Around 9:30 pm local time on Monday, with the world watching in horror, Jean-Claude Gallet, commander general of the Paris Fire Brigade, declared that “the next hour and a half will be crucial” for determining whether the structure of Notre-Dame could be saved. I, along with millions of others watching, was forced to grapple with the very real possibility that in the next few moments the magnificent cathedral, an emblem of humanity’s capacity for artistic and spiritual achievement, might crumble to nothing before our very eyes.
At 9:30 pm I couldn’t help but wonder, will I never be able to take my future children there to pray? Will they grow up in a world in which Notre-Dame is nothing but a memory preserved only in photographs and history books?
The tears, the panic, the shock — these were all appropriately visceral reactions when confronted with the fragility of the greatest of human works. None of us had ever had to consider the thought that we might outlive Notre-Dame; a week ago, such an idea would have been patently absurd. But the Notre-Dame fire warns us of the dangers of our thoughtlessness: in the modern, developed world we have become so accustomed to the enduring stability of civilization that we have mistaken present stability for permanence.
But the world is increasingly unstable. As Greta Thunberg, the inspiring 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, said Tuesday in a speech to the European Parliament, our house is on fire, and we need to panic. An authoritative doomsday report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sounded a fresh alarm last October, saying the world has only 12 years to radically alter the entire world economy to avoid some of the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.
As terrible as it may sound, Notre-Dame was in a way fortunate among UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the threat to its survival came swiftly and visibly, prompting immediate, uncompromising action. It was saved, and with money pouring in from all corners of the globe, it will be rebuilt. But the same cannot be said for other sites around the world. A changing climate, rising seas, more severe weather, and the social threats of climate-driven mass migration and conflict put the treasures of human civilisation at risk.
A recent report in Nature studying the 49 World Heritage Sites located in low-lying coastal areas of the Mediterranean — such as Venice, Ephesus, Dubrovnik, Pisa, and Tyre, to name just a few — found that “already today” 37 are at risk of catastrophic flooding and 42 are threatened by coastal erosion. These dangers are as real as a fire, yet because the destruction is occurring in slow motion, they receive none of the same attention as the fire of Notre-Dame.
If St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice were to catch fire, I imagine the worldwide reaction would be similar to that seen on Monday. Every effort would be made to save the spectacular and historically important church. But with the entirety of that fairytale city in danger of being submerged by rising seas unless we act now, the worldwide response is virtually nonexistent. Wealthy from tourism, Venice may (or, facing mismanagement and corruption, may not) be able to implement a colossally expensive system of barriers in its lagoon to avoid the worst of climate change, but other sites are not so fortunate.
The loss of cultural landmarks is only the tip of the melting iceberg. Whole cities and nations, whole species and ecosystems are being wiped out, some slowly and some more quickly, all while the world looks the other way. Perhaps it is our animal psychology that prevents us from seeing past the problems that are right in front of us. But isn’t our human intellect supposed to be able to overcome those baser instincts? Thunberg rightly implored European leaders to use “cathedral thinking” to see beyond the petty concerns of today and envision the bold steps that must be taken right now to build a civilisation that can endure for centuries.
The next 12 years will be crucial for determining whether the structure of human civilisation can be saved, for determining whether future generations will be able to see Venice and Ephesus, Shanghai and Mumbai, Miami and New Orleans, and my home city of Houston with their own eyes, or whether these will exist only in history books.
It is 9:30 pm, and the scientists of the world are telling us these are the final moments to save our cathedral.
It is 9:30 pm, and our politicians are nowhere to be found.
It is 9:30 pm, and our corporations continue throwing gasoline on the fire in their mad rush for profits.
It is 9:30 pm, and people, companies and countries congratulate themselves for fighting the fire with buckets instead of teaspoons, when what is needed is fire hoses.
It is 9:30 pm, and countries are wasting time squabbling over who will have to pay what to put out the fire.
It is 9:30 pm, and the people of the world go about their daily lives, downplaying, ignoring, or denying the reality of the danger.
It is 9:30 pm, and human civilisation, all that we have built, is burning down.
The clock is ticking. Where is our urgency?