Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.
In honor of The Incubator’s major kickoff, I have decided to write an entry a bit longer than will be the standard. But it addresses something which is fundamental to environmental issues and fundamental to the future of our home, the planet Earth.
The 19th and 20th centuries were perhaps the greatest eras for civil engineering in the history of the human race. With advances in materials science, great minds rewrought the face of the earth on a scale never before imagined, let alone possible. One of the first such projects was the Erie Canal, built from 1817 to 1832. It was the answer to a long bandied-about question of how the eastern seaboard of our new country would transport the considerable wealth of natural resources, food stuffs and, later, manufactured goods from the interior of the Ohio Valley and Great Plains.
The difficulty of the task was immense. A lock at the time could lift 12 feet. The land rises about 600 feet from the Hudson to Lake Erie, necessitating at least 50 locks across the 363-mile span, barreling through Montezuma Marsh where over 1,000 of the workers died from swamp fever, charging up the 80-foot hard dolomitic limestone cliff that is the Niagara Escarpment, and with the inexperienced crew dropping the occasional boulder on top of people’s homes. Thomas Jefferson denied initial attempts to construct it as a result, calling it “a little short of madness.” Several other plans were considered at the time for the same purposes – one of which was an effort to expand the Potomac River with the Patowmack Canal. This was the brainchild of George Washington himself, who gave a frequent toast of “Success to the navigation of the Potomac!” The beginnings of this canal were built, but the backing company eventually folded and sold all of its assets to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company – builders of the C & O canal which today runs 184 miles from Cumberland, West Virginia through Harper’s Ferry to Georgetown.
These canals were followed by the great expansion of once best-in-the-world American railroads like the Transcontinental Railroad. Its final golden spike was almost hammered in at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869 by Leland Stanford (later to be founder of Stanford University) who spirited the whole thing into existence (he swung and missed the spike and a construction worker had to do it for him). This was succeeded by great advances in construction with high-tensile strength steel frames showcased by Gustave Eiffel’s 1886 Statue of Liberty, which made possible the skyscrapers that now form the core of every major city. These same advances in steel also led to such icons as the Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1937. Advances in concrete made the Hoover Dam possible in 1936.
These advances were not limited to U.S. borders, though. After all, Gustave Eiffel more famously designed the tower which bears his name in Paris for the 1889 World’s Exhibition. The Suez (1869) and Panama (1914) canals are far more important trans-shipment points today, and were more difficult to build in terms of technical engineering and lives lost – around 27,500 for the Panama Canal and uncounted thousands for the Suez, which has also been subject of several international kerfuffles, such as that surrounding the construction of the Aswan Dam. More recently, China’s Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River, now the largest hydroelectric facility in the world, was completed just last year.
It is this project which brings me to my point. The Three Gorges Dam is, no doubt about it, a great technical feat, a wonder of the power of modern science. It is also, as many of you may know, an extremely controversial project, with immense environmental, social and cultural destruction coming as a direct result of its construction. The 375-mile-long reservoir which holds around one billion cubic feet of water flooded around 250 square miles of land requiring the relocation of 1.24 million people. The dam has forever altered the Yangtze’s river ecosystem with disastrous effects on biodiversity as a result of habitat loss, impedance of river flow, and major increases in concentration and types of pollutants in the river water. Such disastrous impacts are also the subject of Vandana Shiva’s excellent, stick-it-to-the-man book Water Wars, which discusses the idiocy of the mega dams of India’s past half century. I’d venture a guess that many of the mega projects in American history had no fewer environmental and societal impacts, though the voices of the affected have faded with time.
There is clearly a growing recognition of the impacts of such projects as well as the more fundamental issue – the type of narrow technological mindedness that fuels these projects to begin with. A recent New York Times article is yet another in a stream of those that have discussed the ripple effects that the film Avatar is having on our society. The article discusses James Cameron’s (the film’s director and mastermind) conversion to the cause of environmental activism as a result of his work on Avatar and the fictional world of Pandora. He has recently become the champion of tribes in the interior of the Amazon whose existence is threatened by a proposed mega dam in Brazil which will flood hundreds of square miles of what remains of this great tropical rainforest, which all humans and all living things depend on for something as basic as oxygen to breathe.
I like to think that we are entering a new stage in the history of humankind, that we as a species are maturing beyond thinking that just because we can, we should.
While I did enjoy Avatar as a film, I am not advocating what some have come to associate the film with – throwing off the chains that Jean-Jacques Rousseau called for in the famous opening line to his work The Social Contract, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” Environmental consciousness as I see it and as I believe it does not mean that we return to living in the bush. It does not mean wholesale abandonment of our cities and technology and (God forbid!) Facebook. Technology undoubtedly has a role to play, and a large one at that. Environmental consciousness means thinking about and acting upon what can be accomplished through changes in our own behavior. It means questioning how our relentless pursuit and deification of technology affects ourselves, other living things, and the entire planet in the interconnected wonder of a web we call Life.
The kinds of mega engineering feats we have pursued over the past two centuries resulted from the dogma of technological progress. It seems in our collective reverie over what was possible with advances in science and technology, we forgot the basic fact that technology is by definition a tool, and that we are supposed to be the ones wielding it, not it controlling us. We need to remember this simple, simple, simple fact. And in doing so, let the less than savory technologies fall behind. What use is a hammer that always smashes your thumb in order to drive in a nail?
What the world needs now is to think and act to create a place for ourselves which fits within the system in which we are growing up.
Posted in TechnoLogical