Sunday, August 19, 2012

History as Ammunition or History as Lesson? The Control of Nature

Using historical examples to support an argument you're making can be tricky.  Many people echo this thought as this quote from Vital Remnant's blogger Martin Cothran shows us:
It won't please the Politically Correct, who will willing [sic] misread history to fit their narrative.
Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying,
"History is written by the victors."
Wikipedia has a post on "the politics of memory"  and the abstract of a book The Politics of Memory and Democratization explores, in part:
. . . how new democracies face an authoritarian past and past human rights violations, and the way in which policies of truth and justice shape the process of democratization. Eighteen countries in Central and South America, Central, Eastern and South Europe and South Africa are analysed in detail. The main variables affecting the implementation of truth and justice policies (purges, truth commissions and trials, among other policies) are: the balance between old and new regime forces; the availability of institutional, human and financial resources, the nature of the ideological preferences and commitments of the elites in question; the mobilization of social groups pressing in favour of these policies; and the importance of human rights in the international arena. The duration and degree of institutionalization of dictatorship is also important.
On the other hand,  most are familiar with George Santana's warning:
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"
So the challenge for us is to find coverage of the past that is reasonably self-aware and aware of the pitfalls of reporting the past,  and reasonably careful with its facts.

McPhee's Control of Nature

That said, I've been reading John McPhee's 1989 book The Control of Nature.  It has three accounts of humans attempting to control nature -  controlling the Mississippi, controlling lava flows in Iceland, and controlling the mud/rock slides in the mountains around Los Angeles.  I've read the Mississippi case (it's actually titled Atchafalaya and is about preventing that river from stealing the Mississippi's flow and taking the river out to the Gulf of Mexico several hundred miles from New Orleans thus threatening that city and the huge industrial complex that has taken advantage of the fresh water and transportation of the Mississippi) and the LA part.  I've just begun the Iceland story.

Each case is under 100 pages.  Yet each offers so many new names and places and ideas that I found myself having to reread them in an attempt to understand how things fit together.  Common themes in the Atchafalaya and LA cases include:
  • Natural cycles that existed before humans arrived
  • Human settlement that builds up enough economic investment to muster political support to protect it against natural cycles
  • The settlement grows, nature strikes again, newer, bigger protections are required and built.
  • There are regular proclamations of final victory with each project, though as time goes by there seems to be more recognition of the complications of the situation and the huge power of nature.
  • The predominant metaphor is war.  
  • Early protections encourage more settlements, putting more people at risk, requiring greater and costlier new protections.
  • The protections themselves cause other problems that ultimately make things worse
  • The protecting institution (the Army Corps of Engineers in Atchafalaya and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District) soon has a vested interest in continuing the ‘battle against nature.’
  • Attention is focused on protecting those in danger’s way, money gets appropriated to solve the immediate danger without looking at the ever increasing long term expenditures

The cases are not perfectly symmetrical but the basic commonality is the attempt to control powerful natural forces.

The Mississippi is a huge dynamic system that reaches from Canada and down to the Gulf of Mexico.  The engineers are depicted as almost like children building sand forts at the beach to stop the waves.  McPhee even talks about the 15 acre ‘sandbox’ where the Army Corps of Engineers has a model of the Mississippi drainage  to test their projects.

McPhee doesn’t really look deeply at the alternatives to control.  He discusses how the Mississippi has natural flooding cycles and how it used to overflow its banks in many places spreading silt and building up the land as it did.  He talks about how the natural cycles, over thousands of years, build up silt high enough in some places until the river shifts its flow through other channels until it builds up enough silt on that side and then moves its main channel again.

What, I kept thinking, would things be like if there was no work done to protect settlements along the Mississippi?  Would it be a vast wilderness?  Would the transportation channel from the Midwest simply become too difficult to navigate and cause economic disaster?  Is the fuel consumption of transportation along the Mississippi a much better alternative to rail and roads and air?  Would humans find ways to develop more portable and flexible settlements that could adjust more easily to the river’s cycles?
 Are there ways to make fewer and smaller protections that would leave more of the natural cycle and also allow for some stable settlements?

While McPhee did mention Holland’s ability to keep out the sea with its dikes, there was no discussion of whether this was a case of man successfully controlling nature or that it had equally problematic side-effects.  Or whether they just understood or accommodated nature better.  Or whether the problem wasn’t as complex.  Or whether they just spent, proportionately a lot more money and had better models.  It would also be interesting to hear some cases of places that gave up their attempts to control nature and just moved away. 

McPhee speculates, in passing, on the fate of New Orleans.  It seems doomed by ever increasing water levels if current practices continue and doomed by lack of water if the river were allowed to take advantage of the faster path to the Gulf through the Atchafalaya.  He doesn’t directly talk about the cost of saving New Orleans.  (Remember the book was published in 1989, well before the recent flood of New Orleans.)  But he makes it clear, that the danger to New Orleans is heightened by the protections given to all the cities and farmlands between New Orleans and the headwaters of the Mississippi and all the other rivers (such as the Missouri and Ohio) that flow into it.  Do the people who get that benefit owe New Orleans?  It would seem the answer is a strong yes.

The repeated quotes of scientists and engineers claiming to have solutions, plus the mocking of these claims by their critics, including Mark Twain, can’t help but make me think about the BP’s safety claims for the Deepwater Horizon and Shell’s present claims about the safety of drilling in the Chukchi.

McPhee is an outsider in each of these situations, though his reports imply that he's spent considerable time in each.  An outsider loses some of the perspective of people who have live in the situation most of their lives, but an outsider also is able to see the situation fresh and without the emotional blinders of the insiders.  My sense is that McPhee questions the hubris of those who want to control nature, but that if the story unraveled for him with a different conclusion, he'd report it that way.  And, having only started the Iceland story, I'm really not sure where it will end up.  At this point the people are attempting to stop the lava flows from blocking the nation's most lucrative fishing harbor.  Will this be a successful example? 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.