Strong opinions, weakly held

The best thing I read in 2011

My favorite article I read in 2011 was not written in 2011. It was published in The New Yorker in 1987. It’s John McPhee’s piece on human efforts to control the Mississippi River, Atchafalaya. He also wrote a book on the same topic, The Control of Nature, which I have not read.

I have long had a passing interest in the ongoing disappearance of Lousiana’s wetlands, which I already knew were caused by degradation resulting from the construction of canals used to access oil drilling equipment, subsidence (a natural process that affects all river bottomland), and levees along the Mississippi that prevent the river from restoring the wetlands. After reading the article, though, I realized I hadn’t really understood the problem at all.

The article works brilliantly as a straightforward explanation of the mechanics of the Mississippi River and human efforts to control it. Before reading it, I had no idea that what the river really wants is to shift its course to the west into the Atchafalaya River, abandoning Baton Rouge and New Orleans and washing away Morgan City. Nor did I know that the only thing preventing it is a manmade structure that prevents the change in course. I didn’t even know that boats use locks to travel up and down the river as a result of this engineering effort to control the river. The entire description of how the river is managed is completely fascinating.

McPhee, perhaps unintentionally, provides an allegory that should prove educational to anyone who builds things for a living. It is a fascinating look at path dependence. Once the first levee was built in New Orleans, they unknowingly insured that levees would be built higher and expanded further indefinitely. All a levee does is make it easier for water to travel in another direction rather than over the levee, so everyone along the river who wants to prevent their own land from flooding has to make sure that their levee is not the most vulnerable along the river’s course. The lessons contained in this article are among the most important any engineer or problem solver can learn.

The article is long and information dense, but I cannot recommend it more highly. It’s my favorite thing I read last year.

1 Comment

  1. This took me a long time to read, and I wish it had been structured better, but there was a lot of interesting material in it. Thanks.

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