Have they gone completely Canutes?

>> Thursday, May 31, 2012

...at the summit of his power, he ordered a seat to be placed for him on the sea-shore when the tide was coming in; thus seated, he shouted to the flowing sea, "Thou, too, art subject to my command, as the land on which I am seated is mine; and no one has ever resisted my commands with impunity. I command you, then, not to flow over my land, nor presume to wet the feet and the robe of your lord." The tide, however, continuing to rise as usual, dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leaped 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." From thenceforth King Canute never wore his crown of gold, but placed it for a lasting memorial on the image of our Lord affixed to a cross, to the honour of God the almighty King: through whose mercy may the soul of Canute, the king, enjoy everlasting rest.
- The Chronicle Of Henry Of Huntingdon,
edited and translated by Thomas Forester (1853), p. 199


You may know, already: the whole King Canute story--the famous one, as told above by Henry Of Huntingdon--is grossly misunderstood the way it's usually referenced. It often seems to be used as an example of hubris, when the original story was all about the humility. Indeed, there are some proper versions of it that lay the setup on a little thick: Canute's advisors are standing around flattering him when he basically says, "Fine, take me down to the ocean and we'll see just how fine and mighty I am." And then when his feet get wet, he pretty much tells his advisors, "Up yours." I may be paraphrasing that a little. Anyway, it isn't a story about arrogance at all: Canute's point in going down to the seaside (assuming for the sake of argument there's any truth in the legend at all) was to practically demonstrate just how small and temporal the power of earthly kings really is. You might be the awesomest Anglo-Saxon king ever, but the tide keeps on rolling in and out. (And then the Normans come round and kick your family out of England, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

Less humble and more hubristic would be the North Carolina General Assembly, which (you may have already heard) is considering a bill (PDF link) that would limit coastal planners' ability to use actual science to anticipate sea level changes, requiring projections of rising levels to be based on linear projections of 20th Century increases. (Most scientists currently expect exponential rises in sea level caused by global warming.) This has been commented on at Scientific American's website and elsewhere, though I'm not a hundred percent sure the stupidity of the proposed bill has been correctly diagnosed. There is, perhaps, an ideological component to it in that the supporters of the bill appear to be state politicians who are on the record as climate change deniers, true; but the more profoundly stupid problem with the whole thing is that the real sin here probably isn't pride, but greed.

I.e. picture, if you will, a version of the King Canute fable where, instead of commanding the sea to stop and then announcing his humility before God and nature when it doesn't listen, Canute suggests to his courtiers that this would be a nice place to put up some hotels and beach houses only to shrug and say, "Huh, how about that?" when they all get washed out into the middle of the Atlantic ocean. This isn't a version where Canute is the proverbial good Christian king early British chroniclers loved to populate their histories with as part of their centuries-long project to weave a myth of British manifest destiny from William The Conqueror to Queen Victoria, Hastings to India; this is the version where Canute is just kind of a dick, y'know?

I mean, the convenient thing about this example of climate change denialism for the denialists is how projecting sea level changes on a linear basis lets them justify doing what they really want to do, which is develop the coast. If the ocean is going to rise up feet and not inches, a golf course with a sweeping view of the Atlantic might be kind of a bad investment. Which is why I think the deniers in this case are really more results oriented than anything else: if it were more convenient to embrace climate change and make some kind of short-term profit off of selling future beachfront property in Robeson County, I think you'd see these guys hugging all the climate scientists they could get their arms around and maybe even humping their legs.

Which is why the part that makes me a little angry and bitter about the whole thing isn't that it makes my home state look stupid. Actually, I think we covered that about three weeks ago. The part that makes me a little angry and bitter is that I can see where this is going, which is they go through with all sorts of development on the coast, some of it probably funded with various tax incentives, too, and then the ocean eats all of it and everybody who got soaked (literally) gets some kind of disaster relief and/or taxpayer-funded relief because, Neptune knows, we can't have a bunch of impoverished speculators floating adrift when we even told them it was perfectly okay to build there. This is actually a big part of the history of coastal development in this state already: much of the North Carolina coast consists of unstable waterlogged sand anyway, so whenever a big storm blows through and does a number on all the development out there, we end up with everybody arguing about who's going to pay for it, the taxpayers or the insurance companies or the poor sons-of-bitches who somehow thought it was a good idea to build a house out there in the first place. And here's the part where I have to say I'm all about the socialism and the safety net, but even I have my limit where I have to say maybe the fact the precious beachfront lot you bought lost a few square feet a year was a sign your house wasn't going to be there forever. (Shoulda bought something in the mountains: those fuckers have been there for nearly five hundred million years. Nothing lasts forever, but by Crom, that's close.)

I guess I need to make sure I'm the hoopy frood who knows where his towel is. I see myself, and a buncha other taxpayers, taking a nice long bath in a coupla years.


Phiala Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 6:54:00 PM EDT  

Climate change denial in general is about greed and short-sightedness. This is just more blatant than some.

Warner Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 6:57:00 PM EDT  

What will get them will be the underwriters who seem to have left the climate change deniers camp.

Generally if you can't get insurance you have trouble getting money.

Nathan Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 7:58:00 PM EDT  

Opponents of the bill should make sure there's a rider attached stating that the roll call of the vote will be commemorated in the State House once every fifteen years until 2132. Attendance on the floor should be mandatory.

It may not prevent idiocy, but at least it will memorialize it.

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