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by David Freese
Essay from Mississippi River: Headwaters and Heartland to Delta and Gulf

It's an odd combination of words: human nature. After all, in the beginning, didn't we evolve as a part of Nature—as part of an evolutionary, natural process? Yet we now regard human nature as something apart from a "true nature" that is wild and free from human interference, as though an invisible barrier has arisen between us. How did we get here? The fact that I can write this and you can read this and we can debate it all point to our advanced intelligence. We acknowledge this advantage in our actions and philosophical discourse; wild animals acknowledge it by fleeing from our very appearance.

The evolution of a large brain in Homo sapiens (wise man) has certainly proved to be handy. Take water. We began to control the natural flow of water as soon as we realized it was in our physical safety and economic interest to do so. The first known wells were dug around 7500 BCE during the Neolithic Age in what is now Israel. The first dam, the Jawa Dam, was constructed in present-day Jordan around 3000 BCE to provide reservoirs for drinking water. During the sixth century BCE, the first canal for transportation was built by the Persians in Egypt to link the Red Sea with the Nile River. The Romans built massive aqueducts throughout their empire to transport water from mountainous areas into their cities for farms, gardens, estates, public baths, and fountains. During the seventh century CE, the Chinese began construction of the Grand Canal that would allow barges to travel between the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. The first lock, called a pound lock, was developed for the Grand Canal in the tenth century CE. It was the forerunner of the lock-and-dam and canal systems in use everywhere today.

These and other engineering advances all represented "progress." So far, so good, inasmuch as regional/global ecological systems were largely in balance, if only because the human population— and, thus, human impact—was relatively low. But, over time, because of our swelling population, all-consuming way of life, and general sense of superiority over Nature by virtue of our brainpower, we have become increasingly separate from the natural world and have so thoroughly occupied and impacted the planet that we are doing damage on a grand scale.

Our actions on the Mississippi River provide a prime example of nature transformed. Native Americans, for millennia, had built great mound-building cities and societies along the Mississippi River and its many tributary rivers and streams. Land and water were sacred to them. Floodplains over which the mounds were built were a natural part of the river, which flowed freely and undisturbed. This was the scene when Hernando de Soto (1495–1542) of Spain became the first European explorer to discover the Mississippi River south of present-day Natchez, Mississippi, on May 8, 1541. By the mid-to-late seventeenth century, as more Europeans reached North America and moved to new frontiers inland, all would change for the Native American peoples whose way of life was in harmony with nature.

As the frontier expanded west following American independence, new forms of transportation developed, and towns and cities emerged along the Mississippi. To support commerce and settlement, canals would be cut into the great river to bypass and shorten the distance around difficult bends. The rich lands and ancient soil of the Lower River's delta—sediment deposited by the Mississippi over its vast floodplains for more than 100,000,000 years—became prized for its fertility. Cotton, rice, and sugar cane would, in effect, be planted in a deep accumulation of nutrient-laden Mississippi River mud. There was money to be made. To secure the necessary land, Native Americans would be forced to relocate west of the Mississippi—a shattering series of treks, each of which became known as a Trail of Tears. Tragically, slave labor would then provide the manpower for the plantation economy of the antebellum South.

The Industrial Age took charge in America during the early nineteenth century, and "progress" took quite a leap—with the invention of the cotton gin and mechanical reaper, steam power and the railroad, and ever-more-potent and destructive weapons that were used to fight a bloody civil war to preserve the republic and eliminate slavery. When oil became the perfect fuel for the internal-combustion engine in the early twentieth century, Homo sapiens was again off to the races—with energy to burn. Fortunes in fossil fuels were there for the taking, and a higher quality of life was society's reward. The tentacles of resource extraction and tools of technology have since extended and gripped all facets of our modern lives—culturally, socially, medically, economically, and politically—as never before. More than four centuries of progress in America have rendered not only a wealth of remarkable ingenuity, profound artistic achievements, herculean engineering projects, pioneering medical and scientific discoveries, and limitless generosity, but also unfathomable evil and discrimination—an inhumanity that is most often associated with one's color and race, religion and culture, homeland, lifestyle, and language. Human nature indeed.

So how wise are we? Why do we dare to think we can drain the wetlands, clear-cut the forests, pump and burn all the oil, belch smoke, carbon dioxide, and methane into the air, allow plastic, sewage, and industrial waste to seep into our waters and pesticides and herbicides into our soil, cut the fins off sharks and the horns off rhinos, take a million species to the brink of extinction, and do our best, like Superman, to "bend the course of mighty rivers" even in the face of Mother Nature? About 41,000,000 Americans live in floodplains, so why does commercial and residential development continue unabated in many flood-prone areas, especially along the Mississippi where record-setting floods seem to occur every year? And why are condos and office buildings still being built in places like downtown Miami right next to parking lots where ocean water bubbles up through the porous limestone and onto the pavement as sea levels rise?

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, separates human thinking into System 1 (fast, unconscious, emotional, and automatic) and System 2 (slow, conscious, effortful, logical, and calculating).1 It is human nature to rely excessively on System 1 and, especially for those where self-interest and political posturing are paramount, to ignore the evident probabilities and serious ramifications of inaction—even in the face of the overwhelming data that support human-caused changes in climate. The burning of oil and coal has simultaneously created historically high levels of methane and carbon dioxide and other toxins in the global atmosphere, resulting in global warming. At such a pivotal time, America's inexplicable withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord that it helped to create, the wanton deregulation of the fossil-fuel industries, and the shameful denial of science and the human impact on climate are hardly the hallmarks of a superior intelligence.

Why are we, the large-brained beings who readily tout our intellect and superiority, unable to be rational? E. O. Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and biologist, states that the human brain has a Darwinian propensity for short-term thinking over long-range planning.2 Economists see such behavior played out on the Dow Jones Industrial Average and in our inherent need to analyze its daily rise and fall while eagerly awaiting quarterly reports on corporate earnings. Profit is paramount, regardless of the consequences of such single-purpose thinking. But please look to the horizon where our great-grandchildren will live, work, and play.

How do we strike a balance between Homo sapiens and Nature and the false choice between short-term economic gain and long-term environmental well-being? The climate is rapidly changing. Worst-case scenarios are taking hold. Are we smart enough to implement comprehensive solutions that will mitigate a future economic and societal catastrophe as the oceans rise, storms intensify, and flooding increase? Human/Nature suggests it will be extremely difficult, but solutions do exist, and many states, industries, and countries have taken the lead. We need to evolve even more as a species – wise up and use our brainpower and learn to live, design, and plan with Nature. Otherwise, Mother Nature and Father Time will most certainly balance the planet for us. Naturally.

1. See Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
2. See E. O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Survival (New York, NY: Liveright, 2016).