Global vs local: how will we live together?
‘How will we live together’ is the theme for the 2021 Venice Biennale. That’s exactly what I was wondering when walking with my family through the little streets and over dozens of bridges in Venice. I saw construction workers carrying their bricks and mortar over water, i saw transporters unloading frozen food near Rialto Bridge, I saw the paramedics parking their emergency vessels at the water entrance of Ospidale, I saw the policeman turning his boat from Arsenale onto Canal Grande. But Ialso saw the #SOSVenezia banners over the small canals in Castello. The local community has been calling and campaigning for a more liveable city. Mass tourism had been overwhelming for many locals over the past years. We passed the Arsenale the navy base and pre-industrial shipyard where ships were assembled and repaired at mass scale, unprecedented and only reinvented by Henry Ford in the 20th century. I couldn’t stop thinking about this contrast between Venice ingenuity of the past and the outcry for help in present times. As if people are stuck in this beautiful lagoon not knowing how to create a future for themselves. On top of that it’s the imminent threat of rising sea levels that is endangering the port city. How will we live together?’ is the right question to ask but it’s not only for the Venetians, the question goes for all of us.
The odds were against them when the first settlers – refugees on the run from war, blind rage and plundering – built their homes on sandy islands and shallow places in the lagoon. It may be for the same reason that these first Venetians kept their eyes on the sea, not on the land. The Venetians today do not just live with the water, they have inherited water in their blood and veins: Every alley is a waterway, every avenue a canal, the squares are like islands in the lagoon, the dozens of churches are the ships with their campaniles as masts reaching into the sky. The people of Venice challenged and conquered empires. It was the gateway to the Byzantium Roman empire and Venice had an extensive trading network across the East Mediterranean Sea. For centuries the city traded with overseas powers and was home for the best ship constructors, attracted the best artists and the most resourceful craftsmen. For long, the mixed governance model — combining autocracy with aristocracy and democracy - provided law and order, until Napoleon destroyed the naval base in 1797.
Underway on the ferry from Venice to Lido I had a talk with a Venetian, a retired banker who was going to the beach with his wife and daughter. I asked him what he thought of it. Was he ever tired of all these tourists and these gargantuan cruiseships? He told me he lived and worked all his life in Venice and showed me a video on his phone of those dark pandemic times of Spring 2020 when the San Marco square was completely empty. That was something he had never seen before. “Over the years I saw the economy change into a mono-economy which is completely dependent on tourism, that’s the problem” he said.
Personally I believe we’re witnessing a phenomenon of a much larger scale. The case of Venice is exemplary for the detachment of local communities with global economic development. The world economy is a village for multinationals, but locals feel alienated from their neighbourhoods. There’s a growing group of people who are fed up with mass consumption, mass tourism which often goes hand in hand with mass pollution and mass energy waste. We tend to believe that the world we live in is a global village and that’s a good thing, but the opposite is true for many. Connections on a human scale are weakening, families are living farther apart, we don’t know or don’t care where our food is coming from, how the simplest household items are manufactured and what to do in our free time other than following social media. We don’t have to be resourceful anymore in making a living, because we can pull all our necessities towards us with one click. What we don’t realise is that we are feeding this dominant capitalist machine which grows beyond our own reach, and then blame the big tech companies and multinational for our loss. Helen Norberg-Hodge who’s a pioneer of the local economy movement argues that the fabric of today’s (post-)industrial society – the product of globalisation, technology and consumer spending - is leading to ever greater specialisation and centralisation. Fewer companies are controlling larger parts of the economy, and set up their facilities in those metropolitan centres where specialist talent can be assigned to the job. For Venice the specialisation is tourism and tourists is what Venice gets. Some will say this is a unique value proposition, but others may call it a locked-in effect. It fills the pockets, but hollows out the soul.
How people want to live together is fundamentally a matter of an ecosystems approach towards the place we live in. For a society to have a good balance between economy and ecosystem, means we have to choose local over global. The coastal ecosystem of Venice provides the port city of Venice with unique natural capital and cultural capital, which is the reason why millions are visiting Venice. On the contrary, human resourcefulness has faded and social ties have been broken. How can human ingenuity work for the happiness of the people today? Personally I believe people are most happy when they make something which was not there yesterday, this could be as simple as growing crops in the garden, make an apple cake, a painting or a piece of furniture. When we create something we become more curious, are more aware of details and we can sharpen our handicraft skills. The creativity process establishes new connections in the brain. Vocational skills have been undervalued for too long, but creates much better opportunities for people to make a living independent from others. Across the world, local self-sustaining communities are emerging. Millions of people are starting to recognise the need to move back to their roots, to have a sense of place and re-establish connections within social networks, but also with their surroundings, be it a coastal plains and lagoons, the hills or forests nearby.
To answer the question of the 2021 Art and Architecture Biennale: it is all about bringing back the human scale and human-centric professions in our communities. The pandemic has been a disturbing wake-up call, but may have been the call many communities around the world have been waiting for: reconnect to self, the surroundings and homegrown skillsets. What we can learn from Venetians is their ability to live with the water and use floating structures. That’s a skillset the rest of the world may need to possess to adapt to new realities resulting from global warming.
Author: Maurice Jansen (August 2021)