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Engineering Nature


I found the comment section on my bayou post of yesterday interesting for a couple of reasons, including that saving the marshes is an impossible task. This really is not true. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have shaped the river to satisfy a number of masters, including the petroleum and shipping industries, the U.S. and Louisiana governments, the desire of New Orleans residents to stay dry, and their own need to justify their existence and expansion. The Mississippi is a fully engineered river system. But the marshlands are still savable within that system. Obviously, no one is going to call for the Mississippi to flow freely, in no small part because of the likelihood and historical frequency of it changing course (which was a real worry last spring with the floods). That will happen someday and will cause a massive economic disaster for the United States. But short of that, much can still be done. Water can be diverted into canals throughout the system and then allowed to flood locally over the marshes while still allowing plenty of water for shipping needs. The levees can be broken downstream and water can pass through of its own volition. In fact, there are several test projects for restoring marshlands that have proven locally successful. It really doesn’t take a lot for the marshes to come back–just let the silt settle and the alligators and land will return.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that in the United States and most of the world in 2012, all landscapes are engineered and controlled spaces. Even wilderness areas are heavily managed, in this case to not be commercially or industrially developed. But these are completely artificial boundaries that say much about our relationship with the natural world. Given this reality, we can choose to engineer nature in any number of ways to serve any number of purposes. We can’t completely control nature of course, although most Americans have a very difficult time understanding this. But we can and do shape the land for commercial development, residential development, parkland, wilderness, whatever. Managing it to create marshes is a question of political will, not engineering.

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  • Murc

    Land management is going to become an increasingly salient issue as we continue to cope with climate change. It permeates every aspect of our lives and yet is largely invisible except to the small cadre of professionals who deal with it.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing more posts on this topic. I’m sure they will be as popular as your labor history posts and Robert’s posts on international military policy!

  • I was active in that comment thread, and I just re-read it, and I don’t recall anyone disagreeing with you on the main point that the challenge is political, not technical. The closest anyone came to saying the marshes couldn’t be solved was Jonathan, but he’s clearly agreeing with you that it’s “political will” that is the problem:

    The problem isn’t solvable. The problem has a technical solution. It lacks a practical solution. By that, I mean that there is no way our society can act to save the wetlands.

    It’s the same way with climate change. The course of action we need to take to mitigate it is obvious. The composition and structure of our society forbids that course.

    In any case, count me among those congratulating you for focusing on this extremely important issue, and with a correct appreciation of the complexity of the issue and the already engineered nature with which we work. It’s not a matter of hands off, nor of complete control, it’s a matter of catalyzing the right processes.

    • And to be clear, I didn’t mean to be adversarial at all. Just thought it was a point that could use additional clarification.

      • OK, cool. And I hope you keep this in your regular rotation of topics!

    • DrDick

      Likewise. I am somewhat skeptical that anything useful will get done, but that is owing to politics rather than anything else. It has been clear for a long time that we need to re-engineer the Mississippi (and probably a lot of other “managed” rivers). This is not only a problem in Louisiana (though it is arguably greater there), but throughout the watershed. My comment about breaching levees in rural areas of the Midwest would have huge benefits there in reducing flood damage to more developed areas.

      • witless chum

        Seems like there’d be value to bottomland farmers in letting their fields occasionally flood and replenish the soils nutrients?

  • witless chum

    Off topic for sure, but I remember being floored to learn how much of North America was a managed environment before Europeons. 1491 by Charles C. Mann popularized a bunch of research and theories on this. Including the speculation about just how much of the Great Plains became plains through burning. And about tree farming in the Amazon.

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