A friend who grew up, as I did, near Lake Michigan once remarked that the Great Lakes were prone, more than any other natural feature, to “plagues of a biblical scale.” I knew what he meant: to live on those waters was to bear witness to a series of ecological dramas, each one as spectacular as it was sudden. One summer toxic algae blooms dyed the channels a bioluminescent green and everyone who swam in them developed mouth blisters. A few years later, the perch died and washed up on the beach in such multitudes you could smell them from the other side of the dunes. After particularly cold winters, the tides rose high and portions of the beach disappeared entirely. Other times the water would recede far beyond the sandbars, leaving behind a vast stretch of pocked and rocky mudflats—land that looked stricken, or cursed. 

Plagues are always meant as warnings. But unlike my friend, I had never considered these events in moralistic terms; it was not clear to me that we were being punished, or even implicated. The fluctuations were unpredictable, after all, and rarely repeated, and the lake bore none of the familiar signs of dystopian ecology that I had come to associate with narratives about climate change—no beaches smeared with oil, no waters clouded with chemical waste. In fact, throughout my adolescence, Lake Michigan was visibly cleaner than it had been in decades—so clear, on some mornings, that its water could, if bottled, pass for vodka. If anything, these signs seemed to belong to a more ancient cosmology, one driven not by divine law and its transgression but by the whims of some fractious pantheon whose moods were mercurial and sublimated into natural events. Their meaning was anyone’s guess.

The Flint crisis stands as a testament to the fact that we live in a modern bureaucracy, a structure of our own making that is every bit as complex and mystifying as the ecological systems we are still struggling to understand.

Climate models warn that the coming apocalypse will be one of water. Glaciers will calve in thundering cascades, the rising oceans will erode the coasts, and droughts will make whole countries uninhabitable. Yet, more often than not, the most immediate threats to our resources bear little resemblance to these lurid forecasts. The present dangers express themselves, increasingly, in ways that are insidious and irregular, and when they do manage to catch our attention, it is easy to dismiss them as flukes.

There was a time not so long ago when the disruptions to our waters were more predictable. This is particularly true of the Great Lakes, the abode of more than 20 percent of the planet’s surface freshwater, and the subject of Dan Egan’s important new book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. Around the middle of the last century, Egan notes, these bodies of water were in dire straits, and the signs of trouble were obvious to anyone with eyes and a nose. Large portions of the five lakes were clouded with industrial waste, and hundreds of square miles of waters were declared “dead.” Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, served as the dumping ground for the steel industry’s runoff, and was for some time so slicked with oil that it would spontaneously burst into flames.

This damage was the inevitable outcome of two centuries of careless pillaging by generations of Americans who regarded nature as the raw material of empire, a wilderness to be conquered and subdued. It is an outlook evident in Alexis de Tocqueville’s remarks upon arriving in 1831 on the virgin shores of Lake Huron: “Nothing is missing but civilized man, and he is at the door.” To some extent, the history of this region reads like a cautionary tale about the perils of hubris. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were characterized by grandiose engineering projects—the Erie Canal, the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal—that were designed to connect the Great Lakes to other bodies of water, carving new paths for commercial freighters. At the time, these projects were roundly heralded as triumphs. Walter Cronkite declared the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 as the “greatest engineering feat of our time,” one that is “reshaping a continent, completing the job nature had begun thousands of years ago.” In the end, these manmade channels opened the doors to a host of invasive species that destroyed the lakes’ native fish populations and led to several major die-offs.

The past half-century has been spent atoning for these blunders. The Clean Water Act of 1972 imposed a system of regulations that dramatically improved the quality of the nation’s waterways. As a result the number of American lakes and rivers listed as unsafe for swimming and fishing has since been cut in half. Some of the destroyed natural barriers to the Great Lakes have been replaced with manmade ones, stanching the progress of more invasive fish. These remedies were sparked, in part, by a shift in public opinion about the role of human activity in the natural world—a change so dramatic that today the older rhetoric of conquering and reshaping nature reads as bewilderingly naïve. We have, if nothing else, a greater sense of humility, a chastened sense of our place in the order of things.

Which is not to say we have made our peace with these waters. Over the past few decades, Egan argues, humans have done equal, if not worse, damage to the lakes through negligence, lethargy—and occasionally even through good intentions. A seemingly minor loophole in the Clean Water Act, for instance, allowed freighters coming in from the Atlantic to dump their ballast water in the Great Lakes. That water contained zebra and quagga mussels, species native to the Black and Caspian Seas that have no natural predators in the Great Lakes. The mussels have now proliferated to the point that they completely blanket the bottom of Lake Michigan, shore to shore. They have decimated native fish populations, caused several botulism outbreaks, and slowly made their way down the channels to the Mississippi River drainage basin, which covers 40 percent of the continental United States. Thanks to all those manmade channels and seaways, the fate of the Great Lakes is now intricately enlaced with the rest of our nation’s waters. Lake Mead’s canyon walls are blackened with mussels, and the invaders have gummed up the cooling system of the Hoover Dam, which generates electricity for more than 1.5 million people. In these Western states alone, the infestation has cost hundreds of millions of dollars; the Great Lakes states have spent billions.

If the sin of past generations was hubris, our own vices are those that metastasize in the fine print.

Another threat that conservation acts have struggled to address is agricultural runoff, which is considered a “nonpoint source” pollutant, an ill that seeps from diffuse and diverse sources rather than a discrete point of origin. Farm fertilizers are chock full of phosphorus, and trickle into the lakes in alarming quantities, especially because farmers in the region have increasingly turned to no-till techniques. These practices are undeniably good for the soil—the farmers have adopted them at the urging of environmental groups worried about erosion—but they make it easier for runoff to spill into the local waters before it is absorbed by the crops. The runoff is selectively filtered by the invasive mussels, whose presence in the lakes has served to stimulate the growth of algae blooms, which in turn release toxins and have sucked the oxygen out of large stretches of water.

Of course an algae bloom, or a ship prow clinging with mussels, has none of the dystopian drama of a flaming river. The omens of disaster are more subtle today than they were in the past, and Egan worries that these signs will fail to ignite the kind of widespread public outrage that led to reforms such as the Clean Water Act. Even the gorgeously limpid waters of Lake Michigan should, technically, be read as a sign of trouble. The reason the Great Lakes are so clear is that these invasive mussels have devastated the native ecology. “This is not the sign of a healthy lake,” Egan writes; “it’s the sign of a lake having the life sucked out of it.”

In the end, Egan’s book serves as a reminder that the ecological universe we inhabit is vastly connected and cannot be easily mended by humility and good intentions. If the sin of the past generations was hubris, our own vices are those that metastasize in the fine print: the loopholes we tolerate or overlook in conservation acts, the court rulings that refuse to impose a concrete deadline, the jargonish clauses in shipping contracts—and also, unavoidably, the blitheness of all of us who continue to enjoy these waters, oblivious to signs of trouble.

• • •

Granted, there are disasters that still manage to get our attention. When the story of the Flint water crisis broke in early 2015, it became a fixation of the national media, a baffling instance of government incompetence and resource mismanagement. City and state officials had assured the citizens of Flint that it was safe to drink from city taps even after the faucets began dispensing foul, brown muck and health officials had confirmed an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. They continued to insist that the water was safe long after a GM plant discovered it was corroding their auto parts, and local pastors were forced to stop performing baptisms. In total more than 9,000 children in Flint under the age of 6 were exposed to toxic levels of lead, and the poisoned water made its way into some 18,000 homes. The story dominated national headlines and op-ed articles, where it was all too often used as fodder, on both the right and the left, for existing political debates.

Poison on Tap is the first book to attempt a detailed and objective retrospective of the crisis, tackling the perplexing web of actions that led to its nadir. Published by Bridge Magazine—a publication of the nonprofit think tank Center for Michigan, and one of the few outlets that covered the crisis from the start—the book collects two years’ worth of the magazine’s reportage on the crisis, alongside leaked government emails and intricately compiled timelines of who knew what when. What emerges from these documents is perhaps the first truly comprehensive, chronological narrative of the catastrophe, one that began in 2013 with Flint’s decision to pull out of the Detroit pipeline to Lake Huron, which had been its longtime water source, in order to connect to the new Karegnondi pipeline. It was a decision made primarily for economic reasons, a plan endorsed by the emergency city manager who had his eye on the books and the bottom line.

This damage was the inevitable outcome of two centuries of careless pillaging by generations of Americans who regarded nature as the raw material of empire, a wilderness to be conquered and subdued.

From that moment on, the story reads as a kind of morality play, one with a particularly tortured plotline and a stage overcrowded with actors collectively taking on the role of Vice. Among this hapless cast are the Detroit Water and Sewage Department agents who terminated Flint’s contract early, out of spite; the city’s emergency financial managers who advised switching over to the Flint River as a temporary, cost-effective solution; the water lab team that was unprepared for the switch; the city officials who failed to anticipate the necessity of corrosion control; the state Department of Environmental Quality that discounted early warnings that lead, bacteria, and other contaminants were leaching into the water; the governor who was distracted by a triumphant coast-to-coast reelection tour. Each of these officials initially denied their role in the incident, shifting the responsibility to other agencies, though in the final analysis, it seems that the blame must be parceled out among them all. This was, at any rate, what the activist Erin Brockovich concluded in 2015. “Now is not the time for the blame game,” she wrote in her Facebook post that called national attention to the crisis. “Everyone is responsible from the top down: USEPA, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the State of Michigan and the local officials.”

After finishing Poison on Tap, I had no choice but to agree with her. And yet, how tedious it was to weed through so many documents and reports only to encounter no central malevolence, no locus of evil, but rather an immense volume of petty human error—dozens upon dozens of warnings discounted, actions postponed, and dangers overlooked. As I was writing this, it was announced that five public officials, including the director of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, were charged with involuntary manslaughter for ignoring the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. But this belated delivery of justice could not but seem insufficient, perhaps even arbitrary. The comments sections of the news articles were dominated by citizens asking why similar accountability had not been demanded of the governor, or other officials who were equally responsible. The “blame game” in such cases becomes an endless spiral of culpability. The Flint crisis stands, if nothing else, as a testament to the fact that we live in a highly developed modern bureaucracy, a structure of our own making that is every bit as complex and mystifying as the ecological systems we are still struggling to understand. In both realms, it is increasingly difficult to grasp the scope of our actions and the extent to which our errors are bound up with the lives of others. Beneath the specific blunders of these elected officials lurked a host of larger systemic issues—poverty, deindustrialization—that conspired to make Flint particularly vulnerable to the crisis. These underlying problems are so vast and bewildering that as I read the book, I was at times overcome by a sense of uneasiness that bordered on paranoia. It didn’t seem impossible that I myself was implicated in the crisis.

This anxiety is, of course, a condition of late modernity, one that has escalated steadily over the course of the last half-century and was memorably dramatized by the TV show The Wire (2002–8), which imagined evil as an emergent entity made up of a billion tiny errors and oversights. It is an anxiety that perhaps reached its apex during the Obama years, when there existed on the left a gnawing conviction that all of us were, to some degree, complicit in the murky dealings of global capitalism, the silent murder by drone and our planet’s slow demise.

If this anxiety has lessened somewhat over the past year, it is because we do, finally, have a villain. The Trump era has brought to power a cohort of men who refuse to pay lip service to the narratives of ecological harmony, who speak in the antiquated language of conquering and subduing, and who have taken up, once again, the dusty mantle of Empire. In February of this year, Trump threatened to roll back the Clean Water Rule, which protects seasonal streams and wetlands, in the interest of “promoting economic growth,” and his proposed EPA cuts would likely decrease funding for grants that help states monitor public water systems.

These threats to our waters are real. But perhaps the more insidious danger is the simplicity of this new moral battleground, one that is a welcome, if unacknowledged, relief to the liberal conscience. I say this because I have found it a relief myself. It is far more satisfying to point, definitively, at an external foe than it is to contend with the labyrinthine math of bureaucratic mishaps—or to gaze uncertainly inward. In this new political landscape, good and evil are unambiguous entities existing on opposite sides of a clearly drawn line. It is a world in which complex ethical considerations have given way to shouting matches between those who accept reality and those who deny it, and marching in the name of Science—not any particular philosophy or method, but the whole enterprise, from Copernicus to Mengele—earns one a seat on the right side of history. It is a much easier terrain in which to exist, and yet it in no way reflects the complexity of the actual world that we still inhabit, one in which good intentions count for little, and even the best ideas are capable of wreaking unexpected and irrevocable damage.

The fate of water security depends upon careful attention to detail, vigilant demands of personal accountability, and—perhaps most crucially—public awareness about the complexities of resource management.

Both Egan’s book and the story of the Flint crisis suggest that the fate of water security depends upon careful attention to detail, vigilant demands of personal accountability, and—perhaps most crucially—public awareness about the complexities of resource management. This is particularly necessary at a time when public goods are targets for privatization, and vulnerable communities such as Flint are subject to emergency management laws that elude the safeguards of local government oversight. Cost-cutting, corruption, and cowing to private corporations are not limited to any one political party, and even the most well-meaning administration can wreak havoc when left to run on its own steam, without attentive public engagement. To abandon this vigilance in favor of a more simplistic morality would be an error with no shortage of potential catastrophic outcomes. 

Near the end of Egan’s book, he quotes one of Benjamin Franklin’s more ominous aphorisms: “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”  It is this warning that has stuck with me over the past few weeks, rattling around my mind in idle moments with the persistence of a riddle. Something about its gloominess, its allusion to assets unappreciated and warnings heeded too late, seems to distill a particularly troubling human tendency—or perhaps merely an American one. It is possible that the true cost of our actions will only emerge in hindsight. Perhaps only after the waters have run dry—or completely subsumed us—will the record show in perfect clarity the accretion of misdeeds that contributed to the degradation of our planet. Though we cannot predict how history will regard our errors, I can only assume that this future reckoning, whatever form it takes, will be as unforgiving as the natural world we inhabit and every bit as sweeping and exhaustive as the structures we have built. Everything will be accounted for; no action will be spared.