The return of the mighty Colorado and lesson in humility it commands

Every once in a while, Mother Nature has a tendency to rise up and remind the only reasoning creatures in her domain a lesson in something that we intuiting beasts too often lack: humility.

Humans are not the masters of nature, only effective manipulators of it, possessing the ability to shape and improve our world and leverage natural resources for our own consumptive impulses.

But in no sense are we full masters of the natural world.

We can defy the forces of gravity by creating mechanical lift, but at some point our lift machines inevitably succumb to the natural order of things and are brought back to the ground.

We can build dams, levees or other flood controls, but that doesn’t mean we can control all the floods, and certainly not the floods in greatest need of being controlled.

We can extend life, but we can’t end death.

We shape the planet in profound and sometimes permanent ways, but control it, we emphatically do not. Environmental humility begins with recognition of this truth.

Ironically, I’ve always thought there was a certain lack of humility inherent in some strands of environmentalist thought — a conflation of the impact of humans on environmental processes in aspiration of building political impetus for governments to limit human interactions with the natural world more and more and more, year by year by year.

Implicit in this conflation is a lack of humility about man’s role in the natural order of things, and a misunderstanding (intentional or not) about the base resiliency of the earth below our feet.

Environmentalists endeavor to change the economy of the entire planet in order to curb human emissions of carbon, as if man’s carbon contributions compare in any real way to the unspeakably vast, carbon-absorbing factories known as oceans and seas.

Environmentalists loathe dams in the West — Glen Canyon and its Lake Powell more than any — as if manipulating a river for the purpose of providing drinking water to millions in the desert West is a matter of environmental recklessness — an ecological immorality.

The Earth, at least it seems to me, is far more resilient and remarkable than its self-styled “defenders” would ever have us believe.

Having had a front seat to many of the big natural-resource and environmental debates in the last 10 years, I couldn’t help but delight earlier this week when watching the crushing pace of the re-emergent Colorado River, and the lesson in humility it screams as it roars by.

For roughly a decade now, environmentalists have gloried in the political points that the drought-stricken Colorado River have allowed them to score.

They have made it an exulted “case in point” of the deleterious impacts of man-made climate change on the natural resources of the American West.

They have paraded power-point presentations about the diminishing water levels of Lake Powell in an effort to show that the great water storage projects of the last century were themselves an exercise in human folly.

But the true folly flows from the lips of those who deny the awe of the Earth’s cyclical processes.

Yes, Lake Powell and the mighty river that feed it have been decimated by drought over the last decade. But with the rush of a couple of spring run-offs, Mother Nature’s cyclical virtues is restoring the mighty Colorado and its great lake.

When environmentalists claim that this mighty run-off season is, like the drought before it, a product of man-made climate change, the unfailing circularity of their logic will be exposed.

None of this is meant as argument for an approach to that which causes legitimate environmental harm — among them, acid rain, oil spills, nuclear warfare and lead paint. Neither is it an argument against preservation of the glorious resources in our midst — there are tens of millions of acres in this state and in these United States that are protected in their untrammeled, unspoiled state, as they should be.

But this is an argument for an essential humility as we weigh the impact of humans on natural processes. The Earth is an abundant, remarkable and resilient place. If you listen closely to the Colorado as it rushes past us on its way to Lake Powell, you’ll hear the great western river telling you as much.

Josh Penry is a former Colorado Senate minority leader and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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