Art of Interference
Season 1: Water | Episode 3: Floods
[TH: Tori Hoover| ER: Emma Reimers | EM: Eve Mosher | ML: Maren Loveland | JG: Jennifer Gutman | Janey Camp: JC | LK: Lutz Koepnick | RH: Rebecca Hersher]
Tori Hoover: This is what morning sounds like on the Cumberland River. It’s my favorite time to take my kayak out. Before construction workers take up their post on the banks, before tourist “pontoon saloons” motor past blaring Jason Aldean songs.
Turtles sun on fallen tree limbs. Light shines on the limestone that rises in crags along the water, bringing out sparkling striations in the rocks. And below me, schools of tiny fish dart in and out.
Some days, I barely paddle as I move downstream, choosing instead to just lie back and let the current carry me. This is when the water feels most alive, and when I feel most in tandem with it. It’s just me and the birds and the turtles.
And, yeah, okay, also the traffic on Briley Parkway.
But most of the time, it’s easy to forget that, from where I sit, I’m just a stone’s throw away from the bustle of Opryland, from one of Nashville’s biggest tourist destinations. And it’s easy to forget, too, that this river isn’t always so calm.
TH: From Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, this is Art of Interference: a podcast about creative responses to climate change. In each episode, we talk with artists and experts who work at the intersection of nature, technology, and science today.
Today’s episode is cohosted by Emma Reimers and me, Tori Hoover.
TH: It’s been twelve years since the historic rainfall and flooding that left the Opry and its surrounding attractions underwater.
Emma Reimers: May first and second, 2010.
TH: Until then, the most it had ever rained over a two-day period in Nashville was 6 ½ inches. The rains that preceded the 2010 flooding more than doubled that total. Some places in the metro area saw nearly 19 inches of rain over just a two-day span.
ER: Videos from that time show water filling the field of Titans Stadium. Its protective padding floats like an oversized pool raft in the flooded field, the bright Tennessee-turquoise at odds with the general air of gloom.
TH: And in the Opryland Hotel, water flooded to between 8 and 10 feet, leaving the atrium largely underwater, its stairs descending into a deep brown pond.
ER: One news report even shows a school portable floating down the interstate as onlookers exclaim in surprise.
News Anchor 1: There’s a building in the river that is actually floating in the river. You can actually see how deep the water is on the cars. There’s the building!
News Anchor 2: We’ve got buildings running into cars at this particular point. I think that may be from the soccer field right behind Lighthouse Christian School.
ER: I mean, imagine being able to take your kayak out on the streets of East Nashville. On the highway!
TH: My own personal Venice! But seriously, I have been wondering if I’ll be kayaking to the grocery store in a decade or two. I really hope not.
ER: Same. And your groceries would get seriously soggy.
TH: I’m sure you’ve seen the news. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen massive floods in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in New York City, in Utah, all throughout California. And those record numbers join the ranks of last year’s historic rainfall and flooding in places like Montana and Kentucky and Mississippi and Texas. Flooding in Pakistan killed over 1,700 people last August, and even as droughts push on in the American Southwest, and internationally throughout much of Africa and the Middle East, parts of Germany and Belgium have also experienced unprecedented flash flooding.
ER: Meteorologists called what happened in Nashville a “1,000-year flood” — a weather event so rare, it has a 0.1% chance of happening in any given year.
TH: And yet it’s happening more and more often. Flooding is our most widespread environmental threat. It occurs in every US state and territory and threatens any community that receives rain.
ER: According to National Geographic, in the US, flooding causes over $8 billion in damage annually.
TH: And property values are the least of our worries when it comes to rising waters. Floods kill more people each year than tornadoes, hurricanes, or lightning.
ER: As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, flooding will become more extreme, threatening areas not traditionally impacted by water overflow.
TH: Right. Take Hurricane Sandy, for instance. When Sandy hit the Northeast in October 2012, storm surges overtook Manhattan, flooding subway stations and leaving over 8 million people without power. Floodwaters from the Hudson River poured into the World Trade Center complex, transforming the memorial construction site into an enormous waterfall.
ER: Residents weren’t prepared for a disaster of such scope and scale. The Red Cross recorded 117 deaths as a result of Sandy, including 44 in New York City, and the total damages amounted to more than $70 billion.
TH: So much of the coverage of Sandy called the storm “unpredictable.” But many scientists had predicted it, and at least one artist had tried to spread their message.
Eve Mosher: My name is Eve Mosher. I’m an artist who’s currently based in Northeast Scotland, but I spent many years in New York City and working in the United States. I work specifically on climate change and resiliency issues and am now focused a lot on working on, how do we imagine and get towards a future that honors who we are as a, as a people, as a culture, and, how do we do that creatively?
TH: The work Eve is perhaps best known for is a series called “High Water Line.” In 2007, Eve bought a machine known as a Heavy Hitter.
ER: You’ve actually probably seen one before: they’re primarily used to produce the chalk lines around sports fields.
TH: Eve’s idea was to draw a line around the edges of New York’s boroughs. The line followed the projected water level of a so-called one-hundred-year flood. When I was researching work about floods and climate change for this episode, I found Eve’s work and I was really taken by it. So last fall, I sat down at my computer, opened Zoom, and called up Eve —
TH: I’ve never recorded an interview on Zoom before, so bear with me.
EM: Okay, okay.
TH: . . . to talk about her work as an artist concerned with climate change, the personal impact Sandy had on her art, and the importance of collaborating with communities. The point of “High Water Line” –and of Eve’s body of work as a whole, really–is to engage communities in climate preparation. While the first iteration of the project was carried out by Eve alone, later versions performed in Miami and Bristol asked community members to participate in the creation of the line.
EM: There’s a well-known saying about, nothing about us without us, right?
TH: For Eve, community participation is key to the work.
EM: So I would not be so hubristic as to think that I could come in and talk about climate change in a city where I don’t live. But I can certainly connect local residents to the kind of expertise, the science, the creative methodology of engaging, of getting people activated.
EM: So it’s very much about finding ways to engage communities in these complex issues that allows them to also learn to then go on and do more creative work around it, advocate around it, speak up about it, right? And so hopefully the project is not just sort of that one thing that it continues.
TH: “High Water Line” is a deceptively simple project. But it drew attention – from art critics and journalists in addition to local residents. And that chatter reignited after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. As it happened, Eve’s map almost exactly outlined the storm surge.
EM: Yeah, often things happen that feel like, “See? This is what I’m talking about!” I’ve been working on a project on urban heat in Philadelphia, and they had a really, really hot summer this year – and we’re like, “yep!” It doesn’t feel, it never feels like “I told you so.” I don’t feel like, “yay, I was right!” it feels more like, “I wish, I just wish we could get this through our heads collectively,” right?
EM: I’m like this too. Like sometimes I just wanna just not think about it.
TH: Eve is also careful to note that her work is in close dialogue with, and often based on, the work of scientists and researchers. Her work is illustrating existing predictions.
TH: A lot of your predictions were validated by Sandy, terribly enough.
EM: It’s always funny when people say that. Um, I am not a witch! Like, literally everything I do is based on science that somebody else wrote. So I’m taking knowledge that exists in the world. The original “High Water Line” in New York City was based on a report that I had found that was written in 2001.
TH: Her work is illustrating existing predictions.
EM: And then I met the scientist and I talked to them about the research and we collaborated on the project, and that’s true of any project I do that’s climate related. There are professionals that I’m talking to. So it’s certainly not my predictions. It’s me mapping out what’s already been stated.
JG: Hi, Jen here. I wanted to interfere for a moment to think a bit more about this idea of climate prediction.
TH: Are you going to offer some predictions of your own?
JG: Well, not exactly. I actually want to think about whether and how we’re even able to predict in the “no-analogue world” that scientists say we’re now in. Even while worthy attempts are being made to predict the effects of climate change, the fact is that there’s no precedent in geological history for the kinds of earth-system phenomena we experience today.
TH: But can’t we say certain things with certainty? In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC for short, said that humans have “unequivocally” caused climate change. That’s not up for debate.
JG: True, but even if we know that human activity has caused climate change, we can’t know for sure how those effects will play out over time. Disasters unfold today according to unpredictable and nonlinear feedback loops. So it’s really difficult to categorize them according to terms passed down from a previous era in earth’s history.
TH: Hence the problem with referring to a storm like Hurricane Sandy as a “100-year-flood.”
JG: Exactly, those kinds of unthinkable events are happening more and more often. This is why around the turn of the millennium the IPCC started thinking about climate futures in terms of scenarios.
TH: Oh yes, the dreaded climate scenarios keyed to various degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels…
JG: Right, these futures are horrible to imagine. They portend scales of planetary devastation that will completely alter the way human societies now function. But scenarios are not predictions, they are stories about possible futures that could unfold. All of the IPCC’s scenarios account for a certain measure of uncertainty.
TH: Right right, I’m thinking of how their findings are always rated according to levels of “confidence.”
JG: Mmhmm, and any discussion of “likelihood” is modulated by various degrees of certainty. Living in a “no-analogue world” means we can’t make predictions about the future in the same way anymore. Today’s weather events increasingly defy existing patterns of experience, and so we need new ways of imagining how the future could unfold.
TH: Well who else to tell stories about the future than artists and writers?
JG: Exactly. There’s a long history to this. The US government actually collaborated with science fiction writers to create scenarios as a way of responding to national security threats. In the wake of 9/11, for example, fictionalized scenarios were frequently used to prepare the public to respond to any number of future disasters. And even though they respond to a different sort of crisis, the IPCC’s climate scenarios similarly rely on storytelling techniques. The agency’s reports describe scenarios in terms that would resonate with a literature major, referring to narrative storylines with “underlying themes” and genre-like “family groups” that are “open to various interpretations.”
TH: So it seems that we need to take any claim to scientific prediction in an age of climate change with a grain of salt. Predictions in this day in age are more complex than they once were, calling on possible scenarios as much as they do on existing science.
JG: Right, prediction today needs to account for the uncertainty of our times, which means the work of planning for climate futures will require a wide range of approaches and skill sets, ones that involve scientific projections, but also creative methods for imagining what the future might look like depending on how we act now.
TH: It’s like what the writer Kim Stanley Robinson often says, “science fiction is the realism of our times..”
JG: Yes, I love that idea. And who better to help us imagine climate futures in all of their possible shapes than artists like Eve?
TH: So as Jen says, collaboration between artists and scientists is crucial for conceptualizing climate futures. For Eve, the importance of collaboration also extends to other artists. She’s drawn to projects that involve working as part of an artistic team.
EM: Oh, I just always love working with, with a lot of different artists, right? Cause then you can have different outcomes. And it may be that we all overcome together and we come up with something we’ve never, none of us have ever done before. It will be informed by the different experiences. I think you, you know, the sum is greater than the parts.Creativity, artists, creative, cultural producers, all have the kind of ability to take a lot of information and represent it in a way that’s either simpler, more effective, more emotive, right?
TH: This also extends to community members, to people on the street. Eve’s work enlists community members as participants in the artistic process. For her, it’s all about meeting someone where they are – and I mean that literally.
EM: You expect to encounter conversations around climate in certain spaces, right? Media, academics, science. You don’t necessarily expect to have conversations around things like climate, when you’re walking down the street, you know, you’re walking down the street and the place where you live and the place where you work and the place where you’re, like, recreating.
TH: And I think part of the reason Eve’s work resonates with others is because her projects are fundamentally future-oriented. They’re asking the viewers and participants alike to imagine their environmental futures.
EM: So, you know, on the one hand, doing something that’s embodied, to use the kind of art term, performative, really seals, um, either the community that you’ve built or the experience in a really meaningful way. So we might spend four months, six months, a year doing workshops with residents and neighbors talking about climate impacts. But actually then having an activity that they participate in out in public really brings all that together.
TH: These projects are meant to start a conversation, and hopefully one that continues beyond these chalk lines.
EM: Even for me, every time I did “High Water Line,” it was so powerful to draw that line and to talk to people. So that’s a lot of what that was about was like, how do we have, can we have these conversations in unexpected spaces and places and in the places where that will be impacted too, right?
ER: So if Eve’s work is so future-oriented, then why did we start out by talking about the past? Wasn’t Sandy a full decade ago?
TH: Well, sure. But Sandy really elevated the profile of “High Water Line” as a project. And as I spoke with her, what I really wanted to know was how it impacted Eve. As an artist, sure, but also just as a person, as a New Yorker. Seeing this thing that she predicted coming true in front of her eyes.
EM: I grew up in Texas, so I’m a person who really watches storms, right? Like I’m a real storm watcher and was watching Sandy come in. At the time I had two little kids, and when James Carousel in Dumbo, they were showing photos of that flooded and I was like, “Oh, we’ve been there so many times,” you know, like, “me and my kids go there.” And it really, it really hurts to see that.
ER: I imagine it’s really hard to watch as the thing you’ve been warning people about, this terrible event, is happening. And to feel kind of powerless, despite all your knowledge and warnings.
TH: Yea, I think so. But I don’t know if Eve would really express that feeling as powerlessness, you know? Because, ultimately, her work since Sandy has become much more hopeful.
EM: We’ve done a lot of imagining around disaster movies. Um, how do we put more like, “Avatar”- type things in our cultural consciousness? How can we imagine a world in which we are living with the changing earth, in which we are undertaking the kind of lived experience and the knowledge that exists for a lot of indigenous tribes, Native American wisdom, or natives from all over the world. It’s really in this space of a term that was coined by someone here in the UK about imagination infrastructure.
TH: Imagination infrastructure – this is the role that creatives can play.
EM: So, as a creative person, how can I, and how can others create the literal and figurative space to imagine what’s possible?
ER: That’s kind of fantastic, actually.
EM: I very much went from, “Ah! This is what’s coming!” to, ” Hey, this is what’s possible!” Like what can we do, how can we be optimistic about the future? How can we see this great challenge as actually a moment for great opportunity to shift how we live with one another, how we live with the planet, how we live with the changing climate around us.
TH: Alternative imaginations of the future, something that creatives are particularly good at in Eve’s view.
EM: Oh God, there’s so many roles that creatives can play.
ER: Scientists aren’t sure exactly how much climate change is affecting floods. According to reporter Elena Shao, “Climate change has undoubtedly intensified heavy precipitation events, but, unexpectedly, there has been no corresponding increase in flood events.” In fact, our changing climate is actually decreasing instances of moderate flooding, as drier soils absorb more rainfall.
TH: But we also know that, as glaciers and ice shelves melt and precipitation gets more intense, there will be an increase in flooding, especially extreme flooding, which we’ve already begun to observe.
ER: Warmer temperatures lead to increased evaporation. All that excess moisture in the atmosphere has to go somewhere, so it gets released as rain or snow. As the Earth warms, more intense rainfall will lead to more flash floods. The floods themselves will also be more intense. They’ll be quicker and higher and more frequent – “flashier,” as some researchers have put it.
TH: Severe forest fires will also exacerbate flood conditions, since fire kills off potentially absorbent vegetation, making the soil weaker and more vulnerable to extreme precipitation. Extreme rain and resultant flooding are actually Nashville’s greatest climate threat.
ER: We’re already witnessing the realization of that threat, too. Just last year, on March 27 and 28, the city received 7 inches of rainfall. That was enough to claim the second-place spot for two-day rainfall accumulation, behind 2010.
ER: Here in Nashville, we’re still figuring out how to cope with this challenge. In 2015, Vanderbilt researchers Jonathan Gilligan, Corey Brady, Janey Camp, John Nay, and Pratim Sengupta published their findings from a project that involved a computer simulation of urban flooding for learning and decision-making.
TH: Fun fact: as an undergraduate, Emma was actually a participant in this study.
ER: [laughter] Yeah, it felt a little bit like playing Rollercoaster Tycoon but with a sad municipal budget and serious stakes. The research team describes how common flood-control measures like levees and floodwalls can actually backfire and increase risks by giving the public a false sense of security.
TH: This leads to continued building in highly flood-prone areas. One of the research team members puts it like this:
Janey Camp: I feel like there’s places we shouldn’t be building and we’re putting people at risk if we continue to build there. I’m an engineer so I was taught you know engineers build things. but I’m also taught to maintain public health, safety, and welfare. And putting a subdivision in a floodplain or close to a floodplain that right now we’re not seeing flooding but we could in 50 years, I think is a bad idea, so I think we need to do those studies.
ER: The research team’s two pilot studies helped establish the fact that there are helpful actions we can take to prevent disaster, levees included, but those actions must be considered and carried out with a nuanced knowledge of the human-nature relationship. Flood simulators like this are a highly effective way to practice building that knowledge in order to help us choose which solution is the most effective in real life at which time.
TH: But that’s a question that can be really hard to answer, especially because it can be so personal.
ER: One of the more controversial proposed solutions to increasing projections in flooding is to simply abandon high-risk areas.
TH: The New York Times actually ran an opinion piece on this a couple of months ago, entitled, “Losing Your Neighborhood to Climate Change Is Sometimes Necessary.”
LK (as New York Times): To prevent loss of lives, livelihoods and property, some scientists and planners are supporting a strategy called managed retreat, in which communities get government aid to move away from places most vulnerable to extreme weather. We believe managed retreat must become more common so communities can avoid the worst consequences of climate change. But even as academics and think tanks refine ideas on how to best relocate communities, leaving was not on the minds of Friendswood residents we spoke to after Hurricane Harvey. They struggled to imagine moving away from a place they called home even though their homes had just been destroyed and studies suggested that a growing number of houses in the area were susceptible to flooding.
ER: That’s a really hard reality to reckon with, though. It’s such a personal thing, such a huge thing, to ask people to leave the places they’ve called home. Especially because a lot of these at-risk areas aren’t just the suburban cul-de-sacs that were threatened by something like Hurricane Harvey, but neighborhoods that have been traditionally home to underprivileged populations, especially red-lined populations.
TH: Eve’s work also tries to reckon with that grief, whether imposed or chosen.
EM: We’re starting to see those impacts. So my work really shifted at that point to this creating space for that next stage of grieving, right? We have to accept that it’s true and then we have to process that. That’s where “Lose Loss Lost” came in, is using creativity as a space to process the feelings we have around Either loss that’s already happened or loss that we know is coming. If you know you’re going to lose something, How might you act differently? There was like a real need for me to be creating work that was this space for these kind of complex conversations and processing those emotions.
ER: And the need is ongoing, only increasing as climate change continues to threaten familiar and beloved places, our homes.
Maren Loveland: I want to interject – sorry, interfere – here for a second. Abandoning a neighborhood is all fine and good in the hypothetical. But then I think of my own hometown, and I feel really troubled by the thought of ceding it back to nature.
TH: It’s a really personal thing. And it’s actually been a huge conversation in the area where I grew up, in a suburb of Baltimore called Ellicott City. In a lot of ways Ellicott City isn’t particularly notable: its claim to fame is being home to the oldest railroad station in the country, and its main export is championship lacrosse players. But structurally, the town is interesting. Its historic district is essentially carved into a rocky cleft along the Patapsco River. NPR’s Embedded did a story on the town a few years ago, and here’s how reporter Rebecca Hersher described it:
Rebecca Hersher: No matter which way you come when you drive into Old Ellicott City in Maryland, you have to go down a long, long hill with rivers on all sides. And when you get to the bottom, the rivers converge around Main Street like a funnel. And then they dip down and go under the buildings in this narrow tunnel with walls on the sides and the floors of the shops and restaurants on the top.
ML: Okay, shops and restaurants on TOP of the rivers? I have a bad feeling about how this story ends.
TH: As you should. In late July of 2016, a major rainstorm hit the area. Within hours the rivers at the top of the hill had overflowed. The funnel-like structure of the town sent that floodwater in torrents down Main Street, sweeping away cars and people.
ML: I think I’ve seen these videos, actually.
TH: I’m sure you have; they were all over the national news. And of course, the parts of the river that flowed beneath the city rose too. And with nowhere to go but up, it broke through the floors of the buildings, destroying homes and businesses.
ML: I mean, that sounds pretty devastating. But did people start talking about abandoning a whole town because of one freak flood?
TH: Well… After the flood, the community came together and rebuilt. But then…
ML: Oh no.
TH: Yeah. 22 months later, just as the city was returning to normal, another storm hit.
ML: And the same thing happened again.
TH: And the same thing happened again.
ML: So now the town is left wondering whether give up or whether to just keep rebuilding and hoping this doesn’t happen again.
TH: Exactly. There’s been a lot of serious fighting about this, but ultimately the town decided to knock down four buildings along the waterfront. They’re also planning to spend more than $100 million to create drainage tunnels and other flood management infrastructure. I mean what else can they do, short of abandoning the place?
ML: In contrast to this, though, is something like the Schoonschip neighborhood in Amsterdam.
TH: I’m listening.
ML: Schoonship is a neighborhood of 30 different water plots, with a total of 46 floating houses. The neighborhood is meant to rise with sea levels, but it’s also meant to apply innovative solutions to some of the major challenges posed by climate change. The community is circular; residents can trade energy generated by the houses’ solar panels, and they share electric cars, which are also powered by solar.
TH: Wow, that’s great.
ML: Schoonschip also has decentralized and renewable solutions to water and waste systems – and of course, the homes were all built with low-impact materials. The construction of Schoonship was community-driven, rather than overseen by the local or national government or some sort of non-profit. In that way, it’s a model for how communities can work together to find and realize alternative ways of living, to both manage and mitigate climate change.
TH: That’s actually a lot like what Eve talks about, down to the whole ship thing.
EM: Actually we could, we could, if we can just turn this giant tanker ship of humanity, we actually have an opportunity to have something really amazing where we have a world that is more caring for one another, more nurturing for the world around us, and more in sync. And that could be really amazing. That’s kind of where the optimism comes from, is like, Recognizing the things that do make change are actually joyful things.
TH: The first Ellicott City flood, like Sandy, was called a one-thousand-year event. But less than two years passed before it happened again.
ER: Traditionally improbable natural disasters are becoming more and more frequent. We’re experiencing the exceptional in quick succession, epic events on a mortal timeline. So how are we meant to reframe our conception of them?
TH: The writer Amitav Ghosh argues that our go-to storytelling forms are no longer effective ways of conceiving our climate narrative. In his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh makes an argument that the modern novel (and modernity more generally) is tied to the idea of probability. It’s another way of making the claim that many literary theorists make – that the novel is about the experience of the everyday, that it’s essentially a model of how to be a better citizen.
ER: From this, Ghosh argues that our pre-modern myths actually better suit the present moment, both because they decenter the human and because they are built on instances of catastrophe. “I have come to recognize,” he writes,
Lutz Koepnick (as Ghosh): “I’ve come to recognize that the challenges that climate change poses for the contemporary writer, although specific in some respects, are also products of something broader and older; that they derive ultimately from the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.”
TH: “Probability and the modern novel are in fact twins,” Ghosh writes, referring to the novel’s “slice-of-life” approach to storytelling. Before the novel, he says, our fiction was steeped in the improbable, in myth and fantasy. He quotes Franco Moretti, who writes about fillers, the average moments that construct the novel.
ER: The novel is, at its heart, an intensely rational form. And so are the storytelling forms that have arisen from the novel.
TH: It’s not uncommon to see people on Twitter talking about current events and saying something like, “If this were a TV show, nobody would believe it.” Or, “I’d say the writers were being a little too obvious.”
ER: And yet in reality, the improbable, ultimately, feels very probable. Coincidences happen all the time. And as the global temperature rises, perhaps our art needs to start reflecting that: we need to see the ways in which so-called “fluke events” are actually quite probable; to recognize that catastrophe is standard, and that, in fact, characterizes the new normal.
TH: Our current era is defined by the extreme — by raging droughts, sudden landslides, unprecedented heat or rainfall. By forest fires that burn hotter and longer and faster than ever before. By flash floods that sweep away homes and cars and, yes, portable school buildings.
TH: Reading Ghosh, I found myself thinking back to a book I read in high school: The Cry for the Myth, written by existential psychologist Rollo May. May talks a lot about the way myths have traditionally grounded us. “Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence,” he says, and—
LK (as May): “Through its myths, a healthy society gives its members relief from neurotic guilt and excessive anxiety.”
TH: Now that we’re no longer guided by mythic narratives,
LK (as May): “As a people we are more confused, lacking in moral ideals, dreading the future, uncertain what to do to change things or how to rescue our own inner life.”
ER: I feel like I know where you’re going here.
TH: The flood myth?
ER: The flood myth.
TH: Yep. The great flood, usually sent by a deity or deities which completely destroys humanity. Kind of a metaphor for rebirth, for cleansing, but also a real karmic retribution. Of course, growing up with Christian mythology, my thoughts immediately go to Noah and the ark.
ER: The flood myth is not singular to the Bible, though. In fact, the flood is a central myth in cultures around the world. The same story exists in Islam, too. The epic of Gilgamesh has a flood myth. There’s also the manvantara-sandhya in Hinduism, the Gun-Yu in Chinese mythology. There are flood stories in Norse mythology, in Greek, Polynesian, Mesopotamian. In many indigenous North American mythologies, and in some Aboriginal tribes.
TH: There is speculation that the floods caused by the end of the Last Glacial Period may have inspired many of these myths. Others suggest that these myths are the result of tsunamis created by meteors, or even by the discovery of prehistoric inland fish fossils.
ER: As a recovering pastor’s kid, I’m all too familiar with Noah and his ark. Is that one still rattling around in your brain?
TH: Ehhh, you know what? Refresh my memory anyway.
ER: Right, well, this is Genesis, the first book of the Bible. God’s looking out from the heavens, and he’s just really dismayed at the greed and sinfulness of everyone on Earth. I mean, same.
JG (as biblical author): “And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth…”
ER: So, he decides to send a giant flood. But there’s one man, out of the whole earthly population, who finds grace in God’s eyes.
JG (as biblical author): “But Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generations…”
TH: Noah. And so God decides to spare Noah.
TH: And more than that, he gives Noah the greatest responsibility:
JG (as biblical author): “But I will establish My covenant with you…”
TH: to build a giant ark, and to bring into it two of every kind of animal.
JG (as biblical author): “Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth…”
ER: And then it rains, and rains, and rains.
JG (as biblical author): “And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.”
TH: And you know, if we heed Ghosh’s recommendations, maybe Noah is the kind of story we need right now. The floods that are coming for us may not necessarily be sent by a deity – I mean, depends on your personal belief system – but the earth is certainly speaking to us.
ER: And do we really want to be the corrupted flesh? Or do we want to be Noah?
TH: You know, we were both raised in pretty religious households. And I feel like, growing up, the darkness of the Noah story was really downplayed – like, it felt like such a “little kid” bible story, kind of elementary, nursery school. Did you get the same vibe?
ER: Absolutely. I remember thinking it would be pretty cool to live on a boat with a zoo. Like I really feel I had the Veggie Tales version in mind.
TH: I remember we had this tin serving tray from the ‘80s that my mom would use to bring us soup and crackers when we were sick. It was all faded and chipped by the time I came along, and it had this really cartoon-y depiction of Noah’s ark on it. Like, the animals were all playing instruments under a rainbow and Noah was conducting.
ER: That’s actually amazing.
TH: We also listened a lot to this song that my dad loved by the Irish Rovers called “The Unicorn Song,” which is all about how Noah forgot to put a unicorn on the ark. We’d play it on the record player in the living room. Which was also definitely older than I was.
ER: Exquisite. In the Bible, the flood is both an act of destruction and an act of cleansing. It’s God’s last-ditch effort to save humanity, to save the world. There’s something to be said for how we frame flooding caused by global warming — I mean, do we heed its warning, and vacate the areas now hyper-prone to flooding? Or do we try to live around it, to live despite it, to install levees and dams and all sorts of protective measures?
TH: It’s a really hard, really fraught question, and not least because of who we’re talking about. Over 1.8 billion people worldwide live in an area that is currently at risk of extreme flooding worldwide. And a huge percentage of that population is underprivileged, with black and brown people making up a major portion.
ER: Right – it’s not just your million-dollar Malibu beach house that will be affected by this flooding.
TH: Okay, next time you see an oceanfront house selling for only a million, call me. That number seems very low.
ER: Sure thing. No, but you know what I’m saying. When we’re making decisions about ceding entire neighborhoods to floodwaters, who do we think are the populations most likely to be selected to forcibly abandon their homes?
TH: If I had to guess? It’s he same populations that have been historically short-changed. The Black Louisianans who were left underwater after Katrina; the Baltimoreans pushed into neighborhoods without green spaces where the heat index skyrockets.
ER: Yeah, it’s not Gwyneth Paltrow’s condo we’re talking about here.
TH: And that inequality is also something that I spoke with Eve about.
EM: 100%. There’s so much, there’s so much inequality in climate issues and that’s why climate justice became a thing, is that, you know, from Cancer Alley to urban environments that are part of redlining. That have really visibly different infrastructure than areas that are cooler and greener.
TH: But Eve wants to prevent the potential abandonment of these communities by attending to them here and now, and by highlighting and activating the existing solutions to existing problems.
EM: And I don’t kid myself, I don’t think there are anything that are overnight fixes, but I do think that something that comes up again and again is this idea that there exists a lot of expertise and knowledge and experience within the communities. It’s tapping into that existing knowledge. It’s recognizing what we’re already doing, and then it’s starting at a place that will can scale up. While also pressuring those who make the decisions to recognize that the years of disinvestment need to flipped, and you need to start investing in those communities more, right, than you might do in a wealthier community. We have to do the reparations work.
ER: In my past life of working in civic design, there are actually a lot of things we can do to positively impact the places people live and work. The way we restructure our places in turn restructures the possibilities for our lives there. Eve has a good sense of this:
EM: Maybe it’s turning more streets into play streets, but also like rolling out big planters of trees and we’re not gonna have cars on this street, but we’ll give you parking down here if you still need parking because our transit hasn’t been improved yet. What are the little changes that can scale up? I think the optimism in that comes from just recognizing that actually we do know a little more than we think we know in tackling a lot of these challenges.
TH: In the Bible, when Noah at last emerges from the ark, he sends a dove out to find a perch. And the dove, it returns with an olive branch: the symbol, of course, of peace and friendship. The thing we extend to end an argument, and to make amends.
ER: The flood, despite its “radically inhuman nature,” as Ghosh might put it, was essentially created by human action. In the case of Noah, it was a response to human wickedness and vice, an expression of regret.
TH: Sounds kind of familiar, huh?
ER: And if we follow Ghosh’s logic… well, maybe we should be thinking in biblical terms – or at least, in mythological ones. We should be expecting disaster. Disorder is the new order. And to recognize that, we need to be in tune with our surroundings.
TH: We need to recognize that the air and sky and water and earth in many ways have minds of their own. For so long, we have ignored them, or worse, attempted to master them. Sometimes both at the same time. And anyone who’s watched the Weather Channel in the last twenty years can tell you that those solutions clearly aren’t working.
ER: Of course, we cannot gather a pair of every living creature within a single ship. We can build as many arks as we like, and they will still not save us all from the rising tides. But we can be our own dove; we can extend our own olive branch.
TH: Like Noah with his dove, we must listen to the earth and recognize its signs. We’re going to have to be willing to make sacrifices, both personal and societal. There are myriad models for how we might go about this – I mean, this podcast is, in part, meant to explore them!
ER: There’s the Schoonschip, for instance.
TH: It’s important that our action on climate is not a question of if but when. And preferably the answer is sooner rather than later.
ER: As my mom says, and I imagine Eve might agree with, better twice warned than once surprised.
TH: But regardless of which avenue we take, we’re going to have to cede some control over to the elements. After all, trying to exploit them is what got us here in the first place.
ER: We must establish a covenant with the earth.
TH: Which, actually, brings me back to my Cumberland mornings.
ER: And to our walk in Shelby.
TH: And to our walk! Both of those things are these really integral ways of forming a connection with the environment, of really knowing a space.
TH: And sometimes knowing that space means ceding some control, too.
EM: I think that’s really important to understand that water is not static and we tend to, with maps, colonize it with lines and just like that, and that doesn’t sit well with water, you know, it wants to make its own path. The flood lines for Sandy actually follow the old shoreline of Manhattan, very clearly.
TH: Eve Mosher actually notes that there are ways of mapping that can do this, better than we usually use.
EM: This concept that these two designers, um, De Duna and Anu Matter, um, had come up with this idea of degrees of wetness and that maps should not have hard lines for water’s edges, but they should have sort of this mutable space that water can occupy. I think that’s really interesting for us to think about the fact that water is not a static thing. And it shouldn’t be, right, it will ebb and flow even if it’s river water will do that as much as coastal water.
TH: And I’ve been thinking, how might we imagine ourselves as one with the elements? We are mostly water, after all. What would it mean to imagine our own edges as mutable, to consider ourselves as more one with the world than above it?
ER: How very transcendentalist of you. But I get what you’re saying. We need to get beyond aesthetic appreciation for nature, beyond the hiking ‘gram. We need to embrace nature with gratitude for what it has to teach us.
EM: Yep, yep. Learning to live with the water and its mutability, exactly.
ER: And then, what comes after the flood?
TH: You know, there’s a great poem about that, actually about the earth after the flood. It’s all about visceral beauty of the seemingly mundane. And about looking to the future with some kind of optimism after a brilliant disaster.
ER: Which sounds like a perfect way to lead us out today, Tori.
TH: It really is. So we’ll leave you with that, from Wislawa Szymborska.
ER: Take it away, Maren:
ML: As far as the eye can see, there’s water and hazy horizon.
Into the ark, plans for the distant future,
joy in difference,
admiration for the better man,
choice not narrowed down to one of two,
time to think it over,
and the belief that all this
will still come in handy someday.
For the sake of the children
that we still are,
fairy tales have happy endings.
That’s the only finale that will do here, too.
The rain will stop,
the waves will subside,
the clouds will part
in the cleared-up sky,
and they’ll be once more what clouds overhead ought to be:
lofty and rather lighthearted
in their likeness to things
drying in the sun—
isles of bliss,
ER: And of course, we couldn’t leave you without the infamous Unicorn Song.
TH: Please enjoy.