King Canute and the tide

381px-MANTE(1800)_p1.133_KING_CANUTE.jpg; Public Domain

Sometimes, even leaders know that their power is limited.  Case in point; King Canute.  The Wikipedia entry has this great bit on him:

“…Canute set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the incoming tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet “continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.'” He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again “to the honour of God the almighty King”.”

It’s a shame we don’t have leaders, from any party, with this sort of humility. Of course, a few folks today think they can even outsmart the tide.  Case in point; those responsible for the levees in New Orleans.  According to a recent Scientific American article, after ten billion dollars and over a decade of construction, the levees that were built will may be useless in as little as four years.  Coastal cities such as New York and Boston are making extravagant and costly plans to handle sea level rise; how long will those projects save those respective cities?

The first reaction to events like the flooding during Katrina is generally one of concern and help.  People need homes and food, and want to get back on their feet.  But as that zoom lens pulls back, we should be asking – should we (or can we) afford to rebuild in that same location?

There’s no doubt that some sort of mitigation is worth it, as it takes time to plan and move people and institutions.   At the end of the day, however, it appears that all everyone wants to do is build bigger levees, walls, and pumps, so that the ‘status quo’ can be maintained.   Has anyone said, “Our city is going to be underwater in N years; let’s think about what we can do to mitigate for the short term, and abandon/move/migrate in the near future.”?

More questions:

  • If New Orleans was flooded again, would this thought (of abandoning the city) gain any more traction?   Pripyat (the main population center, with 50,000 people) near Chernobyl was vacated, but New Orleans has almost eight times that number.  Could it be done?
  • What big public works projects will be made irrelevant in the strange climate future we’ll be having?  Expansion of airports near the ocean come to mind.
  • Is this lack of humility simply due to our ‘advanced’ technology?  Or is there something else going on here?
  • What sort of cost-benefit metric should we be using for any sea level rise mitigation?  Likewise, who will be paying the costs, and who will receive the benefits?


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