The land of fire and ice

Disaster selfies. (Associated Press)

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.

Ansel Adams

Oh beautiful for smoggy skies, insecticided grain,
For strip-mined mountain’s majesty above the asphalt plain.
America, America, man sheds his waste on thee,
And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea.

George Carlin

You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity. Let me tell you about our planet. Earth is four-and-a-half-billion-years-old. There’s been life on it for nearly that long, 3.8 billion years. Bacteria first; later the first multicellular life, then the first complex creatures in the sea, on the land. Then finally the great sweeping ages of animals, the amphibians, the dinosaurs, at last the mammals, each one enduring millions on millions of years, great dynasties of creatures rising, flourishing, dying away — all this against a background of continuous and violent upheaval. Mountain ranges thrust up, eroded away, cometary impacts, volcano eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving, an endless, constant, violent change, colliding, buckling to make mountains over millions of years. Earth has survived everything in its time. It will certainly survive us. If all the nuclear weapons in the world went off at once and all the plants, all the animals died and the earth was sizzling hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive, somewhere: under the soil, frozen in Arctic ice. Sooner or later, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would spread again. The evolutionary process would begin again. It might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety. Of course, it would be very different from what it is now, but the earth would survive our folly, only we would not. If the ozone layer gets thinner, ultraviolet radiation sears the earth, so what? Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It’s powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation. Many others will die out. Do you think this is the first time that’s happened? Think about oxygen. Necessary for life now, but oxygen is actually a metabolic poison, a corrosive glass, like fluorine. When oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells some three billion years ago, it created a crisis for all other life on earth. Those plants were polluting the environment, exhaling a lethal gas. Earth eventually had an atmosphere incompatible with life. Nevertheless, life on earth took care of itself. In the thinking of the human being a hundred years is a long time. A hundred years ago we didn’t have cars, airplanes, computers or vaccines. It was a whole different world, but to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We’ve been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we’re gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park / Congo

Yesterday, I found myself watching an episode of PBS’s American Experience series called The Swamp. The Swamp tells the story of various well-financed and government-subsidized efforts to drain the Everglades, how they spectacularly failed, and most importantly, how they involved significant unintended consequences for the Florida peninsula. Being a big fan of infrastructure-related dramas, I highly recommend it. It’s an oddly timely narrative, in fact.

Humans have lived on the Florida peninsula for at least 15,000 years. Among Native Americans based in Florida, there were three separate but related groups whose names derive from the bodies of water they lived around: OkeechobeeCaloosahatchee, and Glades people. The tribes in South Florida traveled by canoe around the Keys and even to Cuba. (I’d say that’s pretty amazing, but thousands of refugees have done the same thing.) Most of these people were wiped out by European settlers, and the southernmost tribes were replaced with the Seminoles fleeing military aggression from the newly established United States government in the north.

Beyond these groups, there was little interest in the Everglades until the second half of the 19th century, at which point moneyed investors started debating the merits of draining the seemingly useless swamp for agricultural use:

A national push for expansion and progress in the United States occurred in the later part of the 19th century, which stimulated interest in draining the Everglades for agricultural use. According to historians, “From the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, the United States went through a period in which wetland removal was not questioned. Indeed, it was considered the proper thing to do.” Draining the Everglades was suggested as early as 1837, and a resolution in Congress was passed in 1842 that prompted Secretary of Treasury Robert J. Walker to request those with experience in the Everglades to give their opinion on the possibility of drainage. Many officers who had served in the Seminole Wars favored the idea. In 1850 Congress passed a law that gave several states wetlands within their state boundaries. The Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act ensured that the state would be responsible for funding the attempts at developing wetlands into farmlands. Florida quickly formed a committee to consolidate grants to pay for any attempts, though the Civil War and Reconstruction halted progress until after 1877.

After the Civil War, a state agency called the Internal Improvement Fund (IIF), whose purpose was to improve Florida’s roads, canals, and rail lines, was discovered to be deeply in debt. The IIF found a Pennsylvania real estate developer named Hamilton Disston interested in implementing plans to drain the land for agriculture. Disston purchased 4,000,000 acres (16,000 km2) of land for $1 million in 1881, and he began constructing canals near St. Cloud. At first the canals seemed to work in lowering the water levels in the wetlands surrounding the rivers. They were effective in lowering the groundwater, but it became apparent that their capacity was insufficient for the wet season. Although Disston’s canals did not drain well, his purchase primed the economy of Florida. It made news and attracted tourists and land buyers. Within four years property values doubled, and the population increased significantly.

The IIF was able to invest in development projects due to Disston’s purchase, and an opportunity to improve transportation arose when oil tycoon Henry Flagler began purchasing land and building rail lines along the east coast of Florida, as far south as Palm Beach in 1893. Along the way he built resort hotels, transforming territorial outposts into tourist destinations. The land bordering the rail lines was developed as citrus farms. By 1896 the rail line had been extended to Biscayne Bay. Three months after the first train had arrived, the residents of Miami voted to incorporate the town. Miami became a prime destination for extremely wealthy people after the Royal Palm Hotel was opened.

During the 1904 gubernatorial race, the strongest candidate, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, promoted draining the Everglades. He called the future of South Florida the “Empire of the Everglades”. Soon after his successful election, he began work to “drain that abominable pestilence-ridden swamp”, and pushed the Florida legislature to form a group of commissioners to oversee reclamation of flooded lands. In 1907 they established the Everglades Drainage District and began to study how to build the most effective canals, and how to fund them. Governor Broward ran for the U.S. Senate in 1908 but lost. Broward was paid by land developer Richard J. Bolles to tour the state to promote drainage. Elected to the Senate in 1910, Broward died before he could take office. Land in the Everglades was being sold for $15 an acre a month after Broward died. Meanwhile, Henry Flagler continued to build railway stations at towns as soon as the populations warranted them.

With the construction of canals, newly reclaimed Everglades land was promoted throughout the United States. Land developers sold 20,000 lots in a few months in 1912. Advertisements promised within eight weeks of arrival, a farmer could be making a living, although for many it took at least two months to clear the land. Some tried burning off the sawgrass or other vegetation, only to learn that the peat continued to burn. Animals and tractors used for plowing got mired in the muck and were useless. When the muck dried, it turned to a fine black powder and created dust storms. Although initially crops sprouted quickly and lushly, they just as quickly wilted and died, seemingly without reason.

The increasing population in towns near the Everglades hunted in the area. Raccoons and otters were the most widely hunted for their skins. Hunting often went unchecked; in one trip, a Lake Okeechobee hunter killed 250 alligators and 172 otters. Water birds were a particular target of plume hunting. Bird feathers were used in women’s hats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1886, 5 million birds were estimated to be killed for their feathers. They were shot usually in the spring, when their feathers were colored for mating and nesting. The plumes, or aigrettes, as they were called in the millinery business, sold for $32 an ounce in 1915— the price of gold. Millinery was a $17 million a year industry that motivated plume harvesters to lay in watch of nests of egrets and many colored birds during the nesting season, shoot the parents with small-bore rifles, and leave the chicks to starve. Plumes from Everglades wading birds could be found in Havana, New York City, London, and Paris. Hunters could collect plumes from a hundred birds on a good day.

Rum-runners used the Everglades as a hiding spot during Prohibition; it was so vast there were never enough law enforcement officers to patrol it. The arrival of the railroad, and the discovery that adding trace elements like copper was the remedy for crops sprouting and dying quickly, soon created a population boom. New towns such as Moore Haven, Clewiston, and Belle Glade sprouted like the crops. Sugarcane became the primary crop grown in South Florida. Miami experienced a second real estate boom that earned a developer in Coral Gables $150 million. Undeveloped land north of Miami sold for $30,600 an acre. In 1925, Miami newspapers published editions weighing over 7 pounds (3.2 kg), most of it in real estate advertising. Waterfront property was the most highly valued. Mangrove trees were cut down and replaced with palm trees to improve the view. Acres of South Florida slash pine were cleared. Some of the pine was for lumber, but most of the pine forests in Dade County were cleared for development.

Most of the efforts to build new structures and agricultural operations in the Everglades failed because the swamp could not be drained in any durable sense. You could remove water from massive stretches of it, but the first major storm or hurricane would re-introduce unsurvivable flooding. Suffice it to say, not a good project to finance with long-term debt.

But beyond that, people started to figure out that the Everglades was essential to maintaining all that was necessary to live in the southern half of Florida. In addition to providing homes for contemporary dinosaurs and other irreplaceable species, the Everglades operates as a massive slow-moving river that replenishes and filters water for the entire area. Wells in Miami started suffering from saltwater intrusion and animals started dying. Massive wildfires choked the population frequently. The decision not to maintain the Everglades meant South Florida would gradually become uninhabitable. There was no choice about letting nature do what nature needed to do.

These shocking phenomena were not the result of shifts in climate, though the last round of “climate change” on the planet was really not that old (6,000 years… same events that gave us the Sahara Desert, which blows sand across the Atlantic to Florida every year). The Native Americans had lived largely in harmony with the land for millennia. But within merely six decades of industry-obsessed people moving into the area, they had turned the land into a total hellscape.

California’s lefty governor Gavin Newsom likes to blame the state’s wildfires, which rage literally every year like clockwork, on climate change. So do the governors of Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. That’s complete and utter bullshit. But the problem is certain man-made (and government-made). Their fingerprints are on every wildfire their states experience, just like Napoleon Bonaparte Broward’s fingerprints were on the natural catastrophes of his day.

All of these places have adopted seriously insane relationships with the environment as millions of people move across the region, taking over mountains and valleys by the hundreds of thousands and contributing to relentless urban sprawl. They invest in green energy boondoggles instead of maintaining basic infrastructure for their utilities so sparks from transmission lines won’t burn the state down. They are draining every last ounce of water out of the land, implementing virtue-signaling water regulations while still producing enough water-guzzling nut milk to satiate every limousine liberal on the continent. They militantly refuse to clear public lands of debris.

You know what’s great about using climate change as your boogeyman-placeholder for everything under the sun? You get to pretend to take a stand on something, when you are actually doing the exact opposite and actively helping maintain a tragically dysfunctional status quo. Do you think Newsom wants to take on the big money interests who are responsible for keeping deeply irresponsible land use laws and regulations in place? Nope. Eventually the fires will burn out and people will stop freaking out, and he can put the climate change tantrums in his pocket for when the same exact thing happens next year, because the physical environment of his state will still be shitty and built on short time horizons then too.

These crazy liberal governments function pretty much the same way the industrialists of the 19th century did when they were trying to drain the Everglades, with the main exception being that industrialists never pretended to be environmentalists. They rape the land and blame their political gods so they can keep raping the land. And mother nature rages back at them every single year, because the facts of this situation never change.

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