The Grand Delusion: Controlling Nature

“This is a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s earlier book, The Sixth Extinction was ground-breaking, not because it described the consequences of climate change in the 21st Century, but because it put modern climate change into the context of similar events in the past 500 million years of life on Earth.  Although the current episode of climate change is man-made, five previous mass extinctions were natural events.  What past extinction events have in common with the sixth extinction is the inevitable consequence of such changes in climate:  when the climate changes, all life on Earth changes with it.  Plants and animals will adapt, change, or they will go extinct as they have for 500 million years. (1)

Kolbert’s new book, Under a White Sky, turns the page on this cataclysmic event in the Earth’s history to focus on the efforts being made to control nature to address environmental problems, including climate change.  To say that Kolbert is skeptical of those efforts is to understate her critical evaluation of them. 

Controlling Nature

In 1990, I was introduced to the human delusion that we can control nature by John McPhee’s The Control of Nature.  His book had a profound influence on my thinking about nature.  It was the basis for my belief that attempts to turn back the botanical clock to 500 years ago to a pre-settlement landscape, mistakenly believed to be pristine, are futile, misguided, and often damaging.  Kolbert’s latest book is written from the same perspective as McPhee’s seminal work and she gives him credit for his pioneering work.

Map of Mississippi River Delta

McPhee’s book predicted the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Human engineering of the Mississippi River for over 100 years set the stage for that disaster.  New Orleans sits at the Gulf end of the Mississippi River.  Historically, the river flowed from Minnesota to the Gulf, accumulating sediment along its way and depositing it as it entered the Gulf, fanning out into streams and swamps that created the Mississippi Delta.  The labyrinth of land and marsh created by the sediment deposited by the river created a barrier that protected New Orleans from storms. 

However, the uncontrolled and episodic flow of the river caused periodic flooding that was not convenient for the human inhabitants of New Orleans and the Delta community.  So, the flow of the river was controlled by levees and pumps were used to return water from the land to the river.  Sediment from the river could no longer replenish the land because it was confined to the constrained river, which put the human engineers onto a never-ending treadmill of building higher levees and bigger pumps.  It was inevitable that the river would eventually overwhelm the defenses built by the engineers and so it did during Katrina in 2005.

Kolbert updates this untenable situation in the Mississippi Delta in her new book.  The underlying cause, as told by McPhee is recapped by Kolbert.  Then new manmade environmental issues are added to the catastrophic circumstances that will inevitably doom the human inhabitants.  Rising sea levels caused by climate change are one factor.  The incursion of salt water into fresh water swamps killed vegetation that acts as a buffer during storms. Oil and gas exploration and extraction in the Delta has caused the land to drop further. 

Many Delta communities and some neighborhoods in New Orleans have been abandoned because they are essentially underwater.  Since Katrina, no serious effort has been made to change the approach to the issues.  Bigger, more powerful pumps have been built and levees have been made higher and stronger.  No one is seriously considering the need to relocate New Orleans or surrounding communities to higher ground.  The delusion that humans can outsmart the river continues. 

A comedy of errors

Kolbert introduces the many projects that are trying to solve problems that were created by bad decisions made earlier by other humans with a quote from Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  These wise words from a wise man are clearly not being heeded by the masterminds of the projects Kolbert describes in her book:

Dead carp
  • High on the list of projects in which society is heavily investing is the attempt to prevent carp from entering the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River.  After many different approaches were tried and failed, the current strategy is an electrified fence separating the Chicago River (connecting to the Mississippi River) from Lake Michigan that kills untold thousands of fish every day.  This deadly project is the end stage of previous bad decisions.  A link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River was created by a massive engineering project that reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1887.  Later, carp was introduced to the Mississippi River from China as biological control to address pollution issues.  One species of carp was introduced to control aquatic weeds and another carp species was introduced to consume nutrients in sewage ponds.  Kolbert says such biological controls became popular after Silent Spring was published because Rachel Carson considered pesticides a curse and biological control a panacea. (Which is not to say that pesticides aren’t a curse.) In other words, we traded one problem for another.
  • Island eradications of introduced mammals such as rats and mice are also popular projects (with some people).  Genetic engineering is being aggressively pursued as a possible substitute for the rodenticides that are being used for these projects.  These projects have the potential to drive an entire species into extinction or alter their physiology such that they could become killers or prevent them from being killers.  Kolbert buys a genetic engineering kit for $209 from a young entrepreneur in Oakland that enables her to make E.coli cells resistant to an antibiotic.  E.coli is a deadly bacteria that can be fatal if untreated by antibiotics.  In other words, anyone with $209 can turn bacteria into killers with no special training or equipment.  What could possibly go wrong, Kolbert asks rhetorically.

The promise and threat of geoengineering

Kolbert visits several different geoengineering projects that are trying to prevent the consequences of climate change without reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the underlying cause of climate change.  One such project is turning CO₂ into stone.  Apparently it CAN be done, but to do it on a scale that would actually prevent climate change would be to devote much of the surface of the Earth to that purpose. 

Kolbert visits a project that believes injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to block the sun is the best bet to stop climate change.  The proposal strikes Kolbert as both preposterous and dangerous.  The researcher detects her skepticism and retorts, “People think of all the bad examples of environmental modification.  They forget all the ones that are more or less working.  There’s a weed, tamarisk, originally from Egypt.  It’s spread all around the desert Southwest and has been destructive.  After a bunch of trials, they imported some bug that eats the tamarisk, and apparently it’s kind of working.” 

Tamarisk defoliation along Colorado River, near Needles, California

In fact, the introduced tamarisk beetle is working too well.  It has spread far beyond the regions where it was introduced and produced wastelands of dead trees in Arizona and Southern California.  Since one of the rarest desert birds depends upon tamarisk there isn’t much to celebrate about this over-achiever beetle.

Compounding the problem

Instead of addressing the source of environmental issues, we compound them by creating new problems with our theoretical “fixes.”  The native plant movement, in their zeal to save native plants, sprays herbicides that kill as many native plants as non-native plants and poison the soil while doing so, stunting all new growth, both native and non-native. 

I share Kolbert’s skepticism about the projects she describes for the same reasons she gives.  Every “fix” has the potential to create new problems that could be more disastrous than the problems they are meant to resolve.  And the resources used to develop new techniques such as massive geoengineering projects could be used instead to address the underlying cause of the problem, which is the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.  We don’t want to give up our fossil-fuel driven economy, so instead we conjure up even more damaging ways to ameliorate the inconveniences of climate change.  It’s a fantasy that prolongs and exacerbates the consequences of climate change.

Finally, let’s give Kolbert the last word:  “This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems…Geoengineering may be ‘entirely crazy and quite disconcerting,’ but if it could slow the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or take some of ‘the pain and suffering away,’ or help prevent no-longer-fully-natural ecosystems from collapsing, doesn’t it have to be considered?…But to imagine that ‘dimming the fucking sun’ could be less dangerous than not dimming it, you have to imagine not only that the technology will work according to plan but it will be deployed according to plan.  And that’s a lot of imagining…But let’s just say the record here isn’t strong.”  (2)

Thank you, Elizabeth Kolbert, for calling out the grand delusions of humans who mistakenly believe it is possible to control nature to avoid inconveniencing human society. 

  1. Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction, Henry Holt and Co., 2014
  2. Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky, Crown New York, 2021

Biological Control: Another dangerous method of eradicating non-native species

We were recently reminded of the use of biological controls to eradicate non-native species when we learned that Australian insects may have been illegally imported to California to kill eucalyptus, which had been virtually pest free until 1983.  So, an article in the New York Times about the development of a fungus for the purpose of killing cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) caught our attention.  The fungus has been given the ominous name, Black Fingers of Death, for the black stubs of cheatgrass infected with the fungus.

Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum

Cheatgrass is one of the non-native grasses that have essentially replaced native grasses throughout the United States.  It was probably introduced with ship ballast and wheat seed stock in about 1850.  As we have reported, native grasses were quickly replaced by the non-native grasses which tolerate the heavy grazing of domesticated animals brought by settlers.    Native Americans had no domesticated animals.

Biological controls have frequently caused more serious damage than the problems they were intended to solve.  Therefore, we would hope that their intended target is doing more damage than the potential damage of its biological control.   We must ask if the cure is worse than the disease.  And in this case, we don’t think the damage done by cheatgrass justifies inflicting it with the Black Fingers of Death.

The track record of biological control

Biological control is the intentional introduction of animals, pests, microbes, fungi, pathogens, etc., for the purpose of killing a plant or animal which is perceived to be causing a problem.  The ways in which some of these biocontrols have gone badly wrong are as varied and as many as the methods used.

Introduced species of plants are said to have an initial advantage in their new home because their pests and competitors are not always introduced with them.  This is the “enemy release hypothesis” popular amongst native plant advocates to explain the tendency of non-native plants to be invasive.  However, this is usually a temporary advantage which is exaggerated by native plant advocates who do not seem to recognize the speed with which native species can adapt to new species, and vice versa.

Therefore, a popular method of biological control is to import the predator or competitor of the non-native species which is considered invasive.  This is only effective if the pest is selective in its host.  There are many examples of such introductions which did not prove to be selective:  “For the United States mainland, Hawaii, and the Caribbean region, Pemberton (2000) listed 15 species of herbivorous biocontrol insects that have extended their feeding habits to 41 species of native plants…” (1)  Although most of the unintended hosts were related to the intended hosts, some were not.

Similar shifts from target to nontarget species have occurred for biocontrol agents of animal pests:  “For parasitoids introduced to North America for control of insect pests Hawkins and Marino (1997) found that 51 (16.7%) of the 313 introduced species were recorded from nontarget hosts.  For Hawaii, 37 (32.3%) of 115 parasitoid species were noted to use nontarget hosts…biological control introductions are considered to be responsible for extinctions of at least 15 native moth species [in Hawaii].”  (1)

There are also several cases of biological controls escaping from the laboratory setting before they had been adequately tested and approved for release.   A virus escaped the laboratory in Australia and killed 90% of the rabbits in its initial spread through the wild population.  Very quickly, the virus evolved to a less fatal strain that killed less than 50% of the rabbits it infected.  A second virus was then tested and also escaped its laboratory trial and has spread through the rabbit population throughout Australia.

A fly being considered for introduction to control yellow starthistle apparently escaped and damaged a major cash crop of safflower in California according to a study published in 2001, illustrating the risks of biocontrols to agriculture.

This is but a brief description of the diverse ways in which nature has foiled the best efforts of the scientists designing biological controls for non-native species of plants and animals.  The source of this information (1) therefore concludes, “…many releases of species have inadequate justification…The first goal of research must be to show that the introduced biological control agent will not itself cause damage.”  Given this wise advice, we will return to the question, “What damage is being done by cheatgrass and does that damage justify the introduction of The Black Fingers of Death?”

Why is cheatgrass considered a problem?

Cheatgrass is one of the many non-native annual grasses which have replaced the native grasses which were not adapted to the grazing of domesticated animals.  Cheatgrass is a valuable nutritional source for grazing animals when it is green and loses much of its nutritional value when it dries.

Grazing is only one of the types of disturbance which create opportunities for non-native grasses to expand their range into unoccupied ground.  Fire is another disturbance which gives cheatgrass a competitive advantage over native grasses because it uses available moisture and germinates before native grasses can gain a foothold on the bare ground cleared by fire.

Cheatgrass is said to increase fire frequency by increasing fuel load and continuity.  Unfortunately, increasing levels of CO₂ (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere is increasing the fuel load of cheatgrass:  “…the indigestible portion of aboveground plant material [of cheatgrass] …increased with increasing CO₂.” (2)

Carbon dioxide is the predominant greenhouse gas which is contributing to climate change.  And increasing frequency of wildfires is one of the consequences of the higher temperatures associated with climate change.  Therefore, one of the causes of the expanding range of cheatgrass is increasing levels of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.  Rather than address the underlying cause, we are apparently planning to poison the cheatgrass with a deadly fungus.

If we are successful in killing the cheatgrass, what will occupy the bare ground?  Will native grasses and shrubs return?  Will whatever occupies the bare ground be an improvement over the cheatgrass which has some nutritional value to grazing animals?  The US Forest Service plant database gives us this warning, “Care must be taken with methods employed to control cheatgrass so that any void left by cheatgrass removal is not filled with another nonnative invasive species that may be even less desirable.” 

Recapitulating familiar themes

The project to develop a deadly fungus to kill cheatgrass is another example of the issues that we often discuss on Million Trees:

  • Are the risks of the methods used to eradicate non-native species being adequately assessed and evaluated before projects are undertaken?
  • Are the underlying conditions—such as climate change–that have contributed to an “invasion” being addressed by the methods used to eradicate them?  If not, will the effort be successful?
  • Is the damage done by the “invasion” greater than the damage done by the methods used to eradicate the invader?  Is the cure worse than the disease?

We do not believe that these questions are being addressed by the many “restoration” projects we see in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Consequently, we believe that these projects often do more harm than good.


(1)    Cox, George W., Alien Species and Evolution, Island Press, 2004

(2)    Ziska, L.H.; Reeves III, J.B.; Blank, R.R. (2005), “The impact of recent increases in atmospheric CO2 on biomass production and vegetative retention of cheatgrass (B. tectorum): Implications for fire disturbance.”, Global Change Biology. 11 (8): 1325–1332,