At its roots the Columbia River is a natural system, composed of water and sediments from the earth. It is teeming with macro-invertebrates, fish, plants and other organisms, and is powered by the sun and gravity. However in reflection of Richard White’s novel The Organic Machine, ever since man arrived to the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia has undergone an identity crisis. Imposing human ideologies upon its flowing waters, man has commoditized the river’s properties in order to suit society’s needs. Through the physical manipulation of the river’s shape, flow and biological content, man has also manipulated the river’s identity and assigned it a purpose. However, through the scope of deep ecology, one may argue that the river does not have a utilitarian purpose, and continuously operates regardless of human need an influence.
After reading The Organic Machine, thus learning about the history of the Columbia and how man came to know and harness the river’s resources and power, I began to ponder the purpose of the Columbia. Man has used it for transportation, energy production, irrigation, recreation and as a source of food. But simultaneously, the Columbia has acted as a habitat, a cultural symbol and a means of passage for reproducing salmon. In an attempt to organize and domesticate the power and various elements of the river, we have provided specific designations, segmenting its body with dams, factories, hatcheries and power plants.
In thinking about the Columbia’s purpose, I also contemplated how society has progressively attempted to manage the river through use, analysis, engineering and rationalization. This can be seen in the history of energy harvest from the Columbia. Initial use of the river’s kinetic energy could only be implemented at mills adjacent to the riverside. However, upon introduction of alternating current, electricity could be transported beyond the river’s banks to cities within the Willamette Valley. But in true human fashion, the Columbia’s energy provisions were not suited enough for the fluctuating electricity usage of cities and factories. Thus, dams were constructed so that engineers could control the flow and energy output of the river, further manipulating the once natural system into an organic machine.
As discussed by White, such management practices have consequentially altered the Columbia’s physical and biological makeup, morphing the original identity of the river and our relationship to it. While natural forces may inherently power the source and the flow of the water, we have so greatly altered the composition and essence of the river.
At what point should society draw the line and stop interfering with natural systems such as the Columbia River? By assigning anthropogenic identities to the river’s qualities, we have eroded away the natural value of the Columbia, as seen through the environmental lens of deep ecology. Through deep ecology, one may argue that humans have no greater right to use the Columbia than the salmon that once freely travelled up and down its currents. Yet, we have ignored the signs that the Columbia is out of balance and is not the same river that we once knew. Furthermore, we ignorantly assume that since we have manipulated the river, we are the ones in control. But as White points out, despite the millions of dollars spent on everything from dams to hatcheries, climate trends such as La Niña and El Niño still dictate flooding and droughts along the Columbia. Mother Nature still has the final say.