Human hubris – the long sad tale of the Mississippi River

Posted May 11th, 2011 in Blog, Featured 3 Comments »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

I have written of the Mississippi River before. It made up a good chunk of chapter one of my book, “Living Beyond the ‘End of the World:’ A Spirituality of Hope.” I recount there the long sad tale of our human efforts to channel, dig, levee, and otherwise control one of the world’s mightiest rivers.

We are insane, you know. We are so out of touch with reality that we think we can do this, and then when this mighty river reasserts its own reality, its own being, we get all upset about it.

I am sorry for all those suffering – and for living in a way that made no sense given the history of this river.

Mississippi R. flooding at juncture with the Ohio - NASA photo

For more than 150 years, we have dredged and tried to contain this powerful force that gathers waters from all across the midsection of this country. In a year like this, the kind that come with greater frequency now, a year of torrential spring downpours, all that water has to go somewhere, and it converges into a river compressed into too small a channel until it busts  out and expands with a fury.

The fury would not be so great if not for the channels, walls, and levees – which means, if not for the cities and towns and farms and riverboat casinos and all the economy wrapped up in these foolish efforts to try to control rather than learn how to live with this river.

Of all the expressions of human hubris and insanity in regard to our belief that we can control the forces of nature, there are few that can outdo the Army Corps of Engineers. For a long time, especially since doing the research for my book, I have thought the Corps to be a true enemy of nature and of our future on a crowded planet whose resources are being rapidly depleted. Clearly their approach to the crisis is to do more of what created the crisis – dam more, channel more, move more earth, redirect more rivers, destroy more nature to make way for the human economy.

We continue to reap the whirlwind. The Mississippi River has been trying for a long time now to shift its channel – to do this naturally, as it has done for millenia – and we won’t let it. Instead, we build more housing developments, more businesses, more economy on the bet that we can keep it in place.

Then we buy insurance for the inevitable – or not, and pay the consequences that way, too.

I found an Army Corps document on line and used it in my book: “The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project.” According to the project mission statement:

“Without question America’s greatest river, the Mississippi, has made major contributions to the physical and economic growth of the nation. It is a navigation artery of great importance to the nation’s transportation system, carrying an ever-growing commerce. Coursing through the heart of America, it supplies water for the cities and industries that have located along its banks. More and more the Mississippi’s importance is emphasized as America continues to grow. This great river is, truly, one of the Nation’s outstanding assets. Uncontrolled, it would be just as great a liability.” [emphasis added]

You get the idea. Here’s is this magnificent natural wonder, and the point about it is that we need to get it under control or else it will be a liability.

The Mississippi River always has been a threat to the security of the valley through which it flows.

Really? Since when? Let’s be clear – only since American commerce came along.

The Army Corps’ attitude towards the river remains consistent. From last Sunday’s NY Times:

“We’re going to fight this river all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Col. Vernie L. Reichling Jr. of the Army Corps of Engineers. [ “The Untamable Mississippi”]

Well, all right then, you go guys!!

Guess who wins?

Now the feature of this article is actually an older article from one of the last of the many recent historic floods, this one in 1993, by Times journalist Isabel Wilkerson.  And it quotes:

The river, ecologists and farmers say, was never supposed to follow the tight course humans have expected it to, indeed ordered it to, with their walls of dirt and concrete levees. Of course, that has not stopped people from building homes and farms and cities along the river. The Mississippi Valley’s thick black soil is considered the richest on earth, impossible for farmers to resist.

But to claim the land meant making a bargain with the river, confining it to an artificially narrow path so that farms could reach as far as the shore and places like New Orleans and St. Louis could live undisturbed while their goods were carried safely from port to port. The price that river people pay is sudden and catastrophic flooding when excess rainwater, forced into a narrow channel by the levees, runs out of places to go and cannot drain naturally into the soil. …

And there it is. We make the pact. We wage the battle. The river let’s us know who is in charge.

And that should call us to humility. But what did we do after the 1993 floods? Right, more human development right in the flood plain. In chapter one, I also referenced an AP article from Feb. 18, 2006, “Development raises U.S. flood risk,” by Andrew Bridges:

Concentrated development in flood-prone parts of Missouri, California and other states has significantly raised the risk of New Orleans-style flooding as people snap up new homes even in areas recently deluged, researchers said Saturday. Around St. Louis, where the Mississippi River lapped at the steps of the Gateway Arch during the 1993 flood, more than 14,000 acres of flood plain have been developed since then. That has reduced the region’s ability to store water during future floods and potentially put more people in harm’s way…

See? Developers responded to the historic flooding by building housing developments in the flood plain.  And then we get all shocked and horrified when the river goes through its spring madness, one of the glories of nature, and people’s homes and livelihoods are destroyed. Is there any moral responsibility here?

But this is the thing: when you live ‘outside’ nature (as if this was ever possible), when you believe that your particular species is so powerful and dominant and superior that you can break with the laws of nature and live in spite of them, you are fated for these kinds of disasters.

More and more of them. Like putting the backup generators at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the first floor because you built such high strong sea walls that no tsunami will ever break through…

Human hubris is a dangerous thing. It is time for us to grow up and learn the limits of our species, to start using our brains, that magnificent organ, to learn how to live again within the limits of nature’s many complex balances, instead of trying to beat them into submission.



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3 Responses

  1. hombredelatierra

    This flood season is quite generalized! The Red River and Assiniboine Rivers, Manitoba, hit record or near record highs. Brandon, MB, worst flooding in “300 years” (!sic!). The province is considering deliberately breaching dikes – flooding hundreds of homes – to reduce pressure which could break dikes, leading to even greater dammage..

  2. hombredelatierra

    More locally, there is unusually severe flooding in the Montérégie region of Québec:

    In some places, the floods are said to be the worst in 150 years.

    In both Manitoba and Québec, much farm land is underwater. Seeding is impossible. Even in places where no flooding has occurred, the soil is so sodden that planting has been delayed or autumn plantings have been lost.

  3. hombredelatierra

    Premier of Manitoba says that we are now in uncharted territory, no historical prededents. Assiniboine River threatens Brandon, MB. Geologically this region of the continent is the botton of the post-glacial Agassiz Lake which explains why the Red River / Assiniboine system is flood prone.. Global Warming increases precipitation in some regions leading to increased risk of flooding and to more dangerous floods. Here we see, perhaps, some of the very early “hidden costs” of fossil fuel use and the unsustainable development it brings..