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21 April 2010

Book Review: The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise
by Michael Grunwald 


All I knew about the Everglades before I visited in May 2009 was that I had never been to them, despite all the time I had spent in Miami as a child, and they had alligators. All I knew when I left was that the Everglades were endangered because of water use conflicts and that they weren't near as wet as I thought they'd be. Then I picked up The Swamp.

Grunwald does a masterful job of simplifying (perhaps over-simplifying but to one who knows nothing the clarity was welcome) the history of the Everglades, the history of southern Florida and the politics that still get in the way of logical and useful policy.

I used to think of the Everglades as a "from the dawn of time" kind of thing but it isn't all that old. As Grunwald writes, "If the history of the earth is condensed into a week, algae started growing Monday, fish started swimming Saturday morning, and birds flew in early Saturday afternoon. The Everglades showed up a half second before midnight, around the time the Egyptians started building pyramids." The land that would become the Everglades was formed at the dawn of time, when Pangaea broke up and North America spirited away with an appendage-shaped chunk of northwest Africa that would become Florida. It's been geologically stable ever since; none of those upheavals that cause mountains or canyons. It spent a lot of time covered by ocean. Then it emerged with a unique make-up; a gentle limestone slope towards the sea with a large lake (Okeechobee) that drank up the rain and overflowed slowly, sending water cascading gently towards the ocean. The conditions in the Everglades were harsh; very unsuited for life. Except life took hold anyway and created an ecosystem unlike any other in the world. An ecosystem that, by design, worked flawlessly despite the dearth of materials to support it. Then Man showed up.

And Man wanted progress. White Man, that is. Indian populations lived in the Everglades for centuries, taking advantage of the abundance of the ecosystem but also using sustainable practices, preserving the resources while simultaneously living off of them. White Man didn't do it that way. White Man wanted to conquer. White Man, particularly Christian White Man, wanted to exert dominion over nature; it says that in the Bible after all. A tiny example; White Man killed birds with abandon during the plumed-hat craze of the late 1800s. They left chicks to die without adults to take care of them. Then they wondered why the birds were disappearing.

That's how White Man approached the Everglades; how can it make me money? Once in a while, a White Man would pop up with the notion that human victory over nature didn't really represent progress but since there weren't dollars attached to the idea, that visionary was often ignored. Natural resources are only valuable insofar as they can be exploited by human beings.

Thoreau tried but his "loving nature for nature's sake" schtick wasn't appealing to the masses who only cared about the dollar and progress. Then George Perkins Marsh piped up with, "All nature is linked together by invisible bonds, and every organic creature, however low, however feeble, however dependent, is necessary to the well-being of some other." That rang a little farther than Thoreau's poetic diatribes. But it didn't ring far enough.

Sure, conservation was a cornerstone of the progressive era; Teddy Roosevelt had a fascination for living beings. He also liked to shoot them. But he couldn't shoot unless there were beings to shoot, hence conservation.

But conservation is not preservation. And shooting things just for the pleasure of shooting them didn't over-ride the concerns of those who wanted to see economic progress; farm land made out of the River of Grass. Cities connected by roads and railways. And airports. Progress not preservation.

So the boondoggle of draining the Everglades began. And continues to this day. It never entirely worked, due mostly to the epic incompetency of the Army Core of Engineers, but it sure did destroy the ecosystem that made the Everglades the Everglades.

"There is something very distressing in the gradual destruction of the wilds, the destruction of the forests, the draining of the swamps, the transforming of the prairies with their wonderful wealth of bloom and beauty - and in its place the coming of civilized man with all his unsightly constructions, his struggles for power, his vulgarity and pretensions...We constantly boast of our marvelous national growth. We shall proudly point someday to the Everglade country and say; Only a few years ago this was worthless swamp; today it is an empire. But I wonder quite seriously if the world is any better off because we have destroyed the wilds and filled the land with countless human beings." -- Charles Torrey Simpson.

There are famous names of those who tried to save the Everglades and it was made a National Park, regardless of the fact that, as Grunwald writes, "It was less ooh or aah than hmm." But it also had to compete with the influx of man into a land that doesn't have enough natural resources to support the population that followed the developers' piper song. And even in the 1970s, when preservation became hip, the Everglades had to fight with the humans over who got the water. And the humans always won; or the corporations run by humans, rather. The Army Core of Engineers only released water to the Everglades when no one else needed it, including the Everglades. The delicate balance of the Everglades Ecosystem relies on the pattern of flood and drought that came to it naturally before man arrived. But that pattern isn't sustainable when the water is needed to assuage the thirst of all those retirees who flock to "God's Waiting Room" during the dry season when there wasn't enough water to go around even before they arrived. And the runoff from the crops contains phosphorus, which allows heartier life to take hold; cattails replace sedge sawgrass and the ecosystem changes forever. So the water that IS released to the Everglades often is one more bullet in an already dying corpse.

So the Everglades loses. It's still losing, despite the bizarre move in 2000, when a bipartisan coalition of unlikely characters like Jeb Bush and Al Gore came together, in the midst of Gore v. Bush, to sign an agreement that would ostensibly save the Everglades.

But the Everglades is still in dire danger. And so is the quality of life in south Florida; it's already a virtual hellscape of concrete, asphalt and strip malls. Man is soiling his own nest. Even "lower" beings don't do that.

"We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude toward nature today is critically important, simply because we have acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. We in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery - not of nature, but of ourselves." -- Rachel Carson

"We have met the enemy, and he is us." -- Pogo

"The Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet." -- attributed to Marjory Stoneman Douglas