The photographs and videos that have come out of the Carribbean and Florida have been heart wrenching. The destruction of people’s lives, their homes, their places of business and the structures that support their life has been on a level that is difficult to imagine. As with Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma crashed through the lives of people with an intensity whose impact will remain felt for quite some time. We keep all those impacted by these storms in our thoughts and prayers, and encourage people to support them in whatever way they can. In reading about the storm’s impact on Florida, I’m struck by how so much of what happened there was of our own making!
The Everglades is a marsh system that at one time filled the entire southern portion of the Florida peninsula. There is an anecdote told of the US cavalry, chasing down the Seminole peoples in the latter half of the 19th century. As the cavalry encountered the distinctly inhospitable Everglades, they turned back and said: “Let them have this god-forsaken place!” (heard on CNN reporting on the storm, September 2017). The Everglades is a marsh, some call it a river of grass, since grass covers the slowly moving water that makes its way from Lake Okeechobee toward the ocean, a sheet of water, turning the area into a land of grasses, some sections of dry land, an ecosystem that supports thousands of flora and fauna. It was not a place where hotels and resorts and private homes could be built in any number.
But beginning in the 1880s, after the displacement of the native peoples from most of the southern part of the peninsula, farmers and other developers began to dig large canals to drain away large amounts of the “river” that constitutes the Everglades. This enabled farmers to put in huge plantations and developers to build up the coastal cities, including Miami, to the point that it is not a destination for people from all over the world, densely populated, and quite vulnerable to the kind of destruction that Irma visited there last week.
The history of this region speaks to human ingenuity in remaking an ecosystem in order to create significant benefits for human beings. There are numerous examples of this throughout the earth, the biggest and most comprehensive being the impact of human activity on the dramatic climate changes that we are experiencing. Human ingenuity, creativity and technological prowess have brought great benefit to many people and they are a great blessing for us. The difficult truth, though, is that while we have created these benefits, we have done it with little if any attention to the boomerang effects of our action. Fossil fuels have generated tremendous progress for human civilization, but they also are a primary source of changes to the climate the threaten that same civilization. We build cities, resorts, homes in areas that are quite vulnerable to weather-related disasters, but never consider whether that constant re-building is wise, or we rebuild with little consideration to the fact of sea level rises, more powerful storms, etc.
I remember a few dozen years ago a story on the news about a cliff outside of Los Angeles, CA, with a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean. People built beautiful homes on the cliff. Turns out that cliff regularly experienced land slides, as it sits on the San Andreas fault and prone to shifts in the soil. Some of these homes fell down the side of the cliff as the soil under then gave way. What did the owners do? They built again!!! At the time my father remarked: Why do people build their lives in places where it is likely they will lose everything?! Good question!
Why do we build our lives with little regard for the impact on nature and why do we seem to refuse to learn the lessons that nature teaches us? Perhaps it is perverse human trait, to believe we can overcome whatever nature can throw at us. I hope in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, as people rebuild their lives and communities, that they do it with some attention to how they can work with nature, rather than in conflict with it.
Before the workings of nature, a dose of humility is a better way forward!
At CFET our mission is to educate people toward a more gentle way of walking on the earth, a way that respects, and moves with, the harmony of existing ecosystems. You can become our partners in this “great work” by contributing your time, talent and/or treasure. Visit us at www.cfet.org or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us as 856-365-8111.
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.