The Control of Nature

by John McPhee

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Control of Nature by journalist and nonfiction writer John McPhee was originally published in book form in 1989. It consists of three main sections, each of which initially appeared as a long essay in The New Yorker magazine. It is a work of creative nonfiction rather than a scientific study, distinguished by its lyrical and descriptive style.

The inspiration and title for the book was an inscription on the engineering building at the University of Wyoming reading "Strive on—the control of Nature is won, not given." Seeing the inscription gleaming in the sunlight made McPhee think about situations where humans were engaged in major struggles against nature. His three main sections are extended descriptions of three specific twentieth-century examples of this struggle, two in the United States and one in Iceland. The chapters blend historical information, interviews, and elaborate descriptions of people and places.

The first case is the work of the US Army Corps of Engineers on controlling the course of the Mississippi River. Had the ACE not intervened, the river would have shifted course to drain through what is now the Atchafalaya River. McPhee discusses the massive intervention at a location known as Old River Control to prevent the course of the river from shifting to preserve New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and commercial shipping. Written before the great floods of 1993 and Hurricane Katrina, this chapter warns about how these interventions might lead to massive flooding, identifying consequences that have now occurred.

The second section of the book discusses efforts to divert lava flows from a harbor on the island of Heimaey, Iceland, after the January 1973 eruption of Eldfell. This was achieved by spraying seawater on the lava to cool it down and solidify it. The islanders then creatively began to tap the hot interior of the lava for geothermal energy. In contrast to the ACE approach of controlling nature by brute force, the Icelandic experiment shows an example of how to work creatively with natural phenomena, turning what could have been a major disaster to humanity's advantage.

The final section discusses how Los Angeles has built extremely expensive basins to catch debris from the San Gabriel Mountains in order to preserve and continue to build luxury homes in areas prone to mudslides.

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