Why We Must Learn From Sunken Cities Or Suffer Their Fate

The British Museum’s Sunken Cities exhibition is a reminder of our future. If we accept that climate change will flood our cities, we can begin to save them.

Submerged Thonis-Heracleion: ‘The safest bet regarding global warming seems to be to accept that the worst is going to happen and reverse-engineer accordingly.’ Photograph: Christoph Gerigk/AP
Submerged Thonis-Heracleion: ‘The safest bet regarding global warming seems to be to accept that the worst is going to happen and reverse-engineer accordingly.’ Photograph: Christoph Gerigk/AP

Humans have long sought to understand catastrophes that are sudden and senseless. Faced with ships sailing through tsunami-stricken streets or buildings collapsing in earthquakes, we might take some small bitter comfort from scientific explanations. Irrespective of whether we blame nature, God or the victims, the abrupt cataclysm is at least tangible. How we deal with incremental disaster is less clear. With global warming and rising sea levels, battles between doom-sayers and deniers are, especially at this stage, exercises in futility and inaction.

The British Museum’s 2016 blockbuster exhibition Sunken Cities will focus on treasures salvaged from the submerged Egyptian ports Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. As well as an exploration of past glory, it is likely to be a memento mori for existing civilisations. The sea swallowed these mighty settlements and it will do so again. The omnipresence of floods in cultures across the globe suggests that this has happened before, almost everywhere.

We retain a fearful ancestral memory passed down in our folklore about drowned places like, for instance, Doggerland. Yet this is as problematic as it is instructive. When the waters come, they do so suddenly in our tales, often as the consequence of righteous celestial fury (Bertolt Brecht narrowed the destruction of Atlantis down to a single night). They are survived through acts of valour, proceeding through all the phases of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, to end in a hopeful note of rebuilding, voiced with saintly benevolence by Morgan Freeman. There are very few myths that teach us how to deal with the horribly real problem of a slowly, almost imperceptibly, rising sea, especially given a sizeable number of our planets metropolises have conspicuous, suspiciously-quiet waterfronts.

bartday-gig-001-336x280It’s easy to be cynical about the sanctimonious and tokenistic posturing of politicians over climate change, the disingenuous corporate responses, and the snake-oil evangelism of those selling us a future that is shiny, green, smart and redeemed, hallelujah, by big data, as we slip gently beneath the waves. For all my own ludicrous futurist hopes and dreams, the safest bet regarding global warming seems to be to accept that the worst is going to happen and reverse-engineer accordingly.

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This involves embracing the power of negative thinking; the Low Countries and Bangladesh cease to exist; the Baltic states and Antarctica become islands; Australia gains an inland sea while the Caspian swells monstrously; Miami, Cairo, Kolkata and many other cities capsize. If any of these events occur, we may well be prepared. If they don’t, we can afford surprise. Perhaps a degree of apocalyptic thought, provided opportunistic alarmism is avoided, is not entirely detrimental.

Cities will change and adapt because they always have. Flood barriers already protect many major urban areas from devastating storms. Without the Thames Barrier, east London, the tube, and significant areas along the river would become submarine during tidal surges. Without systems like the Zuiderzee and Delta Works, maps of the Netherlands would need to be regularly redrawn. These however are stopgap defences to a likely inexorable problem.

The question is how radical do we proceed in reshaping our cities? To which the reply should be, as radical as the existential threat posed. Absurd architectural proposals are very often only absurd due to technical limitations or financial viability. When the waters pour into financial districts and into the lives of tens of millions of people, these circumstances will no doubt alter.

San Michele Cemetery in Venice, an example of working seasteading.
San Michele Cemetery in Venice, an example of working seasteading. Photo via wsj

One area of possible solutions is seasteading; the building of habitations on or below the water. It is an intriguing though understandably maligned area of architecture and planning. For every revelatory proposal, however questionable, like Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Bay Plan (1960) and Jacque Fresco’s ongoing Venus Project, there are dozens of harebrained schemes under the misappropriated title “libertarian”, resembling tropical tax havens specialising in a kind of perfection indistinguishable from the grotesque. Few provide any kind of model that could be adopted anywhere except glorified gated communities. Yet we write seasteading off at our peril, not least because it has actually worked; from the floating villages of south-east Asia to the glorious imperilled city of Venice, battling with and living off the sea for centuries.

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There are many other means at our disposal provided we maintain open minds. Ocean fertilisation, cloud seeding, space lenses and carbon capture among others may well slow global warming (though not without failings and side effects) but cities will no doubt have to physically adapt in tandem. The vast flood water diversion network beneath Kasukabe, Japan might well be overwhelmed next to the sea but it is the beginning of a fine idea. The use of climate-adapting and pollution-negating nanotechnology may seem as far away as evolving gills, but it promises a genuinely exciting range of possibilities. For all the need to think laterally, an in-built bullshit detector is still paramount.

Four years ago, I stood on what had once been a vast lake, absorbing much of the rainy season downpours, in the north of the city of Phnom Penh. The natural habitat had been drained and filled in, its inhabitants dispossessed and the newly created real estate sold off to build, with the gallows humour of the true cynic, an “eco-city”.

Perhaps our descendants won’t condemn us for our apathy and inertia. After all, we will leave them the greatest man-made coral reefs the world has ever seen; streets where we used to live and breathe and dream. There is however hope, provided we don’t leave matters simply in the hands of the state and the markets. We will need to engage with engineers, architects, designers, writers, thinkers and, above all, citizens to anticipate and mitigate what may come.

“We can save our cities but only if we face the prospect that they may already be lost and work our way back from the end.”

This feature is written by Darran Anderson and originally appeared in The Guardian.



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