The Control of Nature

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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?

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