On Human Control of Nature

by Brad on May 14, 2011

On more than one occasion over the years, I’ve written about man’s attempts at controlling nature. Perhaps there’s no better (worse?) example than the decades-long battle being waged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers against the course of the Mississippi River. I got a few snide comments about my early writings, about how I just didn’t understand the importance of “managing” the river. The issue is this: rivers wander; the Mississippi is a river; its wanderings have created most of Louisiana (this, of course, before the Corps of Engineers started messing); rivers flood regularly (this deposits new soil and keeps farmland vital); levees were intended to keep the river from wandering away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans (“they need the water”); the river sees it another way; man’s attempts at control are now on the verge of collapse, offering no resilience whatsoever even to small disturbances.

Although I’m not a news junkie, I can’t help knowing that this story is back on the front pages. Long story short, now there’s too much water in the Midwest, and the river’s full. (This is just the “small disturbance” that’s now too big for the “control effort” to manage.) But because the river is being “managed,” it can’t be allowed to deal with the extra water “naturally” (for there is no longer a “naturally”). The news is lamenting the “difficult choice” of flooding farms and small towns vs. flooding New Orleans. But almost nowhere in the news do you see the fact at the heart of the matter: because humans made a dumb choice in the past, and held onto it with no regard for nature, they’re “forced” to make an even more unfortunate choice now. As if one could place more (or less) value on farms and towns than on cities. Any result is now a sad one, in human terms.

Here’s my bet, based only on knowledge of rivers and their essence (i.e., what it means to be a river). My bet is that, when the flood control system is opened, even slightly, to allow flood waters to escape (thus flooding miles and miles of farms and towns), the water force created by this diversion will exceed any and all human attempt to keep the river in its current course, and it will permanently change course to join the Atchafalaya River, which it has “wanted” to do since the Engineers showed up on the scene. The controllers will get what they want, but they’ll no longer to be able to control how much of what they want, and in the process, get exactly what they don’t want – a river permanently diverted.


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