Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Modest Proposal
distributed 10/14/05 - ©2005

Satire and sarcasm have a long and distinguished history. In 1729, Jonathan Swift commented on famine in Ireland with "a modest proposal" that surplus children be eaten. The apostle Paul dealt with the unruly Corinthians by asking them to "bear with me in a little foolishness," and then launching into two chapters of scathing sarcasm.

Six weeks after Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast, I, too, ask you to bear with me in a little foolishness . . .

This fall, we've had our eyes opened to the bizarre situation of a major metropolitan area being built below sea level in a recurring hurricane track while the buffering wetlands are disappearing. The swamping of New Orleans reveals the flaws in how things have been done. So, at this moment when the options for rebuilding (or not) are at their most open-ended, why don't we seize the golden opportunity to perforate the levees of the Mississippi River for a couple of hundred miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico?

For something like 75 years, the Big Muddy has been channelized and controlled, manipulated to facilitate reliable shipping on the river, and to provide flood control for cities and industries. That's an unnatural and unhealthy strategy, though. Over the eons, the mouth of the Mississippi has flailed around the Gulf coast like the loose end of a gushing fire hose. The main channel of the river has moved all over the Delta, and floods have washed far and wide, spreading life-giving silt and fresh water -- which is how the Delta came to be, after all. Locking the river into a tidy channel has killed the biologically vibrant bayous of Cajun culture and destroyed a vast coastal ecology.

So let's take advantage of this moment, and let the river run free. Blast holes in the levees, and allow the water and silt to find their own way once again. Blow the dikes, and see the Mighty Miss go where it has wanted to go these many years -- right down the Atchafalaya River, leaving Baton Rouge and New Orleans far from the main channel.

True, a few major cities would have their economies destroyed. Yes, a lot of towns and roads and farms would get washed away as the river found a new course -- and next year might find the river going somewhere else again. But letting the river find its own way will revitalize the coastal ecology and renew the traditional bayou culture.

Let's put an end to the interference of big government that has been perpetuated by the Corp of Engineers. Let's stop extensive the subsidies given to shipping and manufacturing. Let's free the river!

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"What I am saying in regard to this boastful confidence, I am saying not with the Lord's authority, but as a fool." (2 Corinthians 11:17) And the role of the fool, the jester, the clown is a noble one in revealing the foolishness in others.

Of course the levees of the lower Mississippi aren't going to get leveled, and the mighty river isn't going to be turned loose to flip and flop across the Delta.

What is astounding, though, is that a set of equally wild proposals have surfaced in the last six weeks that would unleash -- not the unconstrained river -- but the unconstrained power of corporate capitalism. The dangers in letting that mighty force run free are at least as wild as my modest proposal.

I suggested that nature be allowed to take its own course, and let the river run without any direction. In the aftermath of Katrina, political and business leaders are rushing in with dead-serious proposals to let the market take its own course, and to let business run without any direction.

What are some of the first ideas that have been pushed to encourage rebuilding? Eliminating environmental requirements. Removing prevailing wage standards. Waiving affirmative action rules for employers with federal contracts.

A month ago, the Wall Street Journal quoted Rep. Todd Tiahrd, who said that the plans under development "are all part of a philosophy of lowering costs for doing business." Lowering costs for business doesn't mesh well with what is needed to include eco-justice sensibilities in the rebuilding of the coast -- more stringent building codes, urban design that focuses on energy efficiency or better transportation, undoing patterns of environmental racism, or the restoration of coastal habitats. Multi-million dollar federal contracts -- awarded without competitive bidding to multinational corporations with close ties to Washington -- are not likely to engage in creative new designs, or to take heed of locally-based calls for distinctive, sustainable neighborhoods.

It is irresponsible to blow apart the levees and let the Mississippi run wild across the Delta. It is also irresponsible to blow apart social contracts and thoughtful planning in order to let corporate America run wild across the Delta. Constraint, planning, and a balancing of interests are needed on all sides.

The helpful folk at Grist gave me a good start in identifying several Gulf Coast projects that are working to bring intentional planning, ecological insights and community values to the rebuilding effort. A few such links are listed below. I encourage you to do some research into both the ecological proposals and the free market ones, to engage in serious conversation within your congregation and your community, to speak up against the reckless proposals to unleash business (write a letter to the editor, or call a talk radio program!), and to communicate your values to your legislators.

Be willing to engage in a little foolishness yourself, if that's what it takes to expose the ludicrous ideology that now is driving the reconstruction effort.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Here are some places to learn more about the reconstruction options:

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