Hals at Nightfall

The “war against water,” the Dutch struggle to wrest their country from the sea, is strangely invisible now. Concerns about global warming are just that, global. The little local struggles — the rush to get the livestock to higher ground, the nervous pacing along the village dam — belong to dangers from olden days, like getting shipped off to suppress a tribal uprising in Sumatra, or contracting cholera from shit in the canal. Only the very old recall the last time things went wrong. The North Sea Flood of 1953 occasionally resurfaces in black-and-white photographs and television documentaries. Every Dutch person has seen these images, but they look as remote as the folk costumes that the people in them are wearing. Almost nobody has experienced the old ancestral terror: that water, looming, lapping, leaping, waiting to whisk you away. This is because the flood of 1953 was the last of its kind. In its wake, the government embarked on one of the most elaborate engineering projects in history, the Delta Works; but the challenges for which they were designed are not the challenges, barely envisioned, of global warming. To ask whether those enormous barriers can withstand the new age of weather is to wonder how long the Netherlands can survive. With every freak hurricane and unexpected drought, we find ourselves, like every generation past, dwelling on eschatology. And when we imagine the collapse of dune and dike, among the many dark things that we imagine are the cultural losses such a cataclysm would bring. If the western Netherlands — all those cities, with all those museums and libraries — were swept into the sea, which treasures would we miss the most? It is a question that people in other increasingly vulnerable cities should increasingly be asking themselves. The extraordinary artistic

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