Friday, November 20, 2009

The Control of Nature

As reported in today's New York Times, New Orleans plaintiffs in a civil suit against the U.S. Government are elated at a ruling that has held the Government liable for the floods resulting from the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A federal judge agreed with the plaintiffs, holding the Army Corps of Engineers "negligent [in the] maintenance of a major navigation channel [that] led to major flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward and the adjacent St. Bernard Parish...." If upheld on appeal (which is not at all guaranteed at this point), the Times reports that damages could "add up to billions of dollars in compensation for residents."

"Katrina" has become synonymous with government unresponsiveness and incompetence. With this ruling, a judge has officially agreed with this widespread perception, not only expressed in the widely shared view that the government response in the aftermath of Katrina was woefully insufficient, but that the government was in fact accountable for the flood itself. The fault was not Katrina, or an "act of nature," but the Government!

This view calls to mind the very object of the modern project: the expansion of human power to effect the control of nature. Indeed, it is with the image of controlling the effects of torrential rain that Machiavelli signaled the beginning of this project:

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her. [Prince, ch. 25]

Where humans once saw Fortune as fundamentally ungovernable by humans, Machiavelli argued that the only legitimate expression of Free Will was our efforts to master its effects - and, through his metaphor, closely aligning his conception of "fortune" to Nature. Arguing for boldness and mastery, Machiavelli concludes his famous Chapter, "Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her." Much of the modern project has consisted of extending our mastery even beyond half of Fortune, to governing her all and entire.

Yet, those who have been wary of this project have warned against hubris - in particular, have insisted that nature is not fundamentally governable by humans, and that efforts to extend our control in a tyrannical manner will fail. According to this view, Nature cannot finally be subject to our control; instead, our "free will" is best used in ascertaining its laws and conforming our activities within those laws. The insistence upon controlling nature is to break its laws, and such transgression carries with it severe consequences.

This view recalls to my mind a very fine book of several years' vintage - one that had a major impact on my intellectual formation - John McPhee's 1989 book The Control of Nature. The book has an entire chapter devoted to a discussion of the role of the Army Corp of Engineers in making possible the City of New Orleans, a completely implausible and even impossible city. For decades, the U.S. Government has been devoted untold resources to securing the city against waters that roll by or collect dozens of feet above sea level. In the process of doing so, it has effectively created conditions that not only cannot prevent eventual failure, but which will make failure even worse than had the efforts to extend our mastery in such an imperious way not been undertaken in the first place.

According to McPhee, the devastation of New Orleans can hardly be a surprise. The city was built in full knowledge of its susceptibility to flooding, and a succession of devastating floods occurred regularly from the time of New Orleans’s founding in 1718 throughout the 18th and 19th-centuries. Then, in 1879 the United States Government created the Mississippi River Commission which marshaled the resources of the government to control the tendency of the Mississippi river to overrun her banks. This Commission was perhaps most noteworthy due to the assignment of the Army Corps of Engineers to the task of creating a system of levees that would contain the Mississippi and protect the towns and cities along its bank – especially New Orleans.

Before its development by the French, the area that became New Orleans was largely deemed unacceptable as the location for any sort of permanent human settlement. As McPhee relates, the earliest moments of the settlement confirmed the ancient prohibition against building in that area: “The growth of New Orleans over the years since the creation of the Mississippi River Commission was due directly because of the ongoing success of the Corps to continually update and improve the levee system."

If government is to be held accountable, it could be argued that their culpability lies in the creation of the very levee system that had at once induced a sense of safety as well as the creation of certain unnatural conditions that turned New Orleans into a giant soup-bowl waiting to be filled. As a result of efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the mighty Mississippi River from “jumping” out of its bed to find a lower pathway to the ocean, the Corps constantly built new, artificial riverbanks – a system of earthworks and levees that required increasing height as the natural collection of silt in the riverbed caused the river to rise. Meanwhile, the lack of natural flooding of low-lying areas – such as New Orleans – meant that periodic silting of low-lying areas was prevented, while the natural features of New Orleans caused the city to sink at a constant rate. The conditions for a perfect storm were devised by the very "conquest of nature" – a perfect storm, not to be unexpected in an area prone to hurricanes. As McPhee writes, "The more the levees confined the river, the more destructive they became when they failed.”

The plaintiffs' case rests on the "unintended consequences" accompanying the ongoing building of the levee system. With each "victory" over nature, the height required of the levees to protect a sinking New Orleans increased the weight at water's edge, resulting in more erosion into the bottom of the water bed and the need for increased dredging. The need to increase the height of the levee and subsequent dredging required the widening of the waterway, leading to the acquisition of wetlands and compromises to the entire water ecosystem.


Ironically, Katrina itself may be further evidence of unintended consequences of the human effort to master nature: many believe that the strength of hurricanes has increased as a result of global warming, itself a consequence of our exploitation of ancient sunlight in the service of the massive expansion of human power. Our very capacity to exert control over nature has made it more dangerous. Yet, our belief that our mastery is near-complete has induced in us a sense of complacency and expectation that failures to exert control are the blame of culpable human actors.

To be clear: what is on trial is the very success of the U.S. Government (or, put more broadly still, the modern project) in "conquering nature," and the accompanying sense of expectation that nature should no longer inconvenience "the relief of the human estate." Lying defeated, in fact, was not nature (which has a way of reasserting herself), but common sense (don't live blithely beneath the sea level; or, better put, we should know what we're doing) and Stoicism (nature giveth, and nature taketh away). Can lawsuits against the Government for rising energy costs, depleted retirement accounts, and death itself be far behind?


Caryl said...

I discuss "theft of the future" lawsuits in my novel, After the Crash - which I sent you. You might enjoy reading it!

oz under said...

Patrick, the so called "expansion of human power to effect the control of nature" is among the most basic instincts of our species. See your thumb? Note the large size of your prefrontal cortex, note your otherwise unimpressive, hairless, toothless and claw less physique? That is not the image of the creator of the universe staring back at you in the mirror. That is the creator of, cooking, medicine, and all the arts and sciences ... aka ... an evolved species that survives by controlling its surroundings (by its wits).

I once read McPhee as arguing against "control of nature" but then I took a hard look in the mirror at my naked self and gazed on the slums of Rio groveling under that obscene image of Christ, and even came to terms with how foolish the Amish really are ... and learned to love engineering, GPS, modern medicine and eschew faith.

Now I simply read McPhee as things a good designer should accept about the design brief.

Of course it is wise to not engage in exposure to catastrophic risk, this is an un-remarkable truism, but that does not mean that our "modern project" has lead us astray. It does not mean, "don't take risks" ...

It is wishful thinking that there is some natural state of human kind, some harmony available to us in a "pre modern" sense, some God who has a purpose for "us". In assuming all this you err.

We are all we have, and that ain't nothing, we embarked on this "modern project" for good reasons. You are free to unplug and live as "pre modern" as you wish. Perhaps doing this would temper your ideas, which seem to feed heavily on ignoring "reality" and the reasons we chose this "modern project" at all.

Of course we should demand that the people who build canals and levees don't lie to us, deny the science, choose the facts and channel benefits to some at the expense of risk to others. In other words it isn't the levees that are the problem it is levees that are badly designed.

A more interesting question is how the Judge in this case parses sovereign immunity because of the navigational purpose of the canal vs. the flood protection purpose of the levee which apparently enjoy sovereign immunity under our law. Because this aspect doesn't fit with your "blame someone else" narrative, you don't mention it. In this "modern society", the people are sovereign ... (not god, nor his agent the King). Just as you don't hold God responsible for anything bad (but credit him with good), the sovereign can not be held responsible, unless the sovereign says he accepts responsibility.

In otherwords, it is up to us to decide if we are to blame or not. It is not at all impossible that the Corps lied, failed to follow the rules, etc ... etc ... that is corruption and graft, not "modernity" ...

But lastly, I just can't understand how do you parse the "modern project" of things like the sewers of London, the Brooklyn Bridge, artificial joint replacement, the general first world practice of preventing death during childbirth or the benefits of knowing that a hurricane is bearing down on us at all, from the "modern project" of condoms or any of the long list of "controls" you wish to label "un natural" on moral grounds?

At the bottom of your biases here is the faith based proposition that you are a special creation who is loved by your creator. That might in fact describe your mother, but it don't describe the larger reality in which you and I exist. This might depress you but it doesn't change the facts.

Instead of turning Katrina into a case for questioning, gasp, the "modern project", why not use it as the pretext to discuss engineering with a Dutchman ... trust me, their eyes are not watching God.

Patrick Deneen said...

methinks you enter this conversation without taking time to consider the terms of debate. I have never argued here that I am defending "some natural state of human kind," though perhaps it's true that I do invoke a "harmony" that derives from a "premodern sense." This is not the same as an imagined "natural state of humankind," as you suggest - nor is it the condition of the Amish, whom you regard as foolish, but who know how to take care of their land and one another and do so in a way that can be carried on for any number of foreseeable generations. I don't believe the same can be said for us moderns.

I have written about a distinction between technology as culture and technology as anti-culture here. I don't expect you'll agree with the distinction I am seeking to draw, but there is indeed a distinction worth considering, one that focuses centrally on the sustainability of our relationship to the natural world. My argument is not one that defends some "state of nature" condition, but neither is it one that accepts the modern view that nature is to made subject to our mastery and dominion. Ours is a relationship that needs to be dialogic, not dictatorial. It's rather remarkable to me that someone who so fulsomely praises science would so blithely ignore so many of the findings that suggest that we are living quite substantially beyond our means - in every sense.

As for the Dutch - if the science of Al Gore is to believed - they may indeed turn their eyes to God when their nation is inundated by the waters, levels raised by our 150 year "conquest" of hydrocarbons.

Patrick Deneen said...

Though, perhaps they'll be safe, though "science" may not be.

oz under said...


I don't know too much about the terms of debate ... if you mean some hermeneutics that require us to ignore some facts or keep some meanings at a distance and impossible to understand or measure because doing so would break the spell ... no I'm not on board.

You conflate tools and culture in a way that is hard to know how to talk you out of ...

By your logic the Swedes aren't Vikings because Saab doesn't build longboats. You fix culture to a set of ideas and tools in a totally subjective (and academic) kind of way. It has nothing to do with the living decisions which we make from day to day about what and how we are going to proceed with our work, the care for our loved ones etc ... and everything with defending an arbitrary and unmeasurable set of feelings.

It has nothing to do with "reality" which is to say that the men and women in the Saab plant are indeed "Vikings" you just don't like to call them that since they don't have the funny horned hats, little thor idols and drink mead the way your cultural rules classifications demand.

According to your logic the Vikings have gone extinct.

If you say so.

The Swedes have been engaged in a continuous project of settlement in a sustained way across the ages (from stone to space) ... they just happen to occupy a place and culture that changes according to the demands of "reality" which don't mean that they are restricted to a set of tools or set of dogmas (Thor, Jesus, now ... thankfully ... nothing.)

If you want to look on just how beautiful and sustainable you can make a forest ... just go visit Sweden, one vast industrial landscape ... It makes the Amish look ... well like the dithering religious fools running some kind of totalitarian living history museum that they are. (gosh it makes me feel bad to pick on the Amish)

But "Vikings" don't fit into your narrative ... which increasingly seems to hinge around apocalypse, Malthus, and "kids these days". Yes I suppose the Vikings were totally annihilated. Look what a smoking pit Stockholm is.

I don't mean to sound so antagonistic toward you ... cause I read, admire and struggle with Berry, as with you ... but Berry is best when he simply means "don't erode the productive capital of your farms" and "there is more to life than just making a living" and worse when he heads for industrialism itself because care for creation can't be done on a big tractor. Because large machines lack feeling for nature.

He, as you are off on an a historical mission to condemn industry as not having the "right" attitude - and it seems to me prescribing the relationship with nature to be "dialogic" vs. dictatorial is meaningless piffle designed to create emotion rather than convey useful information about how to do it in the context again of actual reality - whereas asking "how much topsoil" takes us out of the realm of philosophy and emotion, and lets us create meaning no matter what kind of harrow you are pulling or what sort of deity needs propitiating, if any.

But there is something deeply wrong about conflating our culture with our tools or nature with virtue. These are different things, contra Berry they were choices made by reasonable people faced with reality, not foisted on us by some industrial cartel bent on snuffing out local crops and small scale farming.

Ask any Viking ... you can find them right where they have always been, but they have different clothes, and work with different tools. Really it is a nice place. They are like the Amish, only no God and they have zippers.

Patrick Deneen said...

No God, zippers ... and no babies! Maybe there's a connection...

oz under said...

for a man ostensibly advocating the idea of sustainability, throwing up a chart that shows births slightly above deaths, is a daring retort.

That must be the Irish in you.

oz under said...

From 1992 to 2008, population growth among the Amish in North America was 84%. During that time they established 184 new settlements and moved into six new states.

The Amish are among the fastest-growing populations in the world, with an average of 6.8 children per family

How did you put it, oh yeah:

know how to take care of their land and one another and do so in a way that can be carried on for any number of foreseeable generations.

yes Patrick this kind of behavior and lack of control has always been associated with carrying on for any number of foreseeable generations ... just ask the Irish how this works in practice.

Patrick Deneen said...

I pretty much figured you'd respond in this way, and population growth is indeed a concern. Still, let's stipulate that to be "sustainable" means that generations must replace themselves. Europe has a major problem in that regard.

Second, to be "sustainable" means exactly what my previous statement you just quoted says - to treat the land in ways that can sustain future generations in much the same way. By both these measures, the Amish are doing better than most of us.

The main problem with population growth is that it has been undergirded not by Catholics (as your harping on my Irish ancestry appears to imply), but by a high energy way of life that expects infinite and permanent growth as its basis. The planet can only sustain this many people today because of petroleum inputs into the soil - an unsustainable way of farming that the Amish, for one, have eschewed. I think time will tell which way of life is "sustainable."

I'm going to close out this thread, as I don't much like your ad hominem tone - but thanks for reading.