The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise
Marshes and Moguls
A review by Gregg Easterbrook
It seems hard to believe that South Florida, home to more than six million people,
some exceedingly desirable real estate, and a striking percentage of the world's
best-looking sunbathers, was considered a hellhole only a little more than a century
ago. Yes, I know how hard it is to find parking in the South Beach part of Miami,
but I mean a real hellhole: thousands of square miles of impassable swampland
infested with clouds of vicious mosquitoes. Dystopian environmental conditions
in South Florida were dictated by the Everglades, the "river of grass." The world's
largest marsh, the Everglades were defined by an enormous expanse of very slow-moving
water at barely above sea level, which caused the Everglades to exist in a condition
of perpetual flooding. This made the region close to worthless to people, but
an ideal habitat for many plants and for wading birds; the old Everglades offered
an Edenic profusion of iridescent flocks of herons, egrets, spoonbills, gallinules,
ospreys, and ibis rising together toward flight in scenes whose glory might have
been an argument for intelligent design, until representatives of the supposedly
most intelligent of animals dedicated themselves with singular purpose to making
the whole thing into a colossal mess.
Human blundering with the Everglades is the subject of Michael Grunwald's book. A reporter for The Washington Post, Grunwald moved to Florida for several years to research a history of how humanity damaged the Everglades and is now attempting to restore the river of grass to some of its former splendor. During his stay in Florida, Grunwald tormented readers of this magazine in cold or overcast locations with a dispatch on conditions in perfect-climate, glamour-filled modern Miami -- reporting that almost every winter day was sunny and 75 degrees, describing himself relaxing by the pool, gawking at bikini-clad beauties at his apartment building, "one of those sexy South Beach buildings full of impossibly thin model-type women" plus buff magazine-cover young men. How Grunwald suffered for his subject! But the sacrifice was worth it. The Swamp is a tremendous book -- impressive in scope, well researched and well written, rich in history yet urgently relevant to current events, altogether deserving of laurels. My only regret about the book is that I couldn't read it by the pool of Grunwald's apartment building.
The Swamp spends its first half on the arrival of modernity in Florida: clashes with the Calusa and the Seminole, crazy plans to farm the Everglades, and the two Florida land booms -- first the phony boom when prices skyrocketed on swindlers' claims that South Florida was already converted from swamp to dry land for development, then the true boom that occurred once significant acreage of the southern portion of the state actually was dry. In response to an Everglades land lottery, "thousands of northerners descended on Fort Lauderdale in the spring of 1911, transforming the piney-woods hamlet ... into a tent city," Grunwald writes of one typical Florida land-promotion scheme that turned out to be pretty much pure swindle. His early history of Florida is full of colorful rapscallions and quagmires in the literal sense. Thus he describes the Second Seminole War, an effort in the 1830s to end Seminole independence, as "America's first Vietnam, a guerrilla war of attrition, fought on unfamiliar, unforgiving terrain, against an underestimated, highly motivated enemy who often retreated but never quit." And he adds of this war that "soldiers and generals hated it," as would prove true of all other guerrilla conflicts in which the United States would become engaged.
The historical portion of the book continues to an extended recitation of Henry Flagler's obsession with South Florida and his lavish spending to make the area the country's upper-class playground. Flagler was a struggling Midwestern grain merchant who became the business partner of one John D. Rockefeller. Their Standard Oil corporation made Flagler quite a bit richer than Croesus; he spent most of his wealth building railroads and luxury hotels in South Florida in the late nineteenth century. His tale is colorful but oft-told in histories of Florida, and The Swamp grows a bit waterlogged in this section. But then Grunwald gets to the fascinating material that you have not previously read -- how the various late nineteenth-century plans to make South Florida habitable for large numbers misunderstood nature and backfired.
Florida is shaped as a thick walking stick with two large lakes (Kissimmee and Okeechobee) in the upper portion and the Everglades below. The gradient is north-to-south, but extremely slight. Water flows southward from the lakes, but very slowly, in a sheet movement that is not energetic enough to cut many riverbeds. The result is a vast marshland. Beginning with a man named Hamilton Disston, who was born in Philadelphia in 1844, visionaries resolved to drain the marshland by digging artificial rivers that would carry water to the ocean before it could reach the Everglades. Initial attempts failed, and became the subject of much derision. "Some men believe the Everglades should be drained, while others urge annexation of the moon," an editorial of the era scoffed.
To make a long story short -- the long version is smartly and vividly told in The Swamp -- Disston and those who followed him cut their artificial rivers directly east and west of Lake Okeechobee, these being the shortest routes to the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, thereby transforming the north-to-south water equilibrium of the state. And sure enough, the Everglades began to dry. The retreat of the waters from much of South Florida set in motion the land boom that succeeded. As major migrations to Miami and other South Florida areas proceeded in earnest, the state growing at four times the national average after World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers assumed responsibility for water management in the Everglades and began replacing the meandering rivers of the region's lore with straight-line concrete canals.
But as men and women moved to the area in great numbers, it became clear that nature had not gone away. In 1926, a powerful hurricane killed thousands of people in South Florida, while flooding much of the recovered land. In 1928, another cruel hurricane killed perhaps 2,500 people, and with "the soils of the Everglades far too saturated for burials," some were interred in a mass grave in what is now the tony address of West Palm Beach. And does the following sound familiar? When the storm hit, "Florida's initial reaction was denial. Governor John Martin refused to activate the National Guard, claiming the storm had done little damage."
Anyone who moves to the Gulf Coast places himself or herself into the path of ferocious storms that nature quite regularly sends. South Floridians were also placing themselves into the path of an environmental risk of their own making: the disruption of the Everglades. When significant areas were deprived of water, land and vegetation that had adapted to a saturated condition dried so much that devastating fires swept much of the state. The wading birds whose outlines symbolize Florida revelry began to fly away, or to die. New plant species wiped out the indigenous species that evolved in marshes. The Corps' concrete-lined canals so disrupted the natural flow of sediment that former fisherman's paradises such as the St. Lucie River became trenches of mud. When sugar plantations spread across much of the reclaimed Everglades land, chemical runoff, especially farm nutrients, began to kill downstream fish. (Too much of a good thing in terms of nutrients is bad for aquatic environments, just as it is bad for people; many marine organisms cannot live in phosphorous-overloaded water.) And water flowing south toward the new population centers of Miami and its environs became filthy, as the marshes that served as natural filters disappeared.
The second half of Grunwald's book is devoted to his recounting of efforts to reverse mistakes made in the management of the Everglades: first by placing some of the un-drained Everglades into preservation status, then by limiting pollution from sugar plantations, then by replacing some of the artificial east and west water flow with natural north-to-south movement, and finally via the current $7.8 billion federal and state effort to restore a reasonable amount of the central Everglades' water pathways to their pre-canal condition. State and federal political leaders desperately opposed holding sugar growers accountable for pollution of the Everglades until it became clear that there was strong public support for the preservation of the region. Then there was extended fighting about whether clean water created by restoration would be used to secure the future of Everglades National Park or as a water supply for the future expansion of Miami. (Mostly, the park won.) And finally there was a fight about whether environmental lobbies would endorse the deal or denounce it for not being utterly perfect in every way. As Grunwald shows, water-quality improvements turned out to happen faster, and be better, than expected. Today Everglades restoration is going well.
Closing this fine book, I had a small complaint and a big complaint. The small one is that The Swamp takes numerous potshots at the developers and amusement-park builders who crowded into Florida, but dodges an important aspect of economic growth that affluence makes possible: environmental protection. Townhomes can be tacky, and freeway congestion is infuriating; but the global population is expanding, and people must live somewhere. If environmentally destructive development (which is the story of most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) makes possible environmentally clean development (which has been happening roughly since the mid-1980s), the outcome is high living standards plus a respect for nature. And that is a good outcome.
My big complaint is that Grunwald's analysis of human interaction with the Everglades reflects what I once called the Fallacy of Environmental Correctness. The Swamp presents the pre-European-contact condition of Florida as correct in some first-causes sense, while implying that all human tampering with the Everglades was an offense against the proper order of things. Since the human lifespan is less than a century, we tend to think of environmental conditions as fixed. Yet when they were first seen by the conquistadors in the sixteenth century, the Everglades were just the latest variation on an endlessly changing natural landscape, created rather recently in geological terms and certain to be altered many more times in the future, whether humanity acted or not.
Not that long ago, much of North America was buried under an ice sheet, and what is now the Everglades region was drastically different. Step back further, into the Oligocene Epoch, and North America was arid, with no marshlands to protect. Step further back and Earth's temperatures were much higher than today; the birds of the current Everglades could not have lived at Florida latitudes in hotter prior eras. Or think about the future: even were there no Homo sapiens, a few thousand years into the future, the Everglades are sure to transform in unpredictable ways. There is no "correct" condition for a land area or biosphere. There is only the condition that happens to obtain at the moment. Given that humanity arises from the natural scheme, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our monkeying around with nature. Some of this monkeying fulfills our purposes as moral and historical agents -- if it is done wisely, as Michael Grunwald has persuasively shown.
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