In an idiotic stunt on her Fox News television program on September 6, right wing commentator Laura Ingraham thought it would be good fun to upset liberals by sticking plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs into a slab of cooked meat and then sucking on one of the straws. The stunt revealed more about her emotional immaturity and that of her viewers who might have enjoyed the bizarre demonstration than it did about the ultimate worth of the causes she was mocking. That wasn’t her point, of course; the point for people like Ms. Ingraham and her fans is provoking liberals merely for the dubious enjoyment of provoking liberals, an attitude that displays all the maturity of a seventh grader shooting spitballs from the back of a classroom.
An Optimist and a Pessimist, an 1893 painting by Vladimir Makovsky (1846-1920).
The unwillingness of bad faith media figures like Laura Ingraham to honestly and substantively discuss issues such as the environment generally, and the Green New Deal in particular, reveals their worries about how environmental initiatives like the Global Climate Strike may disrupt their lives and worldviews, and how because of their fears they resent the people backing the initiatives. They see it all as an infringement on their liberty rather than as a concession to sharing limited resources and playing nice with those unlike themselves. To them, it is not a matter of viewing the relative fullness or emptiness of a glass as it is a matter of resenting the people telling them that for the health of the planet and all its inhabitants, flora as well as fauna, all of us had better accept the situation of a glass not entirely full because constant demands by a relative few for an always full glass are causing environmental degradation and eventually, perhaps sooner rather then later, the glass will be empty for everyone.
But that’s what environmental science is telling us. Getting upset about it or denying it and hiding one’s head in the sand is not going to change it, any more than immature and unhelpful behaviors have ever changed other scientific realities. Worse yet is attacking the messengers in a bad faith attempt to disregard the messages. Why disregard clear, coherent messages? Because they disrupt the status quo for powerful people with vested interests in keeping things as they are, in continuing the business as usual of corporate profiteering at the expense of the long term habitability of the commons. Right wing pundits may not always consciously carry water for corporate exploiters of the environment and of workers, but since their interests often align with them the result is the same. The pundits know their audience is uniquely susceptible to fear and hate mongering, and they peddle those wares regularly to enrich themselves.
In this talk Noam Chomsky gave in April 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts, he looked back at the original New Deal to examine how the Green New Deal promises to change economic relationships while enacting energy and environmental initiatives.
The Green New Deal is felt as a threat by right wingers and by entrenched corporate interests because its environmental initiatives will reach into and change the entire economy, and that’s something they cannot help but see any other way than as a negative, a glass half empty. The privileges of white people generally, and of rich people in particular, will be eroded during these economic changes, and that’s a good thing for everyone else and for the planet, because the over extension and abuse of those privileges has been largely responsible for getting all of us into this mess in the first place. No matter how the over privileged feel about the changes, they will have to accept them and get used to them, because the alternative for them is grimmer still, as well as for everyone on our lifeboat Earth as it continues moving around the Sun.
Instagram influencers are multiplying like flies, and their presence is merely annoying to most reasonable people who are not unduly affected by their activities, that is until the influencers started sitting in Joshua trees and trampling fields of California poppies. The young woman who posed for pictures while sitting in a Joshua tree often exhibits outlandish behavior to slake her thirst for attention and to cynically exploit her fans for money, and both outcomes have until now been a sideshow within the larger culture. Plants and animals don’t share any interest in Instagram idiocy, though, and when they are drawn into it and abused, then it’s up to people with common sense and a sense of decency to defend them.
A Joshua tree silhouetted by a summer sunset in the California high desert. Photo by Jessie Eastland. ThisYucca brevifolia looks quite noble in its own right, and would not be improved by the addition of some attention-seeking nitwit hanging out in its branches.
There appears to be no National Park Service ruleexplicitly forbidding visitors to Joshua Tree National Park from climbing on and sitting in the fragile trees. Maybe the Park Service assumed people had more sense and more decency than to do those things. Most people do; but rules, like locks, are not made for most people – they are made for the few without any sense or decency. The Park Service does have a rule requiring a permit for commercial photography, which Instagram photos of celebrities surely are, and if the Joshua tree sitter did bother to get a permit, the Park Service must have asked her plans, or should have. If Park Service employees granted her permission anyway, then the rules need to change, even if Joshua trees are not yet on the Endangered Species List.
The fields of wildflowers currently blooming in California are largely under the jurisdiction of California’s park system. California State Parks have rules protecting the wildflowers from being trampled by the thousands of visitors that come to see them. The main rule Instagram influencers appear to violate states that visitors should stay on the trails and not traipse off into the fields. One person going off a trail may not cause much damage, but thousands and tens of thousands doing it causes damage that can take years for nature to repair, if it ever does. Like the National Park Service, California State Parks also have a rule requiring a permit for commercial photography. The Instagram influencers and their photography crews are probably violating rules both by straying off the trails and by not getting a permit, because again, if they sought a permit they might have to be honest about their plans.
As the recent government shutdown demonstrated, the nation’s parks are staffed lightly – a Thin Gray and Green Line, if you will – and it doesn’t take much reduction in staffing to incur a breakdown in order and civility caused by a destructive minority of visitors who sneer at the idea of conservation and whose idea of enjoying nature involves only callous, swaggering domination over it. Park employees, whether at National or State Parks, have always had their hands full keeping that crowd under control so that they don’t destroy the environment along with the peaceful enjoyment of it by other visitors. Now they also have to cope with Instagram influencers, swooping in like flies, and following after them the swarms they have influenced, all bent on twisting nature to their own perverse, fairy tale vision of it. These are the self-absorbed people accidentally plunging to their deaths off cliffs in the Grand Canyon and in Yosemite while foolishly trying to take unsafe selfies.
Presumably no poppies were harmed in overlaying Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky”, from their 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon, on this scene from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The original editions of both survive intact and can be enjoyed by themselves. It is possible to create without trampling and destroying in a pathetic attempt to call attention to oneself.
If people want to behave foolishly and others want to watch them do it, that’s their own business. Most of it is relatively harmless, even when influencers have taken to extorting hotel and restaurant owners for free lodging and food and drinks. They’re not doing anything journalists haven’t always done. It’s just that since it is easier to declare oneself an Instagram or YouTube influencer than it is to gain employment with an organization churning out reputable journalism, there are now hordes of them, descending like ravenous flies on resorts worldwide. Even the shallow influencer whose parents bought her way into a university she was supremely unqualified to enter, even she is harmless in most ways other than as any kind of role model, because in addition to her other selfish behavior, she has displayed a dearth of moral character by throwing her parents under the bus soon after the scandal made news. It is when these influencers trespass on nature that reasonable people have to object and draw a line, warning them they have gone too far and disturbed what really matters in the world. As for that fickle portion of the public, the easily influenced, they might consider how altering the title of this post applies to them, as in “Look at this, Idiot!”
Spring is around the corner, and with it comes the urge in some people to sow seeds or buy plants. Arbor Day follows in April, on the 26th, and some folks may be tempted then to plant a tree. Or many trees. In the last 20 years the Chinese and Indians have planted millions of trees in their countries, and NASA has noted from space the greening of those places on Earth. China and India also happen to be contributing greatly to air pollution as they industrialize and their inhabitants adopt a First World lifestyle, and their planting of trees does not entirely offset that, but still the result is better than if they had done nothing.
Rosa ‘Jean Giono’, a hybrid tea rose introduced by the French hybridizer Alain Meilland in 1996. Photo by T.Kiya. The Meilland firm created the renowned ‘Peace’ hybrid tea rose in 1935. Hybrid tea roses are undeniably beautiful, but that beauty often comes at a cost in deficiencies in other areas such as disease resistance. It is tempting to resort to various nasty concoctions in order to keep them looking their best. Either find a better way, or don’t grow them at all and seek out hardier heirloom roses grown on their own roots instead.
Live in an apartment with no outside space at all? You can’t plant a full size tree, though there are palms and ornamental figs that fit the bill on a small scale. Growing plants indoors helps clean the air every bit as much as outdoor plants, leaf for leaf. Have a small space outside, perhaps on a sunny balcony? Consider planting one rose bush in a pot to itself that you can pamper like the Little Prince with his single rose, and then cut down to a few short canes in preparation for bringing inside for the winter. Have some outdoor space left over? Plant one or two patio variety tomato plants and add some herbs at their feet.
The point is to do something, and not to allow the scale of global problems overwhelm you into paralysis. People have similar fears about political action, even something as basic as voting. What use is my tiny contribution, they ask. Well, it’s something; it’s better than nothing. Earth Day is also coming up, on April 22, and instead of dwelling on the impossibility of one person saving the entire Earth, it would be more practical to grow at least one plant. Sow a seed, even one as insignificant as a mustard seed. You might discover after a while that in taking one small action to nurture life close to home you have saved more than you imagined possible, starting with yourself.
This is the entire 30 minute Canadian animated film by Frédéric Back that was released in 1987 and won the Academy Award in 1988 for Best Animated Short Film. It is based on a 1953 allegorical tale by the French author, Jean Giono, about a shepherd who sowed tens of thousands of tree seeds in a barren area in the foothills of the French Alps during the first half of the twentieth century.
Difficult as it may be to find a silver lining to all the flooding brought on in the mid-Atlantic states by Hurricane Florence, there is something to be said for how flooding can rejuvenate soils, replenish groundwater, and also bring home to some people the foolishness of their ways. It’s terrible that poor people lost their homes because they have few options available for where they build them or, in the case of mobile homes, park them. The wealthy people who built expensive beach front properties should have less cause for sympathy from the rest of the population.
The newer difficulty with hurricane damage is due to the effects of global warming, and that is the rising problem of inland flooding. It used to be that the primary problems caused by hurricanes were storm surge along the coast and wind damage everywhere until they weakened upon moving inland. Lately, sluggishness in a warmer atmosphere causes more hurricanes to stall over land, where they drop upwards of tens of inches of rain inland over the course of days. Hurricanes now are less likely to move quickly after landfall, dropping less than ten inches of rain on inland locations.
People in Vanni, Sri Lanka, coping with rainfall and flooding from Cyclone Nisha in November 2008. Photo by trokilinochchi.
People who haven’t foolishly spent riches on beachfront property within feet of harm’s way, people who have instead built their houses inland on properties well away from the dangers of storm surge, now find themselves nevertheless dealing with catastrophic flooding as hurricanes dump tens of inches of rain over their inland homes, overwhelming the capacity of present infrastructure to cope with those intense events. What are these reasonable people to do?
Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie perform their original song “When the Levee Breaks” in 1929, a song which refers to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Led Zeppelin performed their own altered version of the song in 1971, and that version has since become the most well known.
They can’t fight rising water; to try is futile. The best they can do is to to work with the water and give it a place to go. Levees don’t work without spillways. Paying attention to where the high ground is always pays off in emergencies, and it’s interesting how many people, divorced as they are from nature, fail to include it in their calculations when buying or building a house. Poor people often don’t have that luxury. Wealthier people, who have options, should not be bailed out by everyone else when their expensive houses slip underwater. The days of not taking severe weather events into account when choosing where to live are over. Escaping the effects of severe weather will be impossible, however, as people who have been flooded out of their inland homes hurricanes now know, and that leaves taking sensible measures to cope with the consequences of global warming in order to go on living.
People living in the eastern half of the United States are used to hazy conditions in the summer, which are typically caused by high humidity. Large amounts of water vapor in the air diffracts sunlight, creating haze. “Hazy, hot, and humid” is a typical summertime forecast for the eastern half of the country. This summer, however, and particularly in August, conditions are even hazier than usual, bringing on for some people respiratory distress symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, and congested lungs, and even aggravating heart problems. For the answer, look to a record summer wildfire season all the way on the other end of the country, in California, Oregon, Washington, and some other western states, as well as western Canada.
The prevailing winds at northern hemisphere mid-latitudes move west to east, of course, and there is so much smoke being produced by fires in the west this summer that not even the Rocky Mountains present enough of an obstacle to block the progression of all that smoke across the country to the midwest and then to the east coast. Most of the smoke has stayed to the north, with some drifting into the mid Atlantic states and very little making its way into the south. Besides promoting unusually hazy skies for all and respiratory distress for some, the smoke has created intensely red sunsets and high rainfall events, all because of the extra particulates floating in the atmosphere.
Smoke plume from the Holy fire in Orange County, California, on the morning of August 10, 2018. Photo by Shannon1.
The situation for people living in the west is dire not only on account of the great amount of smoke but because of the threat to life and property posed by the fires. Naturally the effects of the wildfires are at their worst closest to the flames. For people in the eastern half of the country, who may not give the fires even a second thought after hearing about them on the news, there are nonetheless effects that they may not attribute to the western wildfires simply because they are very far away. The situation in the east is analogous to the effects of a far off volcanic eruption such as from Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, or possibly the continental effects of the Dust Bowl in 1930s America. In those cases, dust and very fine particles drifted over the eastern United States as well as other places around the world and affected air quality and with it, the weather.
It’s easy to shut the windows, turn up the air conditioning, and pretend what’s happening in the greater world has no effect locally. That denial doesn’t alter the fact that the greater world does affect people, plants, and animals in their local environment. The butterfly effect is indeed a real thing, as anyone can observe simply by opening their eyes. In the eastern United States, where wildfires have not caused major inconveniences for most people this summer, it may be easy to shut the windows and thereby shut out the smoky haze drifting in from the west, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there hanging around, changing the weather day to day on account of the changes in the climate year to year.
This summer, archaeologists from The Public Archaeology Facility of Binghamton University in New York State are digging up the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair near Bethel, New York. They hope to uncover an accurate and comprehensive scheme of the place as it was originally laid out for that enormous event nearly 50 years ago, and then turn over their findings to the museum on the site in time for the 50th anniversary in August 2019. Besides broken glass and other relics from the event, the archaeologists dug up numerous pop tops from aluminum beverage cans.
Unlike the stay-tab which replaced it in the late 1970s, the pop top tabs from the late 1960s and early 1970s were meant to be pulled entirely off the top of the can by the consumer. The consumer then had a piece of waste in addition to the waste the can itself would become after emptying, and many consumers simply dropped the pop tops on the ground, where they not only littered the environment but on account of their sharp edges became a safety hazard for anyone in bare or lightly shod feet, as Jimmy Buffett noted in his song “Margaritaville”. Some people dropped the pop tops into the can either while they were drinking from it or afterward, and then some of those people were unfortunate enough to swallow the pop top or otherwise injure themselves when it resurfaced during their drinking.
A litter trap on the Yarra River in the vicinity of Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Biatch3.
When a Reynolds Metals engineer named Daniel F. Cudzik invented the stay-on-tab, or Sta-Tab, in 1975, he solved the littering and safety problems of pop tops. Some inconsiderate people still tossed the cans wherever they liked when they were done with them, and unfortunately it appears a certain percentage of people like that will always be among us, but the problems originating from improperly disposed cans have lessened since the 1960s with the adoption of better designs and recycling programs. Since then, and particularly after bottled water took off in popularity in the 1990s, plastic beverage containers have taken over from aluminum cans as a major littering and safety problem.
Engineers and designers have created biodegradable water bottles in the past several years, but so far the bottled water industry has not embraced their inventions, and may never do so without consumers pushing themselves and the industry in that direction. Part of the reason for delay is the relatively abstract nature of the problem for many consumers. Yes, empty plastic water bottles may litter roadsides, where they are unsightly, but they don’t really pose a physical danger to people, unlike aluminum pop tops and cans with their sometimes sharp edges. The physical danger from plastics all seems to happen to animals, many of them far away and out of sight, such as the ones who live in the oceans, where all that plastic garbage ends up and lingers for decades. It was only recently that scientists discovered we, like our animal cousins, are also ingesting plastics, though in our cases we are more dainty in our discernment in that we choose only to take in micro-plastics, meaning those we cannot see. What goes around, comes around, and there’s no escaping it.
In Mike Nichols’s 1967 film The Graduate, Mr. McGuire, played by Walter Brooke, has some advice for Ben Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman. In a later scene, Hoffman’s character floats on a raft in the pool at his house and sips a beverage from a can which has two v shaped openings in its top, the marks of having been opened with a can opener, or church key, the most common way to open such a can before pop tops became widely available on beverage cans in the mid 1960s.
Most people can be coached to some degree to change their behavior, and once they are understand viscerally that a problem exists because of their past behavior, many of them can become open to change. They have to feel the problem personally, though, because an abstraction doesn’t always get through to them. A minority of others are hardheads, and little can be done to persuade them to change their ways beyond legal sanctions and public shaming. The mounting problem of plastic litter shares this model of personal and public behavior with the looming dangers of a warming climate. For too many people the problems remain abstractions because the effects can be distant, indirect, or slow moving. The rest of us can’t wait for those people to come around, because they may only do so when they are up to their necks in seawater while standing in their front yards, fighting off all the plastic junk bobbing in the water, and obstinately refusing to reconcile their beliefs with what they see and feel around them.
An owner of a new house on a lot where the builder saved one or more mature trees, rather than clear-cutting the property prior to construction, may be dismayed after a few years to see some or all of those trees dying back from the tops of their crowns. The homeowner may never make the connection to soil compaction caused by heavy construction equipment running over the root zone of the trees and how that adversely affects them all the way to their tops. Typically soil compaction damage to roots of large trees takes several years to show up, and by then the realtor, the developer, and the builder have moved on, taking with them the extra money engendered by the higher value sale of a house lot with mature trees. Sometimes those parties are themselves ignorant of the horticultural damage, though they really should educate themselves.
Roots encased in compacted soil have difficulty growing through it in search of nutrients, they may have been crushed or otherwise injured during the initial period of insult, and they may rot from sitting in water because compacted soil does not drain well. After a few years of this, the constricted roots can no longer push nutrients and water to the top of a large tree, and the top dies back. Sometimes the shortened tree continues living, although it may never be as vigorous as it was prior to construction. A tree with a restricted, sickly root system is also susceptible to toppling in a storm, the same as if its roots had been rudely shortened in a trenching operation. Suddenly that gloriously arching old oak tree providing shade and grandeur for the house 10 or 20 feet away is no longer an asset but a risk haunting the homeowner’s property. Removing the tree safely before it topples and causes catastrophic damage to life and limb is an expensive proposition.
A mother raccoon and her four kits eating cherries from a suburban backyard cherry tree at night in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. Raccoons have proven highly adaptable to habitats modified by humans, moving from the wilderness to the city and everything in between. Photo by AndrewBrownsword.
Unless the builder is serious about protecting the roots of trees on a house lot by cordoning off an area extending at least as far the drip lines of the trees and not running heavy equipment there, excavating there, or piling soil there, then it would be better to cut the trees down and start fresh with new plantings once construction is complete. A similar policy applies to clear-cutting trees from a woodland, though many people who are adamantly opposed to the practice may not want to hear it. As long as trees need to be cut down for timber to build houses and for pulp in the manufacture of paper products, there are only a limited number of ways of going about it. There are ways that are heedless of the surrounding environment, such as cutting trees around water bodies and on slopes without regard to controlling erosion, and there are ways which take into account the land’s recovery, such as leaving trees standing in riparian buffer zones and leaving behind some slash – material like branches and hollow logs – to help control erosion.
A logging scene in the Ochoco Mountains, Crook County, Oregon, circa 1900. Logging without heavy mechanical equipment was lighter on the land, but little consideration was given at the time to erosion control, reforestation, or lowering the impact of road construction. This photo is part of a collection at the Bowman Historical Museum, Crook County, Oregon.
Why not leave some mature trees standing here and there throughout the logged area? For the same reason of soil compaction that confronts the house builder who has to take extraordinary measures to sufficiently protect the roots of mature trees in order to preserve them, rather than just going through the motions. A clear-cut area often looks like a moonscape for a few years until new growth takes over, and its appearance would no doubt be improved by a remnant of mature trees, but ultimately a sensitivity about appearances may not prove to be in the best interest of the trees themselves. Ultimately where logging has to be done to provide the paper products and building materials nearly everyone uses, it may be best to get in and get out, employing best practices to control erosion, perhaps repairing soil compaction where possible, and then either replanting or allowing the land to regenerate new growth on its own. After that, leave the land alone for a generation or more. Hand-wringing about the removal of trees may be a satisfying demonstration of environmental sensitivity, but unless it is accompanied by an understanding of best practices in pursuit of necessary economic activity, it is best not undertaken by those living in wood houses.
It’s hard to fathom how far to the right Republicans in particular, and the country generally, have moved in the past half century that people are surprised to be reminded, or to learn for the first time, that it was the Republican President Richard Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970. To be sure, Nixon was no environmentalist, and his establishment of the EPA was in his view a way to steal thunder from his political opposition on the left, where the environmental movement had been gathering momentum since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962. Nonetheless, he signed the necessary papers and backed the new agency’s initiatives such as the Clean Air Act.
Fifty years later, Republicans abominate the EPA and associated environmentally protected areas around the country. The latest natural areas to come under attack are Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in Utah. The current Republican administration, at the recommendation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, wants to reduce Bears Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50%, opening up the areas taken away from them for commercial and recreational use. The executive order mandating the change pleased Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch a great deal. The changes will undoubtedly be challenged in court by private environmental protection groups and by Native American tribes in the area.
Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, a painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909).
When President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act at the end of 1970, he did so in the White House in front of a painting by Frederic Remington called Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, which prominently featured Theodore Roosevelt leading his regiment of volunteers at the 1898 battle. It was not the most politically correct staging of the signing of an important document by today’s standards, considering how the United States merely replaced Spain as the colonial power overseeing Cuba, rather than liberating the Cubans as American propaganda had it at the time of the Spanish-American War, but for the period around 1970 that aspect may have been overlooked by most bystanders to the signing in favor of the possibly intended point of celebrating Theodore Roosevelt and his championing of environmental protection, a first for an American president.
Contrast that rather sensitive staging with the completely insensitive, tone deaf staging by the current administration of a recent ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers and their contributions to American military efforts in World War II. Not only did the ceremony take place in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, infamous for his hostility to Native Americans and for his authorization of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, known as the Trail of Tears, but the current president added a completely irrelevant snide remark that doubled as a smear of one of his political opponents on the left as well as Pocahontas, a Native American woman notable as a mediator with the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s. The current president apparently mistook his comment for wit, because he laughed, while very few others at the ceremony did. Paying attention to the current president’s remarks in person and on Twitter gives us insight into his character, but his actions and his choice and use of symbols speak louder than his words and tell us what he and his administration are actually doing to this beautiful country and its people.
Portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, painted by Ralph Eleasar Whiteside Earl (1785/88-1838).
The American system, and perhaps the American character as well, has always favored coping with the damage from disasters as they come over doing all that can be done beforehand to mitigate the severity of damage. The insurance industry is aligned toward dealing with the aftermath rather than encouraging preventive measures, as is the government, which tends to label regulations designed for prevention as socialist intrusions. It’s the same philosophy that guides the economic system, which is all for free market capitalism on the front end when businesses are making profits for the few, but resorts to socialism on the back end when things go sour and losses are then spread out among the many. “Heads I win, tails you lose,” says the Wall Street tycoon, and friends in government chime in “Yea, verily.”
Unrestricted urban and suburban developmentcovers acreage that drained itself adequately with concrete and asphalt that does not absorb water. That seems obvious, and the necessity for a drainage system capable of handling all the runoff also seems obvious. Certainly there are some events, such as the unprecedented rainfall in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, that would stretch any drainage system to the breaking point. Extraordinary events require extraordinary preparation, a methodology well known among engineers, who are trained to design and build structures and systems to withstand the extraordinary. Engineers’ best efforts can be hamstrung, however, by ideologically and greed driven government leaders and business executives, the effect of which can be seen when disaster strikes and destruction of life and property is greater than it needed to be.
Dynamiting through a levee during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to create an artificial crevasse at Caernarvon, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, 14 miles below New Orleans. The crevasse was created to take pressure off levees at New Orleans. Archival photography by Steve Nicklas.
The acknowledged masters of hydro engineering,the Dutch, have recently changed their philosophy about coping with excess water from staving it off to flexing with it. Bend, to keep from breaking. That has always been the way with nature, of course, where coastal wetlands have served to absorb the brunt of ocean surges, and where floodplains served as safety valves for swollen rivers. Holding water back with fortifications has always been expensive and unreliable. Water is relentless, and it will find a way.
A flooded town on the lower stretch of the Mississippi River in 1927. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Creating concrete and asphalt jungles willy nilly without regard to anything other than the almighty dollar is foolishness, and ultimately a price will be paid. In the American system, unfortunately, that price is often borne by the society as a whole, and especially by the poor, but certainly not by the wealthy or by the government leaders who created the mess. Breaking up the concrete and asphalt jungle with permeable pavement, a construction practice that has been around for over fifty years and needs to be used more widely, is one way to forestall some urban flooding. Installation costs for permeable pavement are higher than the traditional kind, but it has other benefits and cost savings that offset the higher up front price tag. It’s not a perfect solution, but nothing can be. It’s a step in the right direction.
One of the arguments some business people and their mouthpieces in government often advance against green methods applied to development are that they create too much red tape, leading to a bad environment for business and a net loss of jobs, besides being downright socialist, which of course is an accusation that is supposed to make all the Greens (environmentalists, tree huggers – choose your own epithet) run away and hide themselves in shame. Too bad. If the true costs of bad environmental practices were borne by the businesses and governments that engage in them, they would change their tune.
A 1974 song written and sung by Randy Newman about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and about American society.
If businesses paid their workers a living wage, fewer of those workers would need to rely on government assistance to make ends meet. If businesses that made money here and took advantage of the national infrastructure were required to have corporate offices here, and therefore required to pay their fair share of taxes to help support infrastructure improvements, then maybe the country wouldn’t be falling apart while a select few get obscenely rich at the expense of everyone else. If, in other words, we stopped allowing some businesses and their allies in government to slough off hidden expenses on society at large, we could make progress toward a less dangerous future. But it’s going to take a change of heart, of character, to turn this backwards system around and look at green development as the only sensible way forward for everyone, instead of being led by the nose by those whose view of development looks backwards and serves only themselves.
Driving along a newly opened or renovated highway, a motorist is apt to see young trees newly planted beyond the road shoulders or in the median, if the road has one. That’s a fine thing, except it occurs to the motorist that it’s the height of summer, daily high temperatures are in the 90s, and besides the meager contribution of hit or miss thunderstorms, there hasn’t been any measurable rainfall in weeks. Why did the landscape contractor plant those trees at such a time and subject them to such misery?
Economics are the determining factor rather than the health and survival of any individual tree. A homeowner with a quarter acre lot may have six or eight trees on it, and understandably with numbers like that the health and survival of each tree is important to the homeowner. A landscape contractor charged with planting trees along miles of highway may be dealing with six hundred or eight hundred, or even thousands of trees. The industry standard is to expect losses in the 30 to 40 percent range within the first three years, which is the typical length of the maintenance contract after planting. That’s two hundred trees dying within three years out of six hundred originally planted.
1969 U.S. Postal Service stamp designed by Walter D. Richards.
The landscape contractor is constrained to replace dead trees within the three year maintenance window, and of course the anticipated costs are included in the contract. It all seems like such a waste. Nature itself is wasteful, of course, because not every young tree survives to maturity, particularly not ones that sprout along a baking roadside in the middle of summer. Still, wouldn’t it be better for the trees if the contractor waited until autumn to plant them?
For the trees, yes it would, but again economics are the deciding factor. For most landscapers, at least the ones who care less about hiring knowledgeable staff and more about just having able bodies on hand, labor is relatively inexpensive. The cost of replacement trees has already been included in the contract. What is expensive is hauling water out to the trees and looking after them. If regular rains come along after planting, even if the weather remains hot, then so much the better. That goes into the profit column. The contractor may have other, more profitable work already lined up for the prime fall planting season. The summer highway job was a good filler to keep the crew and business going in what is normally a slow season for planting.
It would be better if economics weren’t focused entirely on the short term and instead looked down the road more. When Lady Bird Johnson pushed for the Highway Beautification Act in 1965, she no doubt saw it as a way to improve the nation’s roadsides over the blight of too many billboards and unscreened junk yards, and it was. Her efforts on behalf of the environment both during her tenure as First Lady and afterward were probably the greatest contribution to the nation of any First lady in the twentieth century. She influenced state and local highway departments in establishing standards for roadside plantings. Those standards, however, could use some revision.
Lady Bird Johnson spreads seeds during the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas, in 1982; photo by Frank Wolfe.
Many regulations concerning highway and parking lot plantings require a landscape architect’s blueprints and signature. A landscape architect does not necessarily know any more about plants than a landscape designer or the man in the moon. In many cases, as any knowledgeable landscaper can tell you under their breath after having worked with a landscape architect’s plant selection and layout, they are amazingly ignorant. A landscape architect has a college degree and is state certified, that’s all. The result is that because of reliance on landscape architects’ plans the first rule of proper landscaping is often violated on account of their ignorance or carelessness – the right plant in the right place.
The second revision to regulations bears on the competence of landscaping companies. By the appearance of the results along too many highways, communities and highway departments seem to be awarding landscaping contracts on the basis of just about anything but competence. Would they award a building contract to a construction company whose buildings habitually failed within five to ten years? Unfortunately, that is what they do when they award a contract to a landscaper whose slipshod planting and mulching practices result in tree failure beyond the usual three year maintenance replacement window. Some problems with trees take several years to manifest themselves, and often the problems are due to the incompetence of the landscaping contractor. Knowledgeable input from local tree stewards and arborist societies about the competence of various landscape contractors during the process of awarding contracts would most likely improve the efficiency of the subsequent plantings over the current 30 to 40 percent rate of failure and make Lady Bird Johnson proud (and as they say in the South, “Bless her heart“).