The Chicago River, as many of us know, once flowed the other way, into Lake Michigan. It was reversed—a triumph of engineering, at the time—to move sewage and waste water away from Lake Michigan, our source of drinking water. And then, as Elizabeth Kolbert and Eula Biss discussed in their Chicago Humanities Festival panel, the unintended consequences started
Unintended consequences were a theme of Kolbert and Biss’s conversation, and also of Kolbert’s newest book, Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future. The reversal of the Chicago River played havoc with two of the great drainage basins of the United States, as it caused a wormhole between the water that drains into the Mississippi Basin and that which drains into the Great Lakes Basin, which should be two distinct ecosystems. Instead, these two distinct ecosystems can now intermingle, leading to problems such as the ongoing battle against Asian carp.
As Kolbert noted, Asian carp are not one species but several, traditionally raised together. Some of them are jumpers, making their presence in waterways with heavy recreational boat traffic a danger. They were themselves once introduced, with the assumption that they’d essentially eat waste products—and they escaped. Now, as Asian carp take over American waterways, we contend with barriers and more, the sort of technological fixes that will likely lead to their very own sets of problems.
Coral reefs, suffering from climate change, are another example of the power and danger of technological fixes. Kolbert spoke of coral scientists, including the late Ruth Gates, who strive to engineer a bigger, better coral, one which can withstand the rising temperatures and violent storms of this changing climate. Kolbert stressed the danger of such tinkering even as she noted its promise, for it is all too easy to create coral—or another lifeforms—that can, for example, withstand heat, but cannot survive without human aid in their natural habitat.
Kolbert and Biss’s conversation was dark, a constant reminder that when we have attempted to fix things we often create new problems—and, of course, we can’t go back to before the fixes. It is in many cases impossible or, as Kolbert noted, politically impossible. Politics, she said, will never enable us to resurrect the Chicago River as it once was, and return the great basins to their natural form.
But in the midst of bleakness and worry, there are sparks of hope, exemplified by the late Ruth Gates and her fellows. We can’t change it back, to be sure, and we can’t stop tinkering, but perhaps we can help it along without causing too many more problems to be solved.
Did you enjoy reading this? Third Coast Review is one of 43 local independent media that are members of the Chicago Independent Media Alliance. You can help #savechicagomedia by donating to our 2021 campaign. Here’s our CIMA website where you can donate to all or select your favorites to receive donations.