We have hurricanes, sinkholes, mosquitoes, drought, and occasional tornadoes here, but at least we don't have to contend with the Big Muddy. My late father (1902-98) told hair-raising stories about growing up along the Mississippi River in Charleston, Mo. How different it all was a century ago.
In those days, when the river was in flood stage, Charleston would raise a posse. Armed men were posted on the levee and spaced about 100 yards apart. The posse was instructed to shoot on sight. They were guarding against gangs from across the river in Cairo, Ill. The Cairo flood prevention program was to sneak gangs of men across the river at night to dynamite the levee. Breaching the levee would flood Missouri farms and keep Cairo dry.
This year the Army Corps of Engineers has blown up a 2 mile stretch of the levee in order to prevent possible flooding in Cairo. The flooding of Missouri fields will create a financial disaster for the farmers who cultivate these rich bottom lands. It will be years before these fields can be put back into agricultural production. One has to wonder: Who made the Corps judge, jury, and executioner? To whom does the Corps answer? My grandfather and his neighbors had the sacred duty to protect their own property and chose not to sacrifice their farms to benefit Cairo.
The land flooded was first settled by my father's great-grandparents. They came south from Kentucky and turned the wild, malaria-infested swamps into productive crop-land. A century ago my grandfather designed one of the first steel plows. He pulled this plow behind his huge steam traction engine. Men like him cropped thousands of acres. The wheat they produced fetched handsome prices during the Great War.
Some of the land-holders (unfortunately grandfather was not one of them) earned small fortunes from this fertile land. Today, this production is being sacrificed. As I write this, I am scheduled to visit father's home place shortly. The visit will be tinged with sorrow. The Corps' action is a disaster for this community.
The decision to sacrifice the Missouri farms to save an Illinois town of about 2,300 is sort of a parable of modern times. Individuals cannot make decisions for personal benefit; instead, the wider interests of the nation must be taken into consideration. One community benefits and another suffers. We call it utilitarianism: The greatest good for the greatest number.
But somebody has to pay the price. It is one thing to make a willing sacrifice for the greater good, it is very different when an un-elected bureaucrat decides who benefits and who suffers. Does not utilitarianism also require that benefits and costs be evenly shared?
We all decry the rising cost of gasoline. Although we import about one third of the oil we use, this means that two-thirds of our oil is produced domestically. When the price of oil surges, it means that the corporations that own domestic wells gain a windfall. Four-dollar gas in Florida means boom times in Houston. Our local economy will suffer and the Texas economy will benefit. After all, the extra dollar or two we spend at the pump has to go somewhere. How does our political process determine who will be the losers and who will be the winners?
I think the citizens of Charleston and its surrounding farms think they should have a voice in what happens to their land and livelihood. A century ago they could control their land.
When and how did they decide to surrender that decision to others? Or did they decide? If they did not decide, who did?
C.D. Chamberlain lives in Spring Hill.