Mother Nature and Human Nature

GEORGE F. WILL

July 19, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- One hundred and thirty Julys ago the president, referring to the Mississippi, said, ''The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.'' Lincoln was pleased, the occasion being the triumph of the siege of Vicksburg by a general from the Mississippi River town of Galena, Illinois, U.S. Grant.

It would be nice if that willful river -- today 16 miles wide on some Illinois and Missouri plains -- would be more vexed by human ingenuity. But the big river, by riveting our attention on the unpredictable and uncontrollable sphere of life (which is almost all of life), has some lessons for the river town in which the national government sits. Mother Nature along the Mississippi and human nature along the Potomac are both misbehaving.

The Mississippi runs through America's imagination. On it Huck Finn found freedom by floating away from chafing facets of civilization. And in 1901, in a house on a Mississippi River bluff near Little Falls, Minnesota, a boy was born whose early impulses for solitary adventuring were indulged on the great river -- young Charles Lindbergh in his canoe.

For a long time now people have been trying to tame the river. Today, while deeply regretting the material damage and mourning the human tragedies the river is causing, it is difficult to suppress a secret exhilaration about the way the river casually BTC shrugs off the restraining hand of man. We need recurring reminders of how little mastery our species has -- of itself, of events, of nature, of the present or the future.

Regarding nature, at least, we have come some way toward caution about what we can know and do. Not long ago serious people felt that manipulating nature was a practical possibility.

In his ''Eisenhower: The President,'' Stephen Ambrose recounts a June 1957 meeting that Eisenhower held with three scientists concerning peaceful uses of atomic energy. Physicist Edward Teller, perhaps hoping that Eisenhower's interest in such uses might make the president support additional atomic detonations for test purposes, suggested the possible use of atomic devices for altering the flow of rivers and even to modify the weather by changing the dust content of the air.

Such technological hubris has a jarring, even childlike, ring today. Who nowadays would try to interest a president in attempting to control the climate? Well, come to think about it, the vice president might.

By some strange law of the physics of intellectual life, an intellectual excess in one direction is apt to produce a comparable and opposite excess. So today we hear much from people (today's vice president, for example) who believe that climate, and much of the rest of the natural world, is highly changeable, even fragile.

They believe that human behavior, unless controlled by wise government, will have large and lasting and deleterious consequences -- global warming, or cooling, or whatever. And they believe that well-regulated societies can regulate the planet's thermostat, and much else.

The technological bravado of the 1950s and the apocalyptic environmentalism of the 1990s are cousins. It is difficult to decide which is potentially more harmful, and it is wrong to say that they are really very different. Both assume that it is easy to discombobulate, either consciously or carelessly, the planet's fundamental processes.

However, the greening of the blasted slopes of Mount St. Helens testifies to the planet's often underestimated resiliency. In contrast, we consistently overestimate the ability of our governance to subdue social events, which always are at flood ** tide. Consider two current matters, one abroad, one domestic.

U.S. forces went to Somalia eight months ago for a few weeks -- a few months, at most -- to facilitate food distribution.

Now U.S. gunships have used missiles and cannon to blast something called ''the command center'' of someone identified as a ''fugitive Somali warlord.'' A number of Somali civilians were killed and wounded, and an enraged Somali mob killed four journalists who came to the scene to assess the damage. As our ''nation building'' progresses, political levees presumably will be built to control the flow of such passions.

Meanwhile, back along the Potomac, some members of the gargantuan House-Senate conference on the $500 billion five-year ''deficit reduction'' package say the final package may actually have $20 billion less in deficit reductions. Oh.

Still, it is awesome that these people have such mastery of economic projections and manipulations. They can, they say, anticipate the consequences of their legislative decisions on hundreds of millions of people making trillions of economic decisions over five years. Hence, they know precisely how much deficit reduction they are enacting, down to the last $20 billion over five years or $4 billion per year, which is one-quarter of one percent of annual gross domestic product.

With such fine-tuning, they must have that Mississippi of red ink tamed. Like the river.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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