Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ozymandias in Dubai

On the radio this morning was a report that the global economic downturn and the fall in oil prices is having an effect in the Arab city of Dubai, that notoriously opulent oasis of wealth and excess in the middle of the desert. The most significant fallout would seem to be the delaying of construction of a one kilometer-tall office tower. No, that’s not a typo—one kilometer, which incidentally, is twice as tall as the World Trade Center was. I’m not sure if this report referred to the ongoing construction of the Burj Dubai skyscraper, projected to top out at 700-800 meters, or another project entirely; either way, even in its uncompleted form, the Burj Dubai has topped the CN Tower.

I suppose there’s a Tower of Babel reference to be made here, but the image that’s sticking in my mind—the one that always sticks in my mind when I see pictures of Dubai—isn’t so much a tower crashing down as one deserted and desiccated in the middle of an empty wasteland. Like many of the nations of the Middle East, Dubai survives—and flourishes—on oil money. It is touted as the fastest growing city in the world, having grown in a very short space of time from a small, dusty burg to a gleaming metropolis that features some of the most daring and innovative (and in some cases, ugly) engineering and architecture in the world. It has built, among other things, an indoor ski hill, an underwater hotel, and a man-made archipelago of islands that shape a map of the world.

There’s a line somewhere between architecture that celebrates the nobility of the human spirit and that which articulates the vulgarity of excess. I’m not certain where that line gets drawn, but I’m reasonably certain Dubai has pole-vaulted over it. In some circles, the city is celebrated as the vindication of free-range capitalism, with its exponential growth facilitated by zero percent in corporate taxes and one hundred percent foreign ownership of property allowed. Similarly, its enthusiasts point to the fact that, despite being a Muslim city, has access to every form of vice from oceans of booze to hot and cold running hookers (this, presumably, vindicating the Fukuyama argument that capitalism in its purest form pulls the teeth of tyranny).

I read a remarkable book this summer by Alan Weisman titled The World Without Us, in which he poses a hypothetical question: if every human being on earth were to disappear tomorrow, what would become of all the structures we left behind? In other words, how long would our fingerprint remain on the world once we were no longer around to maintain it? How long before the earth reabsorbed all the monuments to our existence?

The short answer is: surprisingly quickly. Weisman’s book is one of those remarkable hybrid creations—part thought experiment, part environmental disquisition, part dystopian meditation—that leaves the reader with a striking series of images. Granted, I have always been drawn to post-apocalyptic novels that imagine a world shorn of most of the human race, but Weisman takes it in another direction altogether and reminds us of the transience of human creations.

I thought of Weisman’s book this morning when hearing about Dubai on the radio, because I cannot see images of that city without seeing it as a monument to oil-based wealth—wealth that is, by extension, non-renewable after a certain point. Depending on who you listen to, at our current rate of consumption we’re good for another century or so or already looking at the prospect of massive decline in the coming years. This latter position is that of the “peak oilers,” groups arguing that we are coming to, or have already past, the point of peak oil retrieval, and that we will be seeing dramatically diminishing returns that will lead to a global energy crisis. Their detractors call this suggestion mere doom-saying, and suggest that world oil reserves are far healthier than the apocalyptos would have us believe.

I wouldn’t know about that, but … um … the oil will run out one day, right? We’re all in agreement about that? Anyway: with that in mind, I cannot look at pictures of Dubai without seeing them as they’ll appear at some stage in the future … empty, cracking, broken glass, the streets reclaimed by desert. I’m at heart an optimist, and so I have faith in people to rise to challenges—as we’re faced with right now, environmentally and otherwise—but the seeming inevitability of Dubai’s fall, its transformation one day into a broken monument of glass and steel in the midst of an empty desert puts me in mind of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a Traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love what you said about architecture and the vulgarity of excess. I couldn't agree more. Everytime I see those incredible pictures of Dubai's development, I feel vaguely nauseous.