There is No Taming This Earth

Sendai was one of the large Japanese cities hit by the earthquake and tsunami.
Sendai was one of the large Japanese cities hit by the earthquake and tsunami. | Photo: robinlow/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Gregory Rodriguez and I must have been watching different videos about the explosive impact of the T?hoku earthquake and its killer tsunami. There is no other way to explain his LA Times column on Monday, in which he reached a startling conclusion: that it is time for us to shuck John Muir, "the godfather of contemporary environmentalism;" dump our humble acceptance of nature's awesome power; and unleash a more aggressive campaign to rein it in. "Our response to this tragedy," he asserted, "shouldn't be to hail the nobility of the earthquake a la John Muir but to redouble our efforts, however imperfect, to tame the Earth."

I have no problem with the idea that Muir's ascendancy within American environmental culture is problematic. As I tried to demonstrate in my biography of Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U. S. Forest Service and a powerful conservationist often paired in opposition to Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, there are decided real-world limits to the preservationist ethos that Muir embodied. Like all species, Homo sapiens manipulate their surroundings, and must do so to survive: to increase our chances we have plowed furrows, cut trees, and built dams (among any number of other manipulations).

Yet each of these actions has always occurred within a range of natural limitations, seasonal challenges, and ecological stressors; those societies that have adapted to these forces have tended to sustain themselves better than those that have not. In biological terms, that's what Charles Darwin had in mind when he spoke of "natural selection."

But believing that human beings can and must get the "upper hand" on nature is beyond reason. Does this mean, literally, that we can somehow control such elemental processes like the grinding of the Pacific and North American plates responsible for violent release of the T?hoku temblor? Maybe that's not what Rodriguez intended, but if so then why even make metaphorical use of the earthquake's staggering aftershock to call for "a stronger hand in engineering our environment." What human construct could have stopped or deflected a 30-foot wall of water moving with such furious energy?

There can be no more dramatic rebuke of the ambition to dominate Mother Earth than the ruined lives, crumpled infrastructure, and flattened communities along Japan's northeastern coast.