Sea changes and other impossibilities

In the 1860-70s, the city found itself boxed in. The frequent floodings made long-term architectural prospects perilous, and incurred costs maintaining the buildings that were already in place. Furthermore, the newly opened train station had reduced the importance of travel by sea, meaning that the city had lost the advantages coming from being right at the edge of one of the largest interior lakes still connected to the wider oceans. Rather than being a source of travel and commerce, as it had been for hundreds of years, the sea transformed into an impediment, a hindrance. It could be traversed, to be sure, and the view was nice, but one can not do much in the way of burgeoning architectural expansion atop or across water. Besides, the parts of the city already partly under the sea were already swamped with maintenance issues. Thus, having analyzed the situation and taken all possible courses of action into account, the city made a decision:

The sea would have to go.

Not all of it, mind. Just the problematic parts. The top two meters or so. The rest could remain, off in the distance, out of sight, out of mind. The few remaining boats endeavoring to make the journey to and fro could use the river, provided they were not too afraid of the shallows.

Having thus decided, the city set to work, performing the largest sea lowering in the history of Sweden, a feat of geoengineering made that much more impressive considering it was done using what was at hand in the 1870s. At the end of the 80s, the sea had been successfully lowered, and the city went from being a waterlogged, waterfront affair to being a place with a river (albeit a river that seemed suspiciously overfortified against flooding.) The sea was still there, some kilometers away, but the city had nevertheless acquired a distinctly more inland character. Once the big hulking machines that had made the transformation possible had been dismantled, it was as if the city had always been a train hub. If ever there was a rapid transition from sail to coal, this was it.

Now, some 150 years later, the response locals would give to being asked what they think about the sea can be sorted into two groups. One group would say they enjoy long walks in the nature preserve surrounding the sea, while the other would look at you quizzically and wonder what you were talking about. The reason for this dichotomy comes back to the aforementioned kilometers – most of the city is so far removed from the sea as to be functionally inaccessible. As we saw with the case of the blue doors, things that require specifically setting aside time and energy to pursue tend to fade into a white spot on the mental map of possibilities. The sea is there – you just have to decide to go there.

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The reason I wanted to write about the sea is not just the fact that it is mentally remote from the daily goings-on of ordinary city dwellers, or that it is an underappreciated feat of 19th century geoengineering. Those are important aspects, to be sure, but the big thing is this: the ancients made a decision to lower the sea, and then they lowered the sea. This is something humans can decide to do, and then effort into completion. Nature is one decision away from being altered into something it currently is not, and this has been the case for a long time.

This blurs the line between nature and culture. Nature has traditionally been the reserve of things humans can not change and have to adapt to, while culture pertains to those things which are eminently human and thus fundamentally changeable (agriculture straddling this division with relentless bliss). The ability to bring about massive changes to the physical environment also brings it firmly into the purview of culture, meaning that the fact that things look a certain way ultimately boils down to someone deciding it be so. Either through an act of documented planning, or through the undocumented non-decision to not do anything for now. Either way, things could be different. All of them. Everything is culture. Or, as Haraway would phrase it: everything is code, eminently rewritable.

The next step in this train of thought is both subtle and obvious. The subtle part revolves around coming to grips with the intentionality of everything. Nothing is an accident, given the fungibility of possible states of being. This imbues everything with significance, often to an overwhelming degree. Or, phrased differently: if everything is as it is for a discernible reason, then it should in principle (and by definition) be possible to discern said reason. Which makes looking at things an exercise in hermeneutic interpretation: every object becomes laden with some cause bringing it to where it is, some backstory to be uncovered by archaeological effort. Which, obviously, has the potential to bring inquisitive minds to a dysfunctional standstill, as they struggle to make sense of it all.

Like staring at clouds, staring at the sea has a lot more to it than it would seem at a first glance. Or, to quote the famous horse: everything happens so much.

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After having lowered the sea, the city expanded onto the new land. Some of this expansion took the form of riverside residences along the elongated (and now much safer) outflow. Some of it took the form of farmland, whose proximity to the urban center paradoxically made it that much more profitable. Some of it, sadly, took the form of oil refineries and other heavy duty industrial activities with severe ecological footprints. Following this, a minor landfill was also situated nearby, seeing as the damage was already done. For once, the broken window theory played out in actuality.

The residences still remain, albeit with the caveat of having been incorporated into the city proper, after playing the role of obscure outskirts for the longest time. The farmland, too, is being converted into cityscape, ensuring that the former outskirts will eventually become an anomalous patch of single-house units surrounded by multi-story residential areas. But, most strikingly, the industrial facilities have all been phased out entirely and subsequently replaced with a vast expanse of nature preserves, now serving as a home to sensitive bird life, free-ranging cattle and other non-human denizens of varying descriptions. The environmental impact still lingers, according to an informational plaque, but a person would be hard-pressed to see it by means of ocular inspection.

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Where, then, does this leave us? If we put aside the paradox of an inland city right next to a major sea, and the informational overload springing from a world overburdened with causes leading up to the present state of things, I’d say it leaves us with a wider range of action than common sense would suggest. It is possible to lower the sea, to move the mountain, or to do any other seemingly impossible feat. It can be done, and has been done. Our ancestors did it, and we have the advantage of better documentation and more comfortable tools.

Or, to rephrase: we are left with the puzzle of why some things are framed as impossible. It seems a strange, arbitrary limit to impose on ourselves, given everything.

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