I wrote this piece in late 2007 for an issue of Orion Magazine that collected essays from writers across the world about the impact of climate change on their immediate lives. (Orion did not end up publishing it.) The essay focuses on land use in New Orleans but the overarching theme, hubris, seems timely in light of the environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. I don't think it can be repeated too many times: Katrina's impact on New Orleans (a consequence of levee failures, greedy and thoughtless modern development of flood prone areas, environmental degradation of the wetlands, etc.) and the oil geyser in the Gulf were both man made disasters, failures of engineering, imagination, and respect for the natural environment.
Pandora’s Box in New Orleans
In our creation myths, the Divine grows weary of the small, weak, and overreaching efforts of man and finds it necessary to bring about a grand, humbling event. In Greek mythology man was punished for presumptuously accepting Zeus’ stolen fire from Prometheus by being left to suffer the ills from Pandora’s box. In Genesis we see the vision of man discontent with the bounty provided him consuming the one thing denied by God and, as a result, cast out of paradise and into a world of suffering. Hubristic at our core believing in our hearts that we too are Gods, mankind is yet to be humbled.
I live in a Great American City – New Orleans – that has recently suffered an enormous catastrophe that might have highlighted our more modern brands of hubris. In the myriad causes of the disaster we see many consequences of our vast disrespect for the natural world. We walled in the reluctant Mississippi River for a thousand miles with levees and starved Louisiana’s coastal wetlands of the sediment from which they were created, thus degrading nature’s best storm buffer. At the behest of powerful development interests, we have literally stolen earth for over a century by busily draining thousands of acres of swamps with modern pumping devices to build tract houses below sea-level. We have carved up the already struggling wetlands with shipping canals that allow salt water to infect the brackish wetlands and, more to the point, allow oil interests to extract fossil fuels from below the beds of the wetlands causing the ground beneath to subside. In a world of rising seas from global warming that will only increase the risk of bigger, more powerful storms in the future, our city seems to have learned little from our suffering.
Before the twentieth century, the people who planned and built the historic sections of the city that our visitors are most familiar with were not armed with technology to drain or wall off nature so they built with nature rather than against it. Their good sense resulted in one of the most arresting images to come out of post-Katrina New Orleans, rivaling even the widely publicized photos of a dog eating a bloated human body: a diptych of maps that appeared in The Times Picayune, one showing the current city with those areas that flooded cast in blue and the other showing the pre-twentieth century city. The blue areas in the former were all just beyond the historic footprint of the city and, without exception, none of the flooded areas had been deemed habitable by the city’s fathers.
Without the tools to try to fight nature, and with a consequent respect and deference for its powers, the city's fathers had built their city on the high ground along the Mississippi created from millennia of alluvial silt deposited on the river’s banks as it crept along its crescent shaped turn. And even there, they built on piers, elevating structures several feet above the ground and likely future floods.
For want of a plan that would have prevented the foolish redevelopment of the city’s catastrophically flooded twentieth century neighborhoods, the city has allowed individuals to rebuild as they please. Now here and there among the rows of boarded up slabs homes in the miles of devastation are picture-perfect renovations with manicured gardens and owners who hope and believe that levees can be built bigger and pumps stronger to keep nature – growing ever more furious - at bay. They are encouraged by our leaders who refuse to tell people things that they don’t want to hear or tell us that we should bow our heads to anything. They are emboldened by our technologies, our supposed strengths, that in their noxious by-products, including our belief that they have allowed us to make the natural world after our image and desires, have only put us at greater risk of crumbling into the sea. Believing as we do, we won't back down from this fight and, if history is any lesson, we won't win.