Bullying Nature

It is a bright spring day in Shepherdstown and I am gazing out my window at my self-inflicted folly – the swimming pool in my back yard. Nature wasn’t on board with the original happy plans behind this water-filled hole. Instead, nature wants to use it to grow all sorts of bacteria and algae, and allow mosquitos, toads and any other interested party to lay eggs and spawn their young. Ah, but we have the answers for nature, right? Engineering, pumps and chemicals. Every summer with much effort and money thrown at the problem, we win – temporarily. But let up a moment and nature inexorably overcomes our efforts. A swimming pool is a fool’s errand to push a large rock up a hill.

A swimming pool is an apt metaphor for what I am trying to say in this piece. Humans are the most intelligent animals ever to walk the earth. But at some point we got a little too impressed with our abilities and began to bully nature into doing what it didn’t want to do. That’s when the trouble started.

Most of our attempts to bully nature have involved water.  Although essential for life in the right amounts, water has developed a bad reputation.  It has the nasty habit of accumulating in huge amounts and sweeping away everything in its path. English and American common law alike have declared water a “common enemy.”

When our engineering know-how and the power of our machines reached a certain level in the 19th century, we engaged water in what amounted to an arm-wrestling match. This contest has not been without its fits and starts, its wins and losses on both sides. But we have begun to realize that when we overcome nature with brute force, there is always an unexpected price to pay.

I just returned from a short trip to the Everglades in southern Florida. The Everglades are really nothing more than the overflow from Lake Okeechobee, which flows in a sheet down a very slight grade to the Gulf of Mexico. Early Florida pioneers saw immediately that if the Everglades could be drained, thousands of acres of rich land would become available for cultivation.

The 19th century saw one failed scheme after another to drain “the swamp.”  But it looked like success was at hand until 1928 when a hurricane filled the Lake and caused it to burst through a dike, drowning 2500 people. Corpses were stacked and burned by the roadsides. The Army Corps of Engineers then changed the rationale for draining the Everglades from reclamation to flood control. The Hoover Dike was constructed, which cut off Lake Okeechobee from the northern Everglades. This solved the flooding problem but created many others.

What once was a swamp dried out and became like a desert. The absence of fresh water allowed salt water to invade the water table, ruining farms. The stress of low water wreaked havoc on the food chain. Sawgrass invaded water-lily sloughs, while other species invaded parched sawgrass marshes.  Populations of wading birds rapidly declined. Then in 1939 one million acres caught fire and burned. Now conservationists and environmentalists have a seat at the table and a serious effort is underway to restore the Everglades.

The April 1, 2019 issue of The New Yorker chronicled a similar example. For millennia, the Mississippi River has over-flooded its banks and deposited silt and soil debris all over southern Louisiana, building up and extending the land in all directions. Because these floods had obvious harmful effects for humans, we built levees along the river for hundreds of miles. Now there are few catastrophic floods that breach the levees. This is a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no. The problem is that there are no further soil deposits to build up the land. The land that was formerly deposited through flooding has begun to compact and subside, allowing the Gulf to retake large areas. At present southern Louisiana seen from a satellite is nothing more than the snake of the Mississippi bounded by levees and a few hundred acres of land on either side.

Believe it or not, the current solution to this problem is more engineering on a massive scale to be paid for with mountains of tax money. One part of this solution is to dredge up silt from the bottom of the river and use massive diesel pumps to redeposit it into areas that would otherwise subside into non-existence. Another part is to cut holes in the levees and during flood periods allow water and silt to inundate areas that have heavily subsided.  The New Yorker piece rightly concludes that humans have so altered nature in an attempt to take control that now we are attempting to take control of our efforts to take control.

All this says to me that when we consider the so-called problems that nature creates, we need less hubris and more wisdom.  We need fewer brute force solutions and a more harmonious approach that doesn’t struggle so much with the way nature works. Maybe through taxation and other policies we could encourage the depopulation of places like New Orleans and Phoenix, where people simply cannot be protected from nature. Brute force may succeed in the short run, but at a huge cost with harmful consequences to environmental balance. And because of entropy and our human fallibility, the brute force solutions always fail in the long-run.

But what could I possibly know? I’m the one who built a swimming pool. Could you excuse me while I go empty the skimmers?

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