Like an American Gothic in modern England, Jeff and Tracy Waters appear resolute, reflective and resigned as they stand in front of their neat and modest house in Staines-Upon-Thames. Their unfashionable hometown had recently been renamed both to celebrate its riparian location and appropriate the cachet of Kingston and Richmond, its upmarket neighbors.
Yet within two years, aspirant Staines had been flooded by the stately river that runs through it, and the Waters’ property was submerged and left uninhabitable.
Surrounded by flotsam, J.B. Singh stands on the terrace of his Kashmir home. He feels lucky to be alive. “I live in one of the most damaged areas, where most of the homes were under water almost up to the roof. I have repaired my own home and my truck, but it was a financial disaster for me, and I got no help from the government.”
Lucas Williams is chest-deep in the water that has engulfed his 1,300-acre farm, his stoic gait unable to mask the harsh realization that, without insurance, his family had “lost everything.” This “one-in-1,000-year flooding event” swept the Carolinas in October 2015. It was followed by a second “one-in-1,000” 12 months later, and a third the year after that.
Over the next century, such rain events will only worsen as our climate continues to change. In the United States, NASA expects that “the recent trend towards increased heavy precipitation events will continue… even in regions where total precipitation is expected to decrease, such as the Southwest.”
The impacts of climate change are neither theoretical nor abstract. They are real, they are happening now, and they will affect most people on the planet.
Since 2007, Gideon Mendel, a veteran photojournalist, has made 20 trips to document adverse flooding in 13 countries. In doing so he has borne witness to a shared human experience of a catastrophe that transcends geographical, cultural and economic divides.
Mr. Mendel’s work, presented in his powerful exhibition Gideon Mendel: Drowning World, draws our attention to what is fundamentally true but infrequently appreciated: Humanity is a part of — not apart from — the natural world. If we are to understand how to live sustainably on this planet, we must appreciate our collective impact upon it, and, in turn, its impact upon us.
That story can be distantly appreciated through facts and figures, but more immediately understood through personal stories, stories in which we can easily picture ourselves. Perhaps for you it is the story of Lucas Williams, or JB Singh, or one of the many others that Mr. Mendel sensitively presents. For me it is the image of Mr. and Mrs. Waters whose home is a five-minute drive from where I once lived.
The role of the Academy is not only to inform, but also to initiate and convene public conversations about the natural world in ways that inspire civic engagement. Such conversations can sometimes be difficult — but these are often the most important ones for society to have.
As the Academy begins to explore ways in which not only science, but also the arts and humanities, can fuel discussion about our evolving planet, we hope that Drowning World will invite reflection not just on the change that is coming, but on the change that is already here.
By Scott Cooper, PhD, President and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
Gideon Mendel: Drowning World is on view at the Academy May 1-Oct. 17, 2021. To reserve your timed ticket, visit our website here.
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