BY KEVAN WILLIAMS
The words that scientists and policy makers choose often say as much as the content of their papers and speeches. For instance, a great deal has been written about whether events such as Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and even recent snow days in the Southeast are truly “natural” disasters, or if the framing of these so-called acts of God masks the human responsibilities for their occurrence. Even the seemingly benign word “disturbance,” an ecological term encompassing events such as floods and fires, takes for granted certain ideas about how ecosystems work.
“A disturbance necessarily comes from outside,” says Christopher Morris, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas in Arlington. “If you think of floods as disturbances, it suggests that they shouldn’t be there,” he says. “We don’t think of a blizzard in Minneapolis as a disturbance; we don’t think of hot days in Dallas in July as disturbances.”
Morris has been investigating how that term, which has its roots in outdated ecological concepts of climax and equilibrium, has affected the planning of flood control infrastructure. This interest is an offshoot of his 2012 book, The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina. In March at the American Society of Environmental History Conference, he presented a paper on how language affects planning.
This tricky little word, Morris suggests, had led to much of the levee building, dam building, and hard armoring that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies have done up and down the Mississippi for decades. At the core is the idea of control—and the idea that anything sudden and damaging be seen as negative, even if such events are perfectly natural. In recent years, planners and policy makers have begun to recognize the natural though sometimes violent whims of rivers. But the legacy of disturbance still holds sway. To reconcile the old vocabulary with new understandings of flood events, ecologists and other scientists are creating increasingly contorted phrases, like “intermediate disturbance” and “predicted disturbance” (which Morris considers an oxymoron).
And the term’s influence isn’t purely academic. “This is bleeding over into urban planning,” says Morris. “It’s channeling how we think about resilience. The Lower Mississippi Valley, below St. Louis, was at one time one of the world’s largest, greatest wetlands, and one of the world’s richest ecologies,” he says. The fertile soils that drew farmers there were a product of the regular flooding. Framing those floods as disturbances to be mitigated, managed, and overcome can confuse relationships in ecological systems. “What if floods are not disturbances, but rather are stabilizers?” Morris asks.Kevan Williams is pursuing an MLA degree from the University of Georgia.