McPhee’s Observed Laws

In his 1989 book The Control of Nature, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer John McPhee explored several massive human efforts to mitigate the risks of natural hazards such as flood and volcanic eruption. One of the more thoroughly researched sections examined in great detail how the Mississippi River and its delta have been controlled by levees, dams, gates, and canals. For each system McPhee examined, he also investigated what happened after controlling systems were implemented and then how the natural system and the people controlling it continued to interact over time. McPhee concludes this impressive survey by drawing two conclusions that are the take-home points of the book. These maxims are so simple and powerful that I find I’ve thought of them as “McPhee’s Observed Laws” (because they are nature’s laws that McPhee observed) ever since I first read them more than twenty years ago. They are:

(1) Nature can be controlled, but only temporarily; and when it ultimately escapes human control after having been controlled, the damage is worse than it ever was before the intervention.

(2) Nature can be controlled, but the cost of keeping it under control once you start is enormous, and it escalates unceasingly over time.

Since McPhee laid out these pithy but powerful laws of human-nature interaction (that not enough people paid attention to), resilience ecologists have begun to understand and document how and why those statements really do describe what happens when humans try to control nature. RFTO, the robustness-fragility trade-off, is a prime example. RFTO even includes the human economic and social factors that McPhee observed and so thoroughly documented. But McPhee’s little laws strike me as a far more useful conceptual handle for people in Western culture, who so often focus on the fact that “nature can be controlled” with dams, levees, and tree thinning, but so often selectively turn a blind eye to the critically important “buts” of the ultimate consequences: even worse damage down the road, and ever-escalating costs that are eventually impossible to sustain.

Click here to return to the list of pages at Weaving the Basket.
Click here for list of References.