The first Earth Day I was conscious of was a raw spring day in 1991. I remember because I did not wear gloves, even though it was unseasonably cool. At recess I dropped a paper wrapper on the blacktop of my middle school playground, and before I could grab it, it blew across the track and came to rest against the chain link fence at the edge of the school’s property.
From where I stood, I could see several of the garbage cans the janitors had placed strategically around the playground to prevent us from littering. “What’s the point?” I asked myself, looking around at the asphalt and concrete schoolyard. “It’s all paved anyway.”
My friend Laura joined me in my observation of Earth Day by flinging down another gum wrapper and declaring, with a sinister snort, “You measly Earth!” I still remember the dark tone of her laugh. Though I laughed with her, I realized, with a heavy feeling of futility, that my friend’s seemingly small statement pretty much summed up humanity’s collective attitude towards our planet.
I have not made a habit of discarding wrappers on the ground, but I have continued to observe the paved places we carve out of our habitat, and how we rearrange our planet to suit our whims. We live with the illusion that we can control nature, and when it gets in our way that is precisely what we try to do. A mountain sits in the path of a highway? Blast a hole in it. A river seasonally floods an area otherwise ripe for real estate development? Divert it. Take the path of most resistance, and pave it.
And that’s exactly what we did in Mission Valley, which is the natural flood plain of the San Diego River. Now home to Hotel Circle, Fashion Valley Shopping Mall, Mission Valley Shopping Center, Target, Old Navy, Qualcomm Stadium, and countless car dealerships and fast food joints, Mission Valley used to be, until the 1960s, a collection of dairy farms that relied on the river for sustenance. Before that, it was the place where, in 1769, Father Junipero Serra seated the mission of San Diego de Alcala, because the river provided a water source for the fledgling settlement that would grow into the modern city of San Diego. Before Padre Serra built a church there, the Kumeyaay called the place home. And, since the time before humans set foot anywhere near it, the river has swollen in the rainy season, and the valley has been there to contain the flow.
Over the past 50 years, development of Mission Valley has confined the river to a largely concrete course running behind apartments, next to freeways, and under bridges. For most of the year, it seems to get but a scant amount of attention from concerned environmentalists, school kids, and ecologists, who take a few hours to “clean it up” on a Saturday morning. But in very rainy winters, like the one we just had, when the San Diego River reclaims its natural flood plain and inundates Mission Valley, it makes the news. Instead of the seasonal cycle it’s been for thousands of years, it’s a major media event. The back road to the mall is closed due to flooding, forcing disgruntled drivers to change direction while the river follows its ancient course.
This past winter, some Mission Valley apartments and hotels were without electricity for a couple of days after a particularly heavy deluge washed out utility poles and power lines. News crews monitored the situation constantly, interviewing hotel guests who bragged triumphantly of how they “overcame” the flood. When the river bulges at its man-made seams, it becomes an adversary, one to be fought and conquered. Residents rally together to point out the need for improvements to flood controls, neglecting to consider that they’re living (and shopping!) on a river that drains 440 square miles into the Pacific Ocean.
When the Mississippi River broke its levees during Hurricane Katrina, residents of New Orleans, along with the entire U.S., were shocked and dismayed at the result. But, frankly, what did we expect from a river that had been building up its energy behind concrete dams, like an angry felon behind steel bars, for half a century or more? It wasn’t going to go quietly. The mighty Mississippi had been forgotten too long. When it finally broke free of its bonds, it behaved exactly as it had before we locked it up. The truly dismaying part, of course, was George W. Bush’s inexcusably lame response, and the subsequent suffering of thousands of people who could not get adequate assistance. But we knew all along what the Mississippi was capable of: it has flooded cyclically for as long as humans have been around to observe it, and Mark Twain complained bitterly of its notorious tendency to change course. We thought, erroneously, that all the concrete holding back the Mississippi would somehow prove stronger than the force of gravity.
Now residents have returned to the inundated New Orleans neighborhoods, asking the government to rebuild the levees so that another deluge of Hurricane Katrina proportions won’t wash them away again. But storms will continue to brew, and the river will continue to overflow. No amount of concrete can permanently alter that fact.
We treat the whole earth like that Mississippi River. We push it around with giant mechanized shovels and flatten it with rollers, paving humps out of hills and mountains. We prop up sliding cliffsides that threaten to bury our houses and roads, pitting concrete against the ineluctable process of erosion. We clear small patches for backyard gardens; attempting, even in our smallest acts, to exert our will over the land. Then, once we’ve gotten it right where we want it, we forget that we’ve pushed it around.
The concrete foundations we pour into place foster illusions of permanence and security, which in turn foster our complacency. We (well, most of us) don’t consider the fragility of freeway overpasses, or the precarious positions of La Jolla homes set into concrete-clad hillsides. We forget about entropy. We worry much more about those few forces of nature we haven’t yet plugged up or diverted with concrete, like volcanoes. One could go at any time.
So much of our infrastructure is contrived of concrete that we can’t see what was there before. We’re accustomed to it. After a long sojourn from it, say on an arduous hike through the woods, the sight of concrete can even come as a relief. But every once in a while, we experience the oppressive nature of the stuff. In the song Concrete Jungle, Bob Marley sings about a city slum on the edge of Kingston, where “no sun will shine,” and “where the living is hardest.” In The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris makes the case that humans living in cities are like animals living in concrete zoos. In the early 1900s, at the dawn of what some at the time called the “Cement Age,” “concrete creep” was already a concern, though a marginal one compared to the general enthusiasm for its outstanding building qualities. A 1912 editorial in California Garden bemoaned the increasing amount of cement in the world—an amount that, if we traveled back in time to that era, would certainly amaze us by its scarcity:
"We are in an age of cement, a hard, unyielding, soulless stuff, that hates a curve. It has invaded our offices, our houses, our streets and our gardens even. Today there are cement flowerpots, seats, fountains, even fence posts, and it is encasing our souls in a four-square little box."
A hundred years later, we are still living in the Cement Age. And for the most part, we coexist with concrete. Jane Jacobs dedicated a whole chapter of the classic urban study, The Death and Life of American Cities, to the perks of paved sidewalks. According to her, it makes the neighborhood better. It gives us a place to meet and greet, a structure that elevates us from ground level. It organizes our living spaces, defining the borders of civilization. As a society, we feel comfortable on pavement. Over the span of its relatively short existence, we have learned to meet cement in the middle, learning how to make it curve and meander to fit our aesthetics, while we grow more and more accustomed to its presence until its squares and rectangles seem as familiar as, if not more so than, the shapes of the earth beyond the concrete. We forget that though it’s paved to our specifications, the Earth will not bend to our will.