The Control of Nature

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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.

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