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November 22, 2005

A River Runs Free

A spot of good news from Montana: the Bonner Dam on the Blackfoot River was removed with a minimum of problems. For the first time since at least 1884, that river of literary and cinematic fame is unfettered.

Other dam-removal projects in the Northwest are certainly more ecologically important, but there's something poetically fitting about the Blackfoot running free again. As Norman Maclean explained, "the river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time." And now it does once more.

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Does this make people better off? I fail to get dewy eyed over a river running free since rivers are not sentient creatures and the harnessing of a river to serve the needs of man is a noble thing. I would dam the Grand Canyon if it allowed everyone to go to a twenty hour work week. This adoration of unsullied nature is a sickness.

Posted by: Walter_E_Wallis | Nov 23, 2005 5:17:11 AM

Walter, if we went to a 20-hour work week by such means, what would we do with ourselves in all that extra time? Maybe watch more TV. Or buy more things we don't need, to distract ourselves from the wretchedness we had made of the natural world.

No thanks.

Posted by: Sam | Nov 23, 2005 10:03:42 AM

Walter, the arrogance of humanism is at odds with the realities of man's place on the planet. Fouling our nest for short-term gain is, at best, idiotic, and just because an ideology is capable of forcefully delivering its beliefs doesn't make it true.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Nov 23, 2005 10:14:42 AM

Plumbing and engineering are what keep us from fouling your nest. You just might spend that extra 20 hours educating your children and yourself so you don't get gulled by silly Gaea nonsense.
You could, on the other hand, go back to nature and drink natural water and have your wife spend six hours a day gleaning firewood and needing 9 children so that 3 survive your Luddite hell to adulthood.
The chances are that neither of you would have survived in your Edens. To reject the fruits of the intelligence is ingratitude of the first ordeer.

Posted by: Walter_E_Wallis | Nov 25, 2005 7:29:53 AM

No need to change the subject to Gaia, Walter, nor any need for marginalizing the other with the Luddite reference.

Nor is there a need to repeat the trope about 'back to nature', or guess and try the survival gambit - shall we go winter camping together in the Cascades soon? I have excellent gear. If you're not in good shape I can probably carry some of your stuff for you.

But my point was about the arrogance of humanism...


Posted by: Dan Staley | Nov 28, 2005 9:23:35 AM

Well, I've given up on Walter. He's lost to us. (As we are to him--which suggests that maybe he'd do better to loiter other blogs than this).

But his attacks do raise the deeper question of why sustainability (as it tends to get framed here) is important to us. To use his language, there's the engineering perspective, and then there's something else (something Walter would surely scoff at), which I'll call the holistic perspective.

Sustainability is so compelling, I think, because it rates highly on both fronts. It is engineering, after all, that brought us (for example) human-caused global warming, the Hanford superfund site, weapons of mass destruction, and the collapse of many important fisheries. And, just as surely, it will be engineering that will repair environmental damage, if it is to be repaired; and it will be engineering, in large part, that will enable humans AND nature to thrive for generations to come without high rates of famine or disease--if we devote ourselves to those ends.

So, no one in their right mind is against "plumbing and engineering."

But, equally, no one in their right mind would be against the holistic aspects of these questions either.

Walter's view, which is widely shared (though not by most, I trust), seems profoundly impoverished to me. As if material inputs and outputs were all there is to life. The point of my earlier comment was: why live? What's the point of life if it's just about inputs and outputs? What about the actual experience of living in a vibrant and richly endowed world? What about the dignity and joyfulness of making a beautiful and meaningful life?

Walter's worldview, moreover, seems utterly barren of imagination. He seems to assume that either you're for pipes and ductwork or you're against them. That artists, sages and dreamers are all subversives. That a life not occupied by the flow of dollars and cents is not worth living. As if there were no other way but this one, except perhaps the harsh ways of the ancient past.

With imagination an infinity of other possibilities appears. Our moment in time invites us to envision new ways of life, and to strike better balances. By putting plumbing and engineering to work for these higher purposes in a way that is nimble and artful and creative, we can achieve a better way of life for everyone, which will help not only ourselves but the whole ecosystem of which we are, after all, a part.

Posted by: sam | Nov 28, 2005 10:48:59 AM

Balance, Walter, balance. It's the beauty of aiming for sustainability. Don't mistake appreciation for nature as blind adoration, either...

Posted by: Rachel | Nov 28, 2005 11:04:41 AM

Balance is daming a river for water, power and flood control, as well as recreational boating and lakeside living, but also installing fish ladders and hatcheries and providing for controlled sediment release to restore downstream beaches.
If you lock up nature for the privileged few, how do you make the next generation believe they have a stake in any of it?

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis | Nov 28, 2005 4:20:19 PM

Ummm, not so balanced, Walter, if you ask a fish; or even if you ask a fish biologist...

And: what an interesting inversion! By preserving nature we are "locking it up" for a privileged few; but by destroying natural systems we are somehow making nature available to all. What stake do you imagine future generations will have in depleted ecosystems?

Let's hope future generations don't love nature because it powers their TV, but because rivers flowing free and bursting with wildlife are recognized to have inherent nobility and power.

Posted by: sam | Nov 28, 2005 4:39:51 PM

>>Let's hope future generations don't love nature because it powers their TV, but because rivers flowing free and bursting with wildlife are recognized to have inherent nobility and power. <<

And they love nature because it provides ecosystem services for free, as opposed to human-engineered, expensive, created-in-imperfect-knowledge, needs fixing systems.

Like levees in certain cities that folk didn't bother to maintain.

Plus, Walter's great-grandkids will like the cute, fuzzy bunnies that hop around nature. And the little deers. And the cuddly pandas.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Nov 28, 2005 4:46:11 PM

Nice objective thinking, there.
Build your chalet in the woods, then pull up the drawbridge on everyone else.
You like deer? The laws that protect them were enacted at the behest of hunters, as were the laws protecting migratory birds and game fish.
When nature dams a stream as often happens, the effects on the environment are not mitigated.
I agree about the levees. California's legislators had time this year to pass bills granting illegals driver's licenses and approving Gay marriages, but they didn't have time to pass a comprehensive levee maintenance bill. California's last levee failure, and the New Orleans levee failure were attributed to greenie opposition to maintenance and improvement of the systems. The greenies glory in the restoration of wetlands in the face of historic knowledge that swamps breed malaria and the current knowledge that West Nile follows swamps.
Buy Quinine stocks.
To paraphrase -
God and the engineer we adore, in times of danger and not before.
When the storm is over and things are righted, God is forgotten and the engineer slighted.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis | Nov 29, 2005 7:48:18 AM

>>The greenies glory in the restoration of wetlands in the face of historic knowledge that swamps breed malaria and the current knowledge that West Nile follows swamps. <<

No they don't. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Your posts have garnered far more attention than they deserve, and this is my sign off for replies to you, Walter, and your patently false comments.

Best Regards,

Posted by: Dan Staley | Nov 29, 2005 8:31:03 AM

Please point out the lies.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis | Nov 29, 2005 1:21:20 PM

I'm waiting. You call a man a liar and don't back it up. You know what that makes you.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis | Nov 29, 2005 8:11:36 PM