Let’s declare “re” – as in recycle, reuse, rebuild – the indispensable prefix of the 21st century. For most of history, humanity treated nature as a disposable commodity: Poke it, plant it, mine it, and move on. There was always a new field to plow, a new river to tame. So what if we left a mess behind? Those ruins – abandoned mines, ghost towns, decaying tractors – were just the evidence that progress had passed by.
All development – from a parking lot to a backyard garden to the Great Wall of China – is a withdrawal from nature’s abundant bank. Until very recently, progress was almost exclusively concerned with withdrawals. In the process, water and air were fouled, mountains stripped, forests leveled. Please don’t get me wrong. The reasons were usually (though not always) noble. While ecopurists might disagree, abundant electricity, speedy transportation, and the widespread availability of safe food and clean water have improved the lives of billions of people. Billions more will benefit as progress proceeds.
But the costs associated with our ever better and more convenient lives were largely ignored until a few decades ago. The impounding of rivers, which Doug Struck explores in a Monitor cover story (read it here), is a prime example of that.
Dams are a great idea. The reservoirs they create feed water to farms and cities. Their turbines power industries and homes. Their floodgates protect people who dwell downstream. Dams also create excellent destinations for sailing, water-skiing, and fishing. As a kid, I enjoyed the benefits and fun of constant-level lakes in central Texas managed by the Lower Colorado River Authority. But no matter how much electricity they produce or how many floods they contain, dams are still a withdrawal from nature’s bank. The rivers that are halted are deprived of nutrients. Wildlife – especially fish but also many species that used to live in and around watersheds – are stressed. Stop a river and you frustrate spawning, deplete downstream topsoil, and accumulate a lake bed of toxins.
Something else is lost as well. A free-flowing river is a glimpse into a deeper realm of life and time, the strata it exposes is a record of Earth’s ancientness, the banks it nourishes a promise of tomorrow’s new growth. No wonder rivers are the go-to metaphor for poets and mystics.
Which brings us back to “re.” Removing a dam – especially a dam built for an industry that has died or for a purpose that is now forgotten – returns an asset to nature’s bank. The conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that with each sweep of an ax a person is “writing his signature on the face of the land.” We write our signature with every turn of the ignition switch, every light bulb we use and basin we fill. These are not activities we should stop doing. The world is a better place thanks to technology and industry. But when we can remove dams, reforest woodlands, restore a wetland, or recycle waste, we help repair the world.
There’s a perfect word for that: respect.
John Yemma is the Monitor's editor at large. He can be reached at yemma@CSMonitor.com.