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Humans need to remake the planet yet again

Because there’s no going back to nature as it once was, the future will be defined by how wisely we exercise our control over it.

Deteriorating wetlands in Plaquemines Parish, La. Louisiana is losing land like this every hour of the day. But the state is also trying to restore the wetlands, as the only solution to environmental degradation caused by humans is more human innovation.
Deteriorating wetlands in Plaquemines Parish, La. Louisiana is losing land like this every hour of the day. But the state is also trying to restore the wetlands, as the only solution to environmental degradation caused by humans is more human innovation.Mario Tama

That man should have dominion “over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. Choose just about any metric you want and it tells the same story. People have, by now, directly transformed more than half the ice-free land on Earth — some 27 million square miles — and indirectly half of what remains. We have dammed or diverted most of the world’s major rivers. Our fertilizer plants and legume crops fix more nitrogen than all terrestrial ecosystems combined, and our planes, cars, and power stations emit about a hundred times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes do.

We now routinely cause earthquakes. (A particularly damaging human-induced quake that shook Pawnee, Okla., on the morning of Sept. 3, 2016, was felt all the way in Des Moines, Iowa.) In terms of sheer biomass, the numbers are stark-staring: today people outweigh wild mammals by a ratio of more than 8 to 1. Add in the weight of our domesticated animals — mostly cows and pigs — and the ratio climbs to 22 to 1. “In fact,” as a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences observed, “humans and livestock outweigh all vertebrates combined, with the exception of fish.” We have become the major driver of extinction and also, probably, of speciation. So pervasive is man’s impact, it is said that we live in a new geological epoch — the Anthropocene. In the age of man, there is nowhere to go, and this includes the deepest trenches of the oceans and the middle of the Antarctic ice sheet, that does not already bear our Friday-like footprints.

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An obvious lesson to draw from this turn of events is: Be careful what you wish for. Atmospheric warming, ocean warming, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, deglaciation, desertification, eutrophication — these are just some of the by-products of our species’s success. Such is the pace of what is blandly labeled “global change” that there are only a handful of comparable examples in earth’s history, the most recent being the asteroid impact that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago. Humans are producing no-analogue climates, no-analogue ecosystems, a whole no-analogue future. At this point it might be prudent to scale back our commitments and reduce our impacts. But there are so many of us — nearly 8 billion — and we have stepped in so far, return seems impracticable.

And so we face a no-analogue predicament. If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control. Only now what’s got to be managed is not a nature that exists — or is imagined to exist — apart from the human. Instead, the new effort begins with a planet remade and spirals back on itself — not so much the control of nature as the control of the control of nature.

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Man-made natural disaster

New Orleans Lakefront Airport sits on a tongue of fill that sticks out into Lake Pontchartrain. Its terminal is a splendid Art Deco affair that at the time of its construction, in 1934, was considered state of the art. Today, the terminal is rented out for weddings and the tarmac used for small planes, which is how I came to be there, riding shotgun in a four-seat Piper Warrior.

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The Piper’s owner and pilot was a semi-retired lawyer who liked having an excuse to fly. We took off to the north, over the lake, before looping back toward New Orleans. We picked up the Mississippi at English Turn, the sharp bend that brings the river almost full circle. Then we continued to follow the water as it wound its way into Plaquemines Parish.

Plaquemines is the southeasternmost tip of Louisiana. It’s where the great funnel of the Mississippi basin narrows to a spout and Chicago’s flotsam and jetsam finally spill out to sea. On maps, the parish appears as a thick, muscular arm thrust into the Gulf of Mexico, with the river running, like a vein, down its center. At the very end of the arm, the Mississippi divides into three, an arrangement that calls to mind fingers or claws, hence the area’s name — the Bird’s Foot.

Seen from the air, the parish has a very different look. If it’s an arm, it’s a horribly emaciated one. For most of its length — more than 60 miles — it’s practically all vein. What little solid land there is clings to the river in two skinny strips.

Flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet, I could make out the houses and farms and refineries that fill the strips, though not the people who live or work in them. Beyond was open water and patchy marsh. In many spots, the patches were crisscrossed with channels. Presumably, these had been dug when the land was firmer, to get at the oil underneath. In some places, I could see the outlines of what were once fields and now are rectilinear lakes. Great white clouds, billowing above the plane, were mirrored in the black pools below.

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Plaquemines has the distinction — a dubious one, at best — of being among the fastest-disappearing places on earth. Everyone who lives in the parish — and fewer and fewer people do — can point to some stretch of water that used to have a house or a hunting camp on it. This is true even of teenagers. A few years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially retired 31 Plaquemines place names, including Bay Jacquin and Dry Cypress Bayou, because there was no there there anymore.

And what’s happening to Plaquemines is happening all along the coast. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has shrunk by more than 2,000 square miles. If Delaware or Rhode Island had lost that much territory, America would have only 49 states. Every hour and a half, Louisiana sheds another football field’s worth of land. Every few minutes, it drops a tennis court’s worth. On maps, the state may still resemble a boot. Really, though, at this point, the bottom of the boot is in tatters, missing not just a sole but also its heel and a good part of its instep.

A variety of factors are driving the “land-loss crisis,” as it’s come to be called. But the essential one is a marvel of engineering. The sunken fields are evidence of a man-made natural disaster. Thousands of miles of levees, flood walls, and revetments have been erected to manage the Mississippi. As the Army Corps of Engineers once boasted: “We harnessed it, straightened it, regularized it, shackled it.” This vast system, built to keep southern Louisiana dry, is the very reason the region is disintegrating, coming apart like an old shoe. And so a new round of public-works projects is under way. If control is the problem, then, by the logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution.

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Adapted with permission from the book “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future” by Elizabeth Kolbert. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Kolbert. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.