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You Can’t Fight Mother Nature

The laws we make cannot change the way nature governs itself. Failing to account for this in the past has led to unanticipated, sometimes disastrous consequences.


By Charles Linn, FAIA

On December 19, President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The Senate removed two important provisions from the House’s original version, which Bush had promised to veto. One would have eliminated some $12 billion in tax breaks enjoyed by the oil industry to gain money to fund alternative energy. Another would have required 15 percent of the power produced by electric utilities to come from renewable sources such as wind and solar. California and some other states already have laws that are much tougher than that, but 21 states do not require their utilities to use any renewables at all. It is frustrating, to say the least, to watch the Senate enable some of the country’s most prolific carbon producers to continue to do business as usual. And, frightening, considering that in the end, what history shows us about climate-related disasters is the only laws that really matter are the laws of Nature. Ultimately, we can’t control what the weather does, but we can certainly use what we know to prevent or at least diminish the dangers it poses. When we fail to act on what we know, the consequences can be devastating.

Great dust storms of the 1930s
Image courtesy Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress
A world-wide wheat shortage during World War I started a chain of events that led to the great dust storms of the 1930s.

The Mississippi River breaches a levee near Bordelonville, Louisiana
Image courtesy University Of Chicago Library, Department of Special Collections
The Mississippi River breaches a levee near Bordelonville, Louisiana, during the 1927 flood. Twenty-seven thousand square miles were affected by the flood, which was exacerbated by irrational flood control methodologies.

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The dust storm that rolled out of the plains in January of 1932 was unlike anything that Americans had ever seen before. It rose 10,000 feet into the air as it stormed across Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. People said that it was like a blizzard of dirt, piling itself in the streets, filling homes, clogging lungs, and obscuring the sky. What is largely forgotten today is that this was not an isolated event. It was the first of hundreds of dust storms that would roll across the country over the next five years. In May of 1934, one of the worst carried 350 million tons of soil across the U.S., necessitating that streetlights be turned on at midday in New York City, before it sailed out over the Atlantic.

The causes of the great dusters can be traced to a convergence of several forces. Among them were a poor understanding of the consequences that would come from disturbing the Great Plains’ natural ecosystem; agricultural economics that were felt on a global scale for the first time; and a significant swing in weather patterns. As world-wide wheat supplies vanished during World War I, the government took control and stabilized the price for the duration of the war, first at $2.00 per bushel, then $2.26. To put this in perspective, wheat has been as low as $5.00 a bushel within the last year. High prices and wet weather in the 1920s, along with tractors that allowed a 2,000 percent increase in productivity over farming with horses, granted the sodbusters a period of amazing prosperity. 

Between 1909 and 1929, 32 million acres of prairie were turned under. Plows sheared off the roots of perennial grasses that went 6 feet down and had been growing for 35,000 years. But, one thing the roots were good for was holding topsoil in the years when the rain didn’t come. When the war ended and wheat prices began a years-long slide, farmers had to plow up more land just to pay their debts. It all ended when a global surplus of wheat made the crop of 1930 worthless, just as a decade-long drought—called the worst in 300 years—set in. Without crops or grasses covering the land, billions of tons of some of the best topsoil in the world were free to blow away.

The great Mississippi River flood of 1927 is another event that merits our attention. It inundated some 27,000 square miles of the Mississippi Valley, after months of record-setting rains fell over much of the river system’s huge watershed. The effects of the flood were made much worse by the Mississippi River Commission’s controversial decision in the 1880s to pursue a single means of flood control: levees. The theory was that with levees restricting the flow of water on both sides of the river, powerful currents during flood stage would deepen the channel enough to accommodate the additional volume. Floods in 1882, 1912, and 1913 motivated the commission to build levees ever higher, while nature’s own strategies for flood control, such as the use of natural floodplains to store runoff in times of high water, and the cutting off of loops in the channel that cause floodwaters to back up, were ignored as a matter of policy, as were reforestation, constructed reservoirs, and the diversion of water to the Gulf of Mexico via the Atchafalaya River.

The areas affected by the flood were mostly rural, and so the extent of this event is largely forgotten today. But, to get a sense of its scale, when a levee near Mounds Landing, Mississippi, broke in April of 1927, water poured through the breech with the force of Niagara Falls. That crevasse flooded an area the size of Connecticut. Land where over 930,000 people had lived was covered by floodwater sometime during 1927.

If there is anything to be learned from these events, it is that preventing, or at least diminishing, the effects of a natural disaster is possible if we pay attention to what nature is telling us, through such things as the present shrinking of the polar ice caps. But, if a disaster does occur, things can never be put back the way they were. People could have done a better job of preventing both the Dirty Thirties and the Great Flood of 1927. The government did act, finally, to see that these disasters did not reoccur, and in fact, vestiges of the programs that Congress created to do this still exist today.

The slow pace at which our climate is changing is a double-edged sword. It can lull us into complacency or give us time to make changes that will give our descendants a better future. The Senate’s elimination of passages in the energy bill that would have helped stimulate the development of alternative sources of energy wastes time by delaying their inevitable deployment—that would seem to indicate complacency.

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This article appeared in the January 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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