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After Climate Despair 

Matt Frost

The dream of a global conversion to austerity has failed to stop climate change. Energy abundance is our best hope for living well with warming — and reversing it.

The Italian Renaissance humanist Girolamo Fracastoro is best remembered for his allegorical poem about syphilis. But his interests were expansive. Around 1550 he wrote a letter to Alvise Cornaro, a nobleman skilled in hydraulics, worrying that a crisis loomed for the Most Serene Republic of Venice. The rivers of the region, stripped of trees to feed the city’s growth, were filling the otherwise navigable channels of the lagoon with silt, forming pestilent marshlands and rendering the waterways impassable. At the same time, sea levels were falling. Venetians had known for centuries that their public health and maritime advantage depended on the precious lagoon, and the crisis had long preoccupied the republic’s ­leadership. Fracastoro told Cornaro:

This Lagoon must someday — only God knows when — dry out of sea water and become swampy, either from silt, or from the withdrawal of the sea from the whole bay, one or the other; I do not believe that any human power can oppose it.

Yet he exhorted Cornaro to action anyway. Fracastoro’s idea was to flood the lagoon with fresh water. The plan was partially implemented but backfired, spreading muck across an even greater area. So the city then spent fortunes on diverting the silty rivers away from the lagoon and into the sea. Eventually, this strategy worked.

Like the siltation that worried Fracastoro and Cornaro, climate change is a slow, relentless environmental crisis, but one of far greater scale and complexity. Our challenge, however, is the same: to carry our thriving civilization into a future made perilously uncertain by the side effects of our own prosperity....

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Matt Frost writes from Bellingham, Washington.

Matt Frost, "After Climate Despair," The New Atlantis, Number 60, Fall 2019, pp. 3-21.