quotes some fine thinkers on the human "yearning to experience the past emotionally" and to be able to "touch it". Yes, which of us, well-travelled, has not ogled and stroked the masonry of olde and not so olde buildings?
Your columnist owns up to having caressed everything from the world-famous pale tiles of the Sydney Opera House (in a coastal city surely as menaced by rising seas as are Miami, Alexandria and Shanghai) to the irresistible sandstone flanks of St John's church in Canberra to the flesh-pale limestone pillars of England's Norman cathedrals to the flint and brick battlements of Roman castles.
"It seems," the professor muses, "that the Dutch will have to come to terms with the fact that they will not only lose their immaterial heritage such as ice-skating, but also much of their material heritage.
"In fact, the Dutch [because Holland is so vulnerably low-lying] are canaries in a global coalmine: historic heritage on all continents is under threat from the climate crisis. And consider how the world grieved when the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burned in 2019. So many values and sentiments of identity and belonging are invested in historic heritage. How will we cope with the much more substantial loss that awaits us?
"[Perhaps] in the face of such obliteration, we need to find alternative ways to think about historical development ... [remembering] cyclical ideas of history. The Greek Stoics believed in ekpyrosis, the periodic destruction of the world ... the 14th-century Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun thought cities developed only if they were sometimes destroyed by nomads. This cyclical model could be better than the idea of linear progress to grasp the course of history in times of climate crisis.
"[But] climatological developments will follow one another much faster than in the past ... The 21st century brings an unprecedented acceleration, which you can witness in emblematic form when you watch videos of millennia-old icebergs collapsing into the sea in a matter of seconds. And then it seems like present and past are happening simultaneously."
The professor points out we have been strangely preoccupied with climate change's impacts on things other than ourselves (polar bears leap to mind here). Now he dares to hope "perhaps an awareness that the building blocks of one's own civilisation are under threat might mobilise new groups, for whom the disappearing of coral reefs, say, remains too abstract or remote".
"Behavioural scientists point out that, when confronted with overwhelming amounts of scientific data, such as that continuously produced by climatologists, people actually become less likely to take action. Instead, people have to be affected on a deep emotional, psychological and spiritual level, which suggests that the layered sensations we experience in encounters with heritage - historical connection, aesthetic appreciation ... might motivate people in new ways," he writes.
Of course while in Canberra we can't sensitise ourselves by imagining our beloved built surroundings being drowned by the sea we ought to be able to well imagine this already sometimes badly-burnt and always fire-prone Bush Capital being obliterated by climate-change-stoked bushfires.
Canberrans, are there dear Canberra places the thought of the loss of which affects you on the professor's proffered deep emotional, psychological and spiritual levels? Try, right now, in your in your mind's eye to imagine your dearest places as smoking ruins, burned, razed, lost? Do the "layered sensations" this nightmare stokes motivate you in new ways to be active in defence of your little planet, of this inflammable little corner of it?
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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