A case for modernization as the road to salvation
MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER AND TED NORDHAUS
SOMETIME AROUND 2014, Italy will complete construction of seventy-eight mobile floodgates aimed at protecting Ven- ice’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 sea-bed 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 chang-
ing 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 Rob-
ert 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 techno-
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.
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