The Control of Nature

by Patrick J. Deneen on November 20, 2009 · 17 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

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?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar D.W. Sabin November 20, 2009 at 10:16 am

An interesting slant on this case. One does need to make a distinction between the historic core of New Orleans …the French quarter, upper ninth, the Garden District……in uptown where the flooding did not reach and the vast areas of newer development below sea level…the modern sprawl, our national emblem of a societal lack of restraint. They are today still rebuilding in areas better suited to either wetland restoration or rice culture. We might, if we focus, be able to conduct ourselves like the Dutch but the question remains…Why?

Every time I have to slog through the drunken Escher tedium of an Army Corps Permit Process for some backwater project that is quite ably monitored by a local wetland commission or perhaps a State DEP, I wonder exactly why the Corps is worrying themselves about my obscure endeavors instead of the levies in New Orleans. My favorite interaction with a Corps Permit Officer came when I had to load the camera of the inspector because they did not know how to tackle the engineering requirements of inserting 35 mm film in a single lens reflex camera and provide the identification of the local flora for them because the “wetland biologist” was a nurse assigned to the Corps because she had a biology background. She might have been great in an E.R. but did not know her Tussock Sedge from her Grey Heron nor her Leicester soils from Charlton. Thus are the wages of the Imperial Bureaucracy .

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 20, 2009 at 10:24 am

I would argue that what is truly accountable for this ludicrous lawsuit is a supposedly democratic (but actually oligarchal) political system which allows the capture of national government funds and priorities by entrenched state, local, and private interests (the state of Louisiana, the city of New Orleans, and the oil companies and tourist boards which build their refineries and their markets there), fueled by interest group politics of a very high order. That, and the American predeliction for making every dispute a judicial one. But then, perhaps that’s exactly the point you’ve already made.

avatar Weasly Pilgrim November 20, 2009 at 10:41 am

Heck, we already have lawsuits against the government and lots of others for death. The civil courts are full of them. Wrongful death is often the charge. A lot (most?) of them are filed against people or organizations with deep pockets but with only a tangential relationship to the dead guy. Liability insurance is the way the costs of this way of doing things are distributed across the population. Every little warning sticker and the pages and pages of warnings and dangers that show up in owner’s manuals are evidence that part of the price you paid for the associated widget goes to cover the liability insurance premium of the manufacturer.

I look at my local yellow pages in the legal services section. The biggest ads are all for wrongful death/personal injury lawyers, pages and pages of them, and these ads are all some variation on the theme of it being your right to get a big payout for your suffering. We apparently resent the idea that nature imposes certain limits, the transgressing of which leads to suffering….

avatar ASKlein November 20, 2009 at 11:25 am

A very well-argued take on the situation. I wonder, though, just how completely special-interest driven this lawsuit is — not that I don’t believe nefarious motives are at play here, to some unknown degree.

What I do know is that even with plenty of documentation of incompetent government and the like, the city of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast are still struggling, mightily, to get back on their feet after Katrina. Does a lawsuit like this provide the right band-aid? Probably not. But try heading down to the Ninth Ward and argue with supporters of this lawsuit that, in fact, everything was doomed in the 1700s.

As for taxpayers ultimately footing this bill, the reasoning that I’ve come up with (and I’m not certain of its standing) is that money from taxpayers is spread over a variety of domestic services we all enjoy (or, whether we enjoy it or not, at least reap the benefits of), from the EPA making sure our water is clean to the Army Corps of Engineers plugging up levees to the FDA looking out over our food. When one of these services fails one of us it fails all of us, so to speak, and so the people of New Orleans are right to seek compensation for their devastated homeland. As for the morality/philosophy/sustainability of that system, I leave that for the smarter minds of FPR to argue.

avatar Will November 20, 2009 at 11:46 am

I’m afraid I’m not entirely comfortable with this entire essay. Can you really go to people whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and on and on have lived in the same neighborhood and homes for decades, and tell them it’s their fault for living below sea level? I guess localism only applies for people living in areas safe from natural disaster.

Then again, this is a relief. I don’t have to care about brain drain in those rural Kansas towns anymore; they’re just asking to get hit by tornados! Idiots.

avatar Jeffrey Polet November 20, 2009 at 11:58 am

I’ve been making a similar sort of argument for a couple of years now in my Intro to American Government classes. Every time my students recoil in horror, accusing me of callous heartlessness. And, being in a Dutch tradition, we think there is great virtue to living below sea-level. That said, the great government failures happened before Katrina, not after, and were a result of mindless land use and commercial interests. To hear people talk, you would think it was the Bush administration that sent the water to New Orleans. All in all, it is difficult to have a serious conversation about Katrina because of an abstract sentimentalism which commands people’s responses.

avatar ASKlein November 20, 2009 at 12:10 pm

@Jeffrey Polet

Forgive me for chuckling slightly at your use “abstract sentimentalism” as a pejorative. We are on FPR, after all.

As for the mistakes of Katrina happening well before the actual event, that is patently untrue, from inept Administration officials and ignored warning signs. The point of my post and, I believe, Will’s is that to take your logic — blame the victim for the sins of his great grandfathers — is to cherry-pick this particular situation for an overall ideology.

avatar Patrick J. Deneen November 20, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Fair enough, and this wasn’t so much intended to be an indictment against the real felt suffering of the people in N.O. than a critique of the inducement to dependency and reliance upon the Government as the guarantor against the blows of fate and nature. I don’t have a problem with people living below sea level (as more than one person has noted, the Dutch do it all the time), but the “guarantee” that has come to be expected from the activities of the Army Corps (who explicitly promoted their work as “conquering nature”) has led to some pernicious results, ones that produced unintended consequences that finally show the limits of conquering nature (and hence, that should lessen our expectations that it can remain permanently “contained”). I meant this critique to be considered more broadly, not limited to N.O. And, no, I’m not indicting people who remain in a place, but people who live in that place without a good understanding of its true nature.

Let’s hope the same mindset hasn’t induced Kansans to blame the Gummint for tornadoes – yet…

avatar D.W. Sabin November 20, 2009 at 12:28 pm

There is perhaps virtue in living below sea level only if the inhabitants make the commitment this requires…as the Dutch do….in fact, turning the sea back into some of the formerly farmed lands in an effort to rebuild wetlands that had been thought gone for all time.

Nobody should have any problem with a person taking up residence wherever they wish. However, when nature rebukes their shortsightedness…or carelessness…or defiance, is it a moral obligation for those not involved to continue the act of defiance? Is it moral for the local government of New Orleans to avoid this ticklish question because it does not have the political will to broach the issue?

avatar Bob Cheeks November 20, 2009 at 12:48 pm

What, the swollen breast of gummint largesse is not meant to provide succor? Damn…………..!

avatar Rick November 20, 2009 at 12:55 pm

I would suggest that those interested read The Storm by Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan. It is well worth your time if this issue interests you. Van Heerden was a professor at LSU. He explains in detail what happened and why during Katrina. Pay close attention to the numerous myths he dispels about New Orleans (some of which Prof. Deneen repeats here). Especially interesting is the last 50 pages of the book in which he discusses the reasons why the system got screwed up in the first place. (Reason: government and the Army Corps)

As a native of New Orleans (some my family immigrated there in the 1830s and 1840s; some came during the early 18th century when the French owned Louisiana), I often wish people would take the time to understand the situation. So much of the sensationalistic media coverage did the city a disservice (although New Orleanians have not given the best image of the city to the country). Many of my family members had to leave the city after Katrina. A few have made it back. Some lost everything.

Granted, that does not mean that those in New Orleans should be able to make financial claims on the rest of the country. But, if the government screwed up, shouldn’t the government pay up?

avatar Will November 20, 2009 at 1:53 pm

That’s certainly fair. I just wanted to point out there a vast segment of the pre-Katrina population of NOLA (1) were dedicated to the place they lived and built communities that look nothing like the rest of the US and/or (2) were too poor to move to another place.

I think what’s frustrating for residents of NOLA is that FEMA and the federal government, when they did arrive, put into place numerous regulations and structures which tie-up reconstruction efforts inextricably with federal oversight. When the government then fails to perform, it leads to lawsuits like this which, although targeted at the Army Corps, would not exist if FEMA had delivered on promises. I am not sure that this is still the case but 2 years after Katrina the majority of reconstruction efforts were the direct work of the Archdiocesan Catholic Charities and other non-governmental organizations. There is only so much volunteers can do, and many NOLA residents and ex-residents do not have the resources to rebuild. But they want to go home and have their community, so they resort to baseless lawsuits like this.

I’m really not sure what should be done with New Orleans at this point.

avatar Editilla~New Orleans Ladder November 20, 2009 at 4:43 pm

[I’m personally less than happy for being held accountable for the decisions of people who live below sea level.]
Aside from the fact that over half the city is above sea level, just how did the citizens of New Orleans decide to build these levees with Bad Soil and these failed flood walls too short and with bad soil and easily avoided engineering mistakes?
Who? Come on, you take the Easy Way Out.
This new form of Katrina Shorthand needs to be stopped in its tracks.
The Corps of Engineers built these things Wrong and devastated New Orleans and killed over 1000 of its Tax-Paying Citizens.
That is a Fact.

New Orleanians ALSO paid for those bad flood walls. We all did.

By your very own logic, we should be blaming You for that bad engineering and those subsequent failures right?
That is the biggest Point of this Ruling, to wit: the Corps is an Equal Opportunity Screw. They have stuck it to All Of Us, the whole nation, in New Orleans.
To say that the Citizens there are getting some sort of Hand-Out is to mistake and misrepresent the true nature of this Settlement as one of Defective Product Liability.
Don’t tell me you drive a Ford Pinto.

I have something to say about the “Blame Game” as it relates to Responsibility, Culpability and just plain old Ability –none of which seems in evidence even still at the Corps of Engineers as they prepare their Next Crime, to wit: Appeal this Settlement to the US Supreme Court. What abject Perp Cowardice!
To appeal this case to the Supreme Court is absolutely Criminal.
But that is not what worries me the most here.

Let’s call it the “Poor Meme” Game, to wit: Blame New Orleans for sticking it to the Poor American Taxpayer AGAIN –and after aaalll the billion$ we already gave’em!
Yessir’ya’betcha! Just as plain as Lipstick on a Pig, I see it already happening coast to coast in comments sections, in articles and editorials starting to come out. Oh, and in blog posts just like yours.

As if just compensation in a Defective Product Liability Case is a Government Entitlement, misguided citizens seem to see the Pay-Out as a Hand-Out –and not WHO made this Deadly Toy named MR-GO or, more importantly, How they did it.
Soooo, many Taxpayers have begun now to Harp on another supposed Hand Out for New Orleans.
But, we need to Refocus their attention back onto the Criminal Toy Makers, as over half the nation lives in counties with Corps of Engineers Toys (levees)…over half the country.
We need to focus on reforming the Corps of Engineers rather than those who suffer from their catastrophic failures.

Blame Games are why we have Courts. Entitlements are why we have Politicians. The idea that this ruling “opens up the American Taxpayer to another pay-out for New Olreans” is wrong.

Face the Facts:
If the Corps of Engineers had Not MR-GOne there then,
We The People would Not be here now.

Thank you

avatar Sandy Rosenthal November 20, 2009 at 4:54 pm

The consequences of canaling the Mississippi River were known and documented over a century ago.

Furthermore, the levee failures were not characterized as a failure of government. The flooding was due to engineering failure, pure and simple.

When you step into an elevator, you trust you will get to your destination. But we cannot trust engineered structures (levees) built by your Army Corps. The reason is because of the Flood Control Act of 1928 gives our Army Corps no incentive to engineer structures properly, and metes out no consequences should its work fail.

This is important because the majority of the nation’s population lives in counties protected by levees. And the most important levees are built by your Army Corps.

Judge Duval’s ruling shows the Flood Control Act of 1928 must be repealed. It must be done before the administration receives another judgement against it.

And most importantly, it must be done before more lives are lost.

avatar cecelia November 20, 2009 at 5:27 pm

If this court judgement overturns the notion that either the Corps or any organization can “control nature” then I am all for it. If the judgement overturns the notion that we can build in flood plains or drain wetlands and then safely build on them then I am all for it.
And if the judgement finally forces local and state authorities to seriously inspect the levees in their communities and make the necessary repairs, then I am all for it. Most of all, if this judgement holds a negligent government responsible for its negligence then I am for sure all for it.

It isn’t as if there weren’t all sorts of warnings from engineers and environmentalists about the unhappy consequences of suffering from the delusion that one can control nature.

There is a issue I would not be all for – that the taxpayer puts up levees or foots the bill for cleans up after floods while commercial interests make a fortune selling and developing that land. If you benefit financially from the development of land in a flood plain or under sea level – then you need to help pay for what makes that development possible. Now this statement may not be totally applicable to the poor residents of New Orleans, although I would note there were sections along the water front that were occupied by pricey homes. But all over this country states and the feds foot the bill for protecting pricey developments on waterfronts. States pay for beach front restoration so the owners of multi million dollar homes can enjoy their sun and sand. You play – you need to pay.

avatar J.D. Salyer November 23, 2009 at 11:52 am

The Machiavelli reference is very apropos. I get the impression Bacon was another source for this attitude.

When I was in the Navy I knew a guy — an officer, no less — who was convinced that the US government really does know where bin Laden is, because… well, because. Spy satellites, and stuff.

This nigh-religious conviction in the power of technological mastery seems more prevalent among managers & administrators & publicists — i.e., “technocrats” — than it is among actual engineers and scientists, who may have a slightly better intuition regarding the inherent limitations of technology.

avatar dave November 24, 2009 at 11:56 am

Great post, in my opinion.

I appreciate the point of us relying too much on the government (and agree), but I think this particular case also highlights the problem of the commons.

Pre-Katrina, increasing funding for levee work would have been seen as just more wasteful spending, don’t you think?

Yes, poor engineering, but I don’t think the COE was sitting on several hundred million, twiddling their thumbs. Moving dirt costs money and we have to pony up, else things fail – levees, bridges – more on the way, I imagine.

There’s a line, somewhere. I do not know where it is – a good friend of mine, when he hears “That government governs best…”, is reminded of ironclad principles. When I hear it, I think of Somalia.

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