Energy & Environment

The Lamprey in the Garden of Eden

One of the great myths of modern political cliché is that the right wing of American politics is a creature of religion, while the left represents its rational antithesis. In truth, both wings are part of the same Christian bird, having developed from the same Western worldview and internalized, in different ways, the myths and morality of 2000 years of European Christianity.

Indeed, the political left in America (and Europe) can be seen as Christianity freed from all the bother and constraints of a divine Christ. The left’s concern with the poor, the outcast, the foreign, and the oppressed are all essential aspects of Christianity, after all—as is a certain holier-than-thou self-righteousness that characterizes most leftist causes.

Central to the mythology of the Christian World is the tale of the perfect Garden of Eden being despoiled by the original sin of mankind. And although radical environmentalists would cough up a Gaia-shaped mound of vegan pellets upon hearing it, I believe that this part of the Christian creation myth forms the essential motif of modern environmentalism. The roots of the tree may be from a seed planted in Eden, but the trunk grows straight up through Rousseau and Muir to feed the leaves of the modern green movement.

In every case study and fund-raising letter the greenies issue, the key elements of the Eden story are all there: perfect nature, complex and harmonious in its timeless innocence, is ruined forever by the interloper, man, who brings pain and discord to the world, because that’s simply his flawed nature. It’s just Adam and Eve all over again.

Except in the modern Eco-Genesis, man’s original sin is not disobedience, but economic development—at least development on the Western industrial model.

So no historical event better embodies this persistent allegory than the settlement of North America by Europeans. Jesus may have been a Jew, but in the minds of the left, Adam and Eve were pretty definitely White Anglo Saxon Protestants well on their way to building a railroad and a petrochemical plant. The long spread of Adam and Eve Smith throughout the American Eden is a goldmine of formulaic propaganda for the self-loathing post-Christian left.

One nugget in this treasure trove of morality tales is the havoc brought by the building of the Erie Canal. This canal was central to American development. It opened the Midwest to economic integration into the young United States, and it set the precedent for future grand public infrastructure improvements, from railroads to electric grids. So it would be only fitting if the Erie Canal were associated with some apocryphal tale of the destruction of yet another chunk of pre-Columbian Eden. And so of course it is.

I heard the tale in school and it is a staple of American eco-folklore. The grand hubristic canal, a horizontal Tower of Babel stretching from the Hudson to Lakes Ontario and Erie, conveyed westward not just the white man and smallpox, whiskey and Bibles, money and sawmills, but also a hideous serpent, the Sea Lamprey, which despoiled the aquatic Eden of Lake Ontario in a most horrid fashion.

Once home to schools of Trout and Salmon so thick that the Lake was actually mostly fish by volume, the slimy parasitic lampreys latched onto victim after victim, rasping holes into their circulatory systems and sucking the poor fish dry like a drunken redneck going through a case of Budweiser cans—until nothing was left but crumpled carcasses washed up on the shores of Lake Symbolism. What a perfect metaphor it was: the ugly newcomer from the North Atlantic, parasitizing the idyllic natives unto extermination. They could have just renamed the lamprey the “Columbus Fish.”

There’s just one problem with the story. It didn’t happen. Many ichthyologists had argued over the years that the migration of the lamprey through such a long and stagnant canal without appropriate hosts was a biological impossibility, but since it was a moral imperative that it did so, biology was ignored. Besides, it was a well-established and repeated fact that the first lampreys were seen in Lake Ontario after the canal opened in 1825. Clearly, the serpent and the disastrous duo from Eden had teamed up again.

But a few years ago, scientists conducted molecular genetic studies of the Sea Lampreys in Lake Ontario, comparing them to ocean-going populations. And the evidence is conclusive: the two populations have not shared a common ancestor for thousands of years. The hideous introduced Sea Lamprey is, in fact, native to Lake Ontario. The genetic evidence clearly supports the contention of many ichthyologists that Sea Lampreys migrated into the Lake naturally, via one of the outlets that became passable at the end of the last ice age—a period of global warming that was also not man’s fault.

So once again science has come into conflict with a cherished creation myth, but just as is the case with the “intelligent design” movement on the right, the Eco-Eden movement on the left has mostly chosen to ignore science, lest it harm a favorite orthodoxy.

Many websites and publications—by government agencies, environmental groups, and universities alike—continue to attribute the lampreys in Ontario to the Erie Canal. Even the Ontario Ministry of the Environment lists the lamprey as an invasive species in the lake. The news of the lampreys’ ancient origins has been greeted with a collective shrug—despite the genetic evidence being even stronger than that in the O.J. Simpson case. Oh, wait. Perhaps that is a bad example.

And governments continue to spend millions trying to extirpate the lampreys in Lake Ontario with barriers and lampricidal chemicals, ironically, in the cause of preserving native fishes.

I do not tell this story to imply that man is harmless in his modern interactions with nature. We have done much damage. The lampreys of Lake Ontario actually did find their way into the lakes above Niagara Falls by means of the short Welland Canal in the 1920s. But it’s a little difficult to attribute the end of the fisheries in these lakes entirely to the Ontario Sea Lamprey, when Lake Ontario was so productive for so long in its presence.

My point is simply that there is a contingent of society that is primed and eager to believe that every pimple on the butt of nature was put there by Lewis and Clark or Halliburton —even when there is very little scientific evidence to support such a conclusion. And this philosophical predisposition affects no entity more than the world’s energy industry.

Whether the issue is offshore drilling, ANWR, Nantucket windmills, or nuclear power, the uncompromising fervor of the opposition has a familiar feel. While pro-development forces naively reference economics, geology, and safety records, they are met with counterarguments every bit as rational as the Old Testament.

This article is an expanded version of one that originally appeared in Energy Tribune.


Sign Up