Who wouldn’t want to be in Venice? Gondolas drift by with Italian gondoliers singing “O Sole Mio.” You sit at a café savoring your espresso as you watch Latin lovers stroll by hand in hand on their way to the Bridge of Sighs. The Piazza San Marco is bathed in a golden glow as the sun sets behind the Basilica di San Marco. The picture? Perfect.
Again, who wouldn’t want to live in Venice?
The answer, according to the latest population stats, is almost everyone. The population of Venice is one third what it was in 1970.
The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that I changed the sentence slightly in the second version. I replaced “be” with “live.” And that’s the difference. Venice is literally the “nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”
A lot of people do visit, well over 5 million a year. But almost nobody lives there. The permanent population of Venice has shrunk to below 60,000.
Venice has become tourified. It’s a false front of a city, one built for those who are going to be there for 48 to 72 hours. In the process, everything needed to make it sustainable for those who want to call it home has been stripped out. It has become addicted to tourist dollars — and that addiction is killing it.
We should learn from Venice's example. Sometimes, in trying to make a fantasy real, you take away the very things needed to let it survive.
Perfection doesn’t exist in nature. Imperfections are required for robustness. Yet, we are increasingly looking for a picture of perfection we can escape to.
The unintended consequences of this are troubling to think about.
We spent a good part of the last century devising new ways to escape. What was once an activity that lived well apart from our real lives has become increasingly more entwined with those lives.
As our collective affluence has grown, we spend more and more time chasing the fantastical. Social media has accelerated this chase. Our feeds are full of posts from those in pursuit of a fantasy.
We have shifted our focus from the place we live to the “nice place to visit.” This distorts our expectations of what reality should be. We expect the tourist-brochure version of Venice without realizing that in constructing exactly that, we set in motion a chain of events resulting in a city that’s unlivable.
The rise of populist politics is the broken-mirror image of this. Many of us have mythologized the America we want -- or Britain, or any of the other countries that have gone down the populist path.. And myths are, by definition, unsustainable in the real world. They are vastly oversimplified pictures that allow us to create a story that we long for. It's the same as the picture I painted of Venice in the first paragraph: a fantasy that can’t survive reality.
In our tendency to “tourify” everything, there are at least two unintended consequences: one for ourselves and one for our world.
For us, the need to escape continually draws our energies and attentions from what we need to do to save the world we actually live in, toward the mythologization of the world we think we want to live in. We ignore the inconvenient truths of reality as we pursue our imagined perfection.
But it’s the second outcome that’s probably more troubling. Even if we were successful in building the world we think we want, we could well find that built a bigger version of Venice, a place sinking under the weight of its own fantasy.
Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for.