Isolations of Space and Time

III. Inundation

Our dealings with some physical, non-biological recurrent events of the natural world, like fire and flood, also show awareness of larger scale process. Older practices that protect life and property are in favor again as the deferred effects of spatial containment reveal mismatches of problem and solution.

Levees are designed to keep flood waters contained (and they do, if well-constructed), but they also disrupt re-sedimentation.There are two significant consequences. Land behind levees subsides without flood-borne sediment, threatening the stability of the built environment founded on it. Many parts of New Orleans are now at a lower elevation than they were when levees were first constructed (although human-engineered drainage is also responsible). Arable land behind breakwaters is deprived of the nutrients and fertility floodwaters bring, too. Protected land actually becomes more fragile and unserviceable. A forward-looking, longer time scale response emphasizes instead the importance of buffer zones like flood plains and wetlands, places we choose not to occupy in any permanent way. A spatial response, yes, but one that is accommodating rather than preventive, more passive than active.

Panarchy theory proposes different destructive and regenerative regimes, controlled by the interdependent variables of scale and frequency of disruption in this way: Frequent, numerous, small disruptions destroy, but less catastrophically so than larger ones that happen rarely. Large disruptions in fact are precipitated by the absence of many small mediating changes. This is an idea familiar from earthquake science and experience, and also evident in wildfire management, where the use of small controlled burns mimics and exploits a natural cycle of forest destruction and renewal, and is markedly different from past wildfire suppression tactics which over time fueled greater ruin. Here a sensitivity to time, process, and cycle resolves towards tinkering with rate rather than employing spatial sequesters.

In these circumstances we are working with, rather than strictly opposing, natural mechanisms and courses of events, albeit to control them. We regulate occurrences outside our usual time frame to preserve what takes place within it. And yet there are costs. Panarchic scale holds for the generative response to destruction too. Small disruptions limit the new – and are therefore conservative. They allow for small-step developmental progression but stymie radical creation, birth, transformation. For without catastrophe, revolution is excluded, yes – but also origination and invention.

Can we, should we, do even less?


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