Louisiana is us

Looking back over LI’s life (smoking opium and sitting in my cork lined room), there is one political book that stands out for us, still. A book that forever changed the way we thought about politics. The book is Cadillac Desert. Marc Reisner abjured parts of the book before he died, but this piece in 2000 drastically condenses the case against the way in which the treadmill of production has changed the environmental interaction between water and the land in the last century. It includes this passage:

“The socio-economic benefits of water development are undeniable. Even environmentalists acknowledge them. The problems created by water development are still under-valued, and they will get worse. Here, in a nutshell, are some of the big ones:
• the sedimentation of reservoirs on which millions of people have come to depend;
• the ruin, through salt build-up, of millions of acres of once-fertile soil;
• the creation of cities in deserts where they arguably shouldn't exist, and then their vulnerability to earthquakes, which can destroy aqueducts and cause dams to collapse;
• the stoppage of river-borne sediment and the erosion of river deltas and ocean shorelines;
• the disappearance of world treasures like the Aral Sea in Russia and Tulare Lake in California, as the rivers that fed them are diverted elsewhere;
• the collapse of great fish habitats, like the Caspian Sea's sturgeon and the Great Lakes' lake trout;
• the insidious bio-accumulation of methylated mercury in water, fish, and ultimately humans;
• the displacement of millions of people from fertile river valleys;
• the rampant deforestation that accompanies most dam projects in rainforest zones.

Solving a problem as complex, immense, and expensive as this will be difficult. We cannot do so without sealing up the oil corridor channels, taking down the Missouri River dams, and breaching the levees — at least south of New Orleans. The economic and social repercussions would be awesome. But the economic and social repercussions of doing nothing are also awesome. For the next three or four decades, until the Gulf of Mexico is at New Orleans' door and the tidal surge from a Category 5 hurricane threatens to put that city twenty feet under water, we can shove this dilemma onto our children and grandchildren.”

‘Our,’ there, is an honorific, and as we have seen in New Orleans, our grandchildren get the tender attentions of government financed private companies restoring and rebuilding, while their children, all that their, are displaced, harried, intentionally dispirited, and made into prison fodder to serve the patho-industries that give so generously to the government, and have that eternal source of free advertising, the evening news, to keep processing all that theirness -- a distant, profitable offshoot of the slave trade.

However, segmenting the class and race issues here from the environmental issues blinds us to the essentially connectedness of all these issues. The dying of the Louisiana coast -- and the probability that hurricanes will be striking there again, hard – would seem to have been raised by Katrina – but to raise issues like this, which strike at the dysfunction of the system, is to get uncomfortably close to a true apocalypse, when false apocalypses are much more entertaining. That is why, after all, the latter exist.

Michael Greenwald’s article in the Post Sunday section is a long, depressing read – and funny enough, it too goes back to 2000. LI – as we have smugly noted before – also wrote an article about the Mississippi system and the disaster that was coming in 2000. Our article was about this odd gap in the presidential race – neither Gore, nor Bush, nor Nader seemed to care about a very predictable natural disaster that was looming, and that was aggravated by the limits on engineering a river – a limit that is now entering, I imagine, its final testing stage. There is no one central problem with the Mississippi and the Gulf interaction, but many of the problems do radiate out from the fact that, if it were not for fifty years of engineering, the Mississippi would by now have turned into the bed of the Atchafalaya River.

However, let’s not go there. The Greenwald piece slams the Corps of Engineers. And it raises the question: why is the Corps of Engineers unsinkable?
“In 2000, when I was writing a 50,000-word Washington Post series about dysfunction at the Army Corps of Engineers, I highlighted a $65 million flood-control project in Missouri as Exhibit A. Corps documents showed that the project would drain more acres of wetlands than all U.S. developers do in a typical year, but wouldn't stop flooding in the town it was meant to protect. FEMA's director called it "a crazy idea"; the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional director called it "absolutely ridiculous."
Six years later, the project hasn't changed -- except for its cost, which has soared to $112 million. Larry Prather, chief of legislative management for the Corps, privately described it in a 2002 e-mail as an "economic dud with huge environmental consequences." Another Corps official called it "a bad project. Period." But the Corps still wants to build it.”
The Corps, as Reisner shows in great detail, has never been stopped by a bad project. In fact, due to changes made by Reagan in the way the Corps operates, the Corps can’t even tell a bad project from a good one – it is hemmed in by law from studying the safety effect of its projects on people, or from considering environmental impacts. Reagan had good reason to like the Corps – while the story of the 1980 election is all about how conservatives won, in actual fact, Reagan’s wins in the West came from his opposition to Carter’s retrenchment of government water projects. Conservatism did not, at some golden period, mean smaller government – it meant, and it will always mean, government-business interactions to exploit the working class. Period. If politics were a gemstone, that is the facet that the jeweler would carve too – only clumsy jewelers think that politics is about big or small government. In the same way that Reagan’s anti-communism certainly accommodated ending grain embargoes on the Soviets, his small government ethos was mitigated by his knowledge that agribusinesses weren’t going to be shoveling money into his campaign if he really left the land and water to self-organize.

But this is simply to cavil at Greenwald’s claim that all presidents have tried to control the Corps.

The bulk of the article is about the Corps systematic, and encouraged, hydrological malfeasance around New Orleans:

“After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Corps also began building levees to protect the city from the Gulf of Mexico, but its misguided plan led to even more destruction during Katrina. The Corps put most of its levees around undeveloped and highly vulnerable floodplains instead of focusing on protection for existing developments -- partly because Corps cost-benefit analyses did not consider the cost of human life or environmental degradation, and partly because powerful developers owned swampland in those vulnerable floodplains. Katrina destroyed many of the houses built on those former swamplands.

The Louisiana delegation and the Corps also deserve blame for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, an alternative shipping route to the Port of New Orleans. The outlet was always popular with port officials and a few shipping executives, but it destroyed more than 20,000 acres of wetlands, created a "hurricane superhighway" into the city and never attracted much traffic. Now computer models suggest it amplified Katrina's surge by two feet.

And the outlet was only the most destructive of the pork projects the Corps has been building in Louisiana when it should have been upgrading levees and pursuing its plan to restore the state's coastal wetlands. In 2000, I described how the Corps had spent $2 billion wrestling the wild Red River into a slack-water barge channel that wasn't being used by any barges; four of its dams had been named for Louisiana members of Congress, and the entire channel had been named for former Louisiana senator J. Bennett Johnston (D). The Corps was also spending $750 million to build a lock that was supposedly needed to accommodate increasing barge traffic on the New Orleans Industrial Canal -- even though barge traffic was steadily decreasing. The Corps spent $1.9 billion in Louisiana in the five years before Katrina, more than it spent in any other state. But all that money didn't keep New Orleans dry.”

Having lived on both the Red River (Shreveport) and the Mississippi (New Orleans), I find this more than usually interesting. There are a number of converging factors here that aren’t mentioned by Greenwald, however. One is that the channeling of the Mississippi naturally increases the force of its flow. Plus, the Corps is dedicated to desilting the river. The result is that it has been tunneling its riverbead as it goes below New Orleans. This, in turn, has an effect on one of the peculiarities of the Louisiana coast. The coast is made up of what are, in effects, huge blocks of mud. There are heated debates about the blockiness – is this natural, or is it the result of the numberless channels cut and never backfilled by the petro companies? In any case, for shipping purposes, the river is being kept from its delta creating function. And if delta isn’t created, land starts slipping into the Gulf. But this isn’t the only factor. One that I have no scientific backup for – an LI speculative special – has to do with the dead zones created in the Gulf by the delivery of massive amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and other pollutants by the river. It has become a sort of pipeline delivering these things to the Gulf, and the Gulf, in turn, develops huge areas of hypoxia. Oxygenless water, in which living things like fish die. It is the kind of thing that has turned the Black Sea into a gigantic, mostly lifeless area. The Gulf is more than due for a prolonged period in which hypoxia simply becomes permanent:

Instead of getting better, the Gulf's dead zone could quickly get a lot worse, says Scavia. "There comes a time when the fisheries collapse," he says. Not only will commercial harvests plummet, but fish and shrimp reproduction will also drop off. In some cases, a commercially popular fish might completely disappear.
Unfortunately, he says, no one knows how close the Gulf is to that point. It might take a year, or it could take 2 decades. The problem, Scavia notes, is that once a hypoxia-fostered collapse starts, "it happens fast" and can be devilishly hard to reverse.”

Here's the speculative part. The dead zone is interesting insofar as its seems to correlate with another fact about the Gulf – although whether there is a mutually causative relationship is not for LI to determine: the water surface temperatures in the Gulf are rising. And that rise in the surface temperature feeds the storm cycle.
All of which is to point out that the treadmill of production is paralleled by another interconnected system – a geographic and planetary one. To keep the former going, in Louisiana, means trying to differ the consequences on the ecological system. This is where the Corps becomes the pointmen for our blindness about these processes. Their job is to extend that blindness a little more. Build more levies on the Mississippi, concentrating the water flow even more. Keep dredging the silt, which causes more land to salinate and flood. Keep the irrigation system going that delivers the pollutants to the river, from which they can be deposited into the Gulf, where they can enlarge the killing zones.

To paraphrase Martin Niemoller -- first they came for the crabs, but I figured, fuck em. Then they came for the rivers, and I figured, fuck em again. Then they hunted the life out of the oceans and made them into toilets, and I figured, fuck em again if they can't take a joke. And then the seas and the winds rose and the dead zone became human. And a little voice in the wind said: fuck em.