The Coastal History Blog 8: “Rivers of the Anthropocene”

Last week I attended a remarkable two-day conference in Indianapolis that brought together earth scientists, life scientists, social scientists, artists, historians, and theologians in a wide-ranging program about people and rivers in the anthropocene.  The “anthropocene” is a new term expressing the idea that the human impact on the earth’s crust, the atmosphere, and the oceans is now so great that it constitutes a new geological epoch.  It’s quickly becoming the term of choice for conversations about living with climate change in our own century, but also for scholarship on geo-engineering large and small throughout history.  As several participants in the conference remarked, the story of the anthropocene is the story of what we have done, intentionally and otherwise, to terraform our own planet, and also how we can live with the consequences.

What follows is a necessarily selective and thematic summary that does not mention every paper given at the conference.  The overall quality of the papers was very high, but the issues raised were quite diverse, so perhaps in summing up I was prejudiced in favor of well-worn territory trodden down by many speakers.

Rivers in the longue durée

James Syvitiski kicked off the conference with a compelling presentation on the impact of dams worldwide.  Rivers as we know them today look quite different from what was common 150 years ago (or even 50 years ago). He noted that archival material and old maps form a valuable resource for scientists interested in human-river interaction over long periods.  The Chinese, notably, mapped their rivers, recorded when floods occurred, how severe they were, and how long they lasted.  They also reported the cost of repairs to the levies.

Similarly, Matt Edgeworth used the records in the Domesday Book to show that England’s rivers already had been engineered into a characteristic stairstep structure by late Saxon times.  A map of the sites that had Saxon weirs overlaps considerably with a map of water mills in the Victorian era. Some of these sites had been engineered in some way dating back to Roman or even prehistoric times.

Edgeworth emphasized that it is a myth that rivers were pristine before the Industrial Revolution.  Syvitiski placed more weight on the changes in scale that have occurred globally since roughly the end of the Second World War: In many places, water discharge where rivers reach the sea is down 30% since the mid-20th century, and the Yellow River’s output is a mere 10% of what it was 50 years ago.

In my earlier post on The Political Economy of Sand, I mentioned in passing that our resort beaches are running out of sand in part because dams have reduced the flow of sediment from our rivers.  I heard a great deal more about this issue at the conference.  This 3-minute video commissioned by the Global Water System Project gets off to a slow start, but neatly summarizes the severity of the problems we face today.   One speaker summed this up as “pandemic engineering.”  A major theme of the conference was that in the anthropocene, we face a gigantic bill for remediation of problems that would not have arisen if we hadn’t tried to overbuild and geo-engineer in the first place.  Like beaches, rivers in their natural state move around a lot, reorganizing themselves.  When we pin them down in order to facilitate exploitation and real estate speculation, we cause so-called “natural disasters.”

What would “river history” look like?

Phil Scarpino discussed his own work on the Upper Mississippi River and his exciting partnership with a biologist who is helping him line up archival and printed evidence with the testimony of mussel shells. Trends in land use and industry have each in turn changed the chemistry of the river (and as a result the composition of the shells formed in that water).  Monographs mentioned at the conference included Richard White’s The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River and John Anfinson’s The River We Have Wrought.  Before writing his book, Anfinson worked as the District Historian for the Corps of Engineers (St. Paul) from 1980 to 2000.

We don’t all have to partner with scientists or become engineering experts in order to contribute, though.  There are many viable approaches to human-river interaction.  Caron Newman discussed the town of Carlisle and its relationship to its three rivers and to the Solway Firth.  It’s easy to fault urban developers for building so extensively on floodplains, but the Carlisle example shows how the problem emerges gradually from a series of eminently sensible short-term decisions.  Carlisle prospered from its cloth industry.  Fulling mills found it practical to locate on the banks of the river.  Wide flat meadows served the cloth makers as “print fields”—a place where cloth could be laid out to dry before rolling it up and sending it elsewhere to have patterns stamped on it.  (One imagines that when a flood occurred, work would be suspended until the water subsided.  The land had economic value, but it was used in a low-risk manner.) New chemical techniques later made the “print fields” obsolete and this land filled up with factories, which made use of railroads rather than water transport.  In the post-industrial era, the factories gave way to dense housing developments.  The forgotten river took revenge in 2005, when extensive flooding on the site of the former “print fields” made national headlines.

Helen Berry discussed the philanthropic response to the Tyne flood of 1771.  She drew attention to the ways that the community leaders who collected funds to help those affected by “the dreadful and destructive inundation” expected due deference from anyone who sought compensation.  In language that is all too familiar for historians who have worked on the social history of this period, applications for aid dwelt heavily on the morals and reputation of the petitioner.  For example, a widow asked for money to replace her lost spinning wheel, which enabled her to earn an honest living.  Perhaps neither Newman nor Berry were practicing conventional “environmental history,” but their case studies show how a good river history can be the necessary precursor to a good economic, social, and political history of these communities—and vice versa.

I’ve recently tweeted about new terms like “coastal squeeze” and “ocean sprawl” that have been coined to refer to the fierce competition for shrinking space and tapering resources (with attendant winners and losers).  This is a classic anthropocene dilemma.  Rivers, too, carry the burden of our proliferating expectations (for fishing, for drinking, for sewage, for irrigation, for hydroelectric power, for navigation, for fracking) as our population and resource consumption spikes.

The intensity may be something new, but historians can point out that these are not completely new issues.  The novelist Jules Verne was born in 1828 on the île Feydeau, a sandbar in the Loire River that had been developed into a small residential area.  The island formed a kind of disconnected neighborhood belonging to the port town of Nantes, best known for its historic role in the Atlantic slave trade.  Today, the water is gone, Nantes has filled in the gaps, and the île Feydeau’s streets are “indistinguishable from the rest of the city.”  This might appear to be a mere episode in the growth of a town, but in fact the silting up of the Loire is a story about policy.  According to Rosalind Williams, as the nineteenth century wore on and ship sizes increased, “it was inefficient to try to save deep-water access to Nantes at the expense of ruining it for Saint-Nazaire.”  The dredging of the Loire ceased at the beginning of the twentieth century, a sad ending for a community that had been “the leading port of France” a few generations earlier. [1] This example shows that we can’t (or at least, shouldn’t) disentangle our port histories from our river histories, or our river histories from our coastal and oceanic histories.

Ecosystem services, water security, and policy fish

Timothy Carter offered a simple anecdote that sums up the problems faced by experts and politicians alike in communicating issues involving sprawl, squeeze, and scarcity to the general public.  At a public forum in the Atlanta area where a consultant displayed a slide showing an endangered darter fish, a man in the audience raised his hand to say: “I’ve never eaten one of those.”  Increasingly, the language of policy and the rhetoric of environmentalists are changing to accommodate the mindset of people like this puzzled questioner whose first, and only, question is “what’s it to me?”

Here are some examples of the new language of utility that appeared at this conference.  Rivers are useful to us because

  • “Governments want to put food on the table,” and water management is integral to that strategy—Andy Large
  • We need to keep an accounting, in the sense of assigning a monetary value, to “ecosystem services”—Andy Large
  • Enlightened “water governance” can avert wars.  Nigel Thornton noted that fragile states in Africa have nonetheless managed to negotiate quite a few treaties on this, perhaps offering a path to regional integration around river basins.  Academic publications on “water governance” (whether in terms of international treaties or the cleanup of a single polluted canal in Germany) have proliferated since the year 2000.
  • Military planners and intelligence agencies have issued reports in recent years highlighting “water security threats.”  A planet dominated by scarcity would be a more violent planet, both at the micro- level and on a grand scale.
  • We can use rivers to alleviate our urban blight with redevelopments that will attract yuppies and tourists.  Vicky Keramida, an engineer and urban planner, told us that rivers “create the high-end environment that every city in the world desires.”

The intention here is to bury the political kryptonite of what Timothy Carter called debates over “policy fish” (such as the infamous snail darter).  Recasting the conversation, we are all “stakeholders” now, and the debate is about how to best preserve and improve the quality of our own lives. Claudia Pahl-Wostl summed up this tendency by urging a “non-ideological discourse” about rivers.  This is what politics sounds like in the anthropocene.

Tom Evans, of the Vincent and Eleanor Ostrom Workshop, offered an encouraging report on the collective wisdom and restraint of one community in Kenya.  I certainly hope that the social scientists and water policy experts are on the right track with all this.  I can’t help but wonder: Are we good enough, as a species, to listen to our own best reasoning, and make changes even when they bring short-term expense and inconvenience?  The anthropocene refers to our role as masters of the planet.  Yet the term wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t been forced to abandon the blithe assumption that we could quickly master ourselves.


[1] Rosalind Williams, The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 50.

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