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Man And Nature: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Walk though nearly any Atlantic salt marsh and you’ll see long, straight ditches carving the landscape into well-proportioned grids. The ditches, mostly dug in the 1930s, were meant to reduce mosquito populations by draining the further reaches of the marsh.

It didn’t work. Researchers eventually determined that the practice actually increased mosquito numbers, because it drained shallow pools containing mosquito-eating creatures, like killifish. What’s more, biologists say the ditches have harmed salt marsh ecosystems by altering historic tidal flush patterns.

Our alternatives are as thorny as our unintended outcomes. We can’t stop applying remedies to our problems, yet we can’t divine the problems within our remedies.

The Germans have a great word for this: Schlimmbesserung, an improvement that makes things worse.

Consider the plight of monarch butterflies. The fluttering wanderers are at their lowest population point in decades, with their wondrous winter migration to Mexico off by early 60 percent in two years.

Like the killifish, the monarchs have been victimized by scientific advancement.

Drought and extreme heat have been factors. But more alarming is the impact of genetically-modified crops (GMC). These Frankenseeds allow American farmers to plant vast swaths of herbicide-resistant corn and soybean, a good thing for farmers and consumers, but a bad thing for monarchs.

Farmers spray their GMC fields with herbicides, which kill weeds, one of which is the milkweed, where monarchs lay their eggs. “That habitat is virtually gone,” Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, told The New York Times. Adding to the monarchs’ predicament is the swift expansion of American farmland, some 25 million new acres since 2007, which has overtaken grasslands and conservation areas where milkweed once thrived, Taylor told the paper.

The milkweed-seeking monarchs scatter throughout North America in the summer, but cluster up in the same small patch of Mexican forest in the winter. The shrinking milkweed nursery is taking its toll. This year, according to Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, the forest area occupied by wintering monarchs plummeted to 2.94 acres, a 59 percent drop from 7.14 acres in 2011. According to the commission, the butterflies once occupied 50 acres of forest.

Lake Erie is the site of another vexing byproduct of exemplary intentions. The great lake is being choked by a thick spread of toxic algae. Biologists fear that this year may be the worst since 2011, when the algae bloom cloaked one-sixth of Erie’s surface.

The Germans have a great word for this: <em>Schlimmbesserung</em>, an improvement that makes things worse.

Farmers for years have been urged to minimize plowing because the huge carbon mass released through tilling erodes the atmosphere and degrades the soil. Many Ohio farmers along the 137-mile-long Maumee River, which empties into Lake Erie, have embraced — and invested heavily in — no-till planting, in which seeds are drilled into undisturbed soil.

But the fertilizer pellets used by farmers wash more easily off hard, untilled soil than plowed soil and a portion of the disbursed pellets — scientists say 1.1 pounds per farm acre, and there are some 70,000 farms along the Maumee — is swept by rain into the river. The phosphorous in the pellets ends up being an ideal food source for the Erie algae.

Schlimmbesserung.

So do our efforts ever end up actually improving anything? Obviously, yes. We’ve advanced medicine, technology, manufacturing processes, workplace safety, and scores of other spheres, often with stunning success. But our endeavors in nature haven’t always yielded such neat outcomes. The salt marsh ditches failed at improving and succeeded at injuring; the monarch-saga GMCs and MauneeRiver no-till farming succeeded at both.

Our kindest gestures — feeding ducks and geese, laying out feed pellets for deer, introducing fast-growing tree species for firewood in impoverished societies — disrupt ecological patterns just as palpably, if not as violently, as our harsher intrusions, like armoring our coasts or damming our streams. We point our finger at one problem and our solution births another. But our alternatives are as thorny as our unintended outcomes. We can’t stop applying remedies to our problems, yet we can’t divine the problems within our remedies.

Maybe it’s time we came up with our own word to describe the inflictions of our advances.

This program aired on March 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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