The Fruits of Civilization (71-11) The Great Lakes

 The Great Lakes

The Great Lakes of North America is the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, covering 244,106 km2. The 5 lakes began to form at the end of the last glacial period, 14 thousand years ago, as retreating ice sheets filled basins with meltwater. The basins had originally been carved by glaciers when the ice age began.

The Great Lakes played a central role in the industrialization of the continent, via 2 massive engineering projects with 2 main goals: open up the North American interior to shipping and dispose of sewage. The Great Lakes were destined to facilitate transport and act as a toilet.

Industrious men sought to connect the lakes with each other, nearby rivers, and with the Atlantic Ocean: the sort of unnatural act that ambitiously defines industrialization.

The first canal was completed in 1781. Proposals in the last decade of the 19th century to connect the lakes with the Atlantic Ocean came to fruition in 1959, with the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The greatest engineering feat of our time. ~ American broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite in 1957, on the impending completion of the Saint Lawrence Seaway

As seagoing vessels penetrated the Great Lakes, they brought with them all manner of alien stowaways, some of which surprisingly quickly managed to upend the local food web and overtake the natives. Failure of anticipation yielded to attempted restoration, Humpty-Dumpty style.

The Mississippi River drainage basin covers ~40% of the continental United States. A watery expanse roughly the size of India flows downhill into the mighty river, which washes out into the Gulf of Mexico. Connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River with shipways was the best way to spread the environmental damage. Men took to it enthusiastically.

The Great Lakes are just a beachhead for species invasions that are going to play out across the country in the next century. It’s just the start. ~ American limnologist and ecologist Jake Vander Zanden in 1990

Thanks to capitalist lust for shipping as cheap transport, pesky plants and adventurous animals discovered new lands and took over ecosystems in a manner mordantly matched by man in disruptive force. America’s great drainage basin has become an expanse of opportunity for unintended immigrants. The industrialization of American waterways has been another success story of globalization for all life.


The introduction of alien organisms via the industrialization of the Great Lakes is merely a recent chapter in a saga that has been ongoing since man found favor with commerce.

The Age of Discovery was driven by trade that was often of living plants and animals. Also along were all kinds of other life. The earthworms that traveled with the English settlers to Jamestown played havoc with their newfound American soil, affecting the forests and the crops that the natives grew.