The Ideal River: An Introduction

The Disorder of Things is back, and with a symposium too. Over the next week we’ll feature a succession of posts on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River: How Control of Nature Shaped the International Order, followed by a rejoinder from Joanne herself (the full set of posts will be available in one easy spot here). The first post is an introduction to the book and commentaries from George Lawson. George is Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University. He is a global historical sociologist who works primarily on revolutions. His most recent books are: On Revolutions: Unruly Politics in the Contemporary World (with Colin Beck, Mlada Bukovansky, Erica Chenoweth, Sharon Nepstad and Daniel Ritter) (Oxford, 2022), and Anatomies of Revolution (Cambridge, 2019).

Mackenzie River

Writing from the frontline of anthropogenic climate change, in Australia, I don’t need any convincing about the co-implication of nature and politics. I live in Canberra – Australia’s ‘Bush Capital’ – a planned city in the Scottian mould, nestled amidst nature reserves, organised around an artificial lake supported by a major dam project, and home to a large number of predators, both human and otherwise. When I moved to Canberra nearly three years ago, the major (non-artificial) lake that welcomes visitors to and from Sydney, Lake George, was empty – the result of decades of low rainfall generated by human-induced climate change. Following three years of La Nina weather patterns, which has brought persistent rain that locals never tire of telling our family we brought with us from Britain, Lake George looks more like an inland sea. But not for long, it seems. Models suggest that this year will see a return to dry conditions, perhaps even a drought. So: no more Lake George. 

Outside Canberra’s old Parliament House, which was replaced by a snazzy, environmentally friendly upgrade in 1988, can be found the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the oldest continuous protest site in the world. Some of the demands made by aboriginal Australian groups, including those who people the Embassy, as well as those involved in discussions around the Uluru Statement from the Heart and current debates about a First Nations Voice to Parliament, begin by acknowledging the co-implication of land, custodianship and sovereignty. Understandings of citizenship in Australia are intimately tied up with claims about the relationship between nature and political authority. 

These entanglements between nature and politics are found not only in Australia, of course. As Giulia Carabelli points out in her essay in this symposium, they animate protests in North Dakota and India, have been part of legal debates in Ecuador and Bolivia, and can be found in disputes over the rights of natural objects, including rivers

Rivers are the subject of Joanne Yao’s wonderful The Ideal River, a book that is – as each of the contributors to this symposium acknowledge – expansive in scope, richly researched and judiciously curated. But Yao’s book is not just about rivers, it is also about the wider relationship between nature and politics and, in particular, the ways in which Enlightenment understandings of science and rationality underpinned international ordering projects over the past two centuries. These projects to ‘tame nature’, Yao argues, were foundational to the construction of a standard of civilisation through which Western polities ordered relations between each other and the peoples they subjugated through imperialism and colonialism: The Rhine was the ‘internal European highway’, the Danube the ‘connecting river from Europe to the near periphery’, and the Congo ‘the imperial river of commerce’. Enlightenment principles of mastery over nature were tied to scientific techniques and ideas of progress in projects that stratified peoples and places around the world. In this way, rivers serve as the elemental source of global governance. For Yao, the taming of nature is a distinctly modern project, one bound up with ideas of mastery and ordering, power and civilisation, rationality and progress. 

If rivers and forums of global governance are conjoined twins of the Enlightenment, one modern family member that receives less attention in The Ideal River is capitalism. As Ida Danewid points out in her essay, and as Yao recognises in her response, rivers were imagined as ‘frictionless highways that were to carry commerce, civilization, and Christianity to the world’s unpropertied peripheries’. Despite noting the commercial features of hydro-ordering, and their necessarily extractive, dispossessive properties, capitalism plays a muted role in Yao’s narrative. Sorting peoples into civilized and uncivilized quotients had many dimensions: racial, religious, and more. But a crucial element concerned levels of ‘development’. In Australia, for example, claims of aboriginal sovereignty were often denied on the basis that aboriginal nations were insufficiently ‘developed’ – in other words, they did not support individual property rights or sufficiently ‘advanced’ commercial practices. Here, as in other parts of the world, the standard of civilisation was organised, in significant measure, through capitalist logics – and egregiously misapplied to experiences on the ground in order to dispossess and subjugate First Nations peoples. 

A further issue raised by Yao’s interlocutors arises from her interest in the distinctly modern co-location of science, nature and political authority. To contemporary eyes, Wittfogel’s notion of ‘hydraulic empires’ contains deeply problematic Eurocentric associations with ‘oriental despotism’. And rightly so. Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on the age-old harnessing of water for political claims-making, and the development of scientific advances to do so. No doubt these dynamics have taken novel forms in modernity. But the binding together of science, nature, polity formation and extraction is a long-running entanglement. This raises a linked question about whether the modern standard of civilisation itself changed over time. I wonder whether the ordering of the Rhine in the early part of the 19th century was as severe as the ordering of the Danube in mid-century and, even more so, the Congo in the 1880s? During the course of the century, as modern capitalism became more extensive and ideas of ‘scientific’ racism hardened, so global hierarchies themselves shifted. Not all ordering projects sorted peoples with the same intensity or through the same logics. And not all wildernesses were considered to be equally wild. 

The relationship between imaginaries and political projects forms the basis for Cameron Harrington’s contribution to the symposium. Harrington raises the question of why the ‘endless creative potential of the imagination’ became ‘narrowly expressed’ in particular political projects. After all, there was not one ‘modern imaginary’. As Ida Birkvad persuasively argues in her essay, not only was the Enlightenment not a single thing, but modernity also reconfigured a brand of romanticism that venerated nature. In this sense, ‘the time of the first river commissions described in The Ideal River was as much the era of Romanticism, as it was that of Enlightenment rationality’. Today, the sanctification of nature is often associated with protest movements, particularly those by indigenous peoples. Yet, as Birkvad notes, the romanticisation of the past can itself be a political project that maintains and reinforces existing hierarchies and exclusions. Here anti-developmentalism stands as a form of, rather than in opposition to, ordering projects that meld science, nature and political authority. 

This speaks to a more complex association between nature and politics than is sometimes apparent. In her essay, Kiran Phull captures this complexity through the notion of the ‘braided river’ – an assemblage of interweaving waterways that ‘split, stray, and merge in ever-shifting ways’ and, in the process, generate a ‘plaited pattern’. This unruly, yet patterned, formation is one that resonates with contemporary concerns over the entanglement of nature and politics, constituted as it is through a complex, multi-scalar tapestry of the global, the transnational, the regional, the national, and the local. Contemporary global governance too is a dense web of overlapping administrative forums. One of the achievements of Yao’s book is to see this dense web as bound up with hydraulic infrastructures. This leaves open the question of what political projects will emerge from the various, often contradictory, imaginaries that bind together science, nature and international politics. Far from occupying spaces of ‘technocratic dullness’, Yao points – quite rightly – to their ‘poetry and imaginaries that animate our dreams and nightmares of the future’. What would happen, she asks, if we stop to ‘listen, observe, and learn from the infinite varieties of collective solidarities that have always already populated the international without a desire to fix, control, and master’? What indeed …


2 thoughts on “The Ideal River: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Joanne Yao, The Ideal River: How Control of Nature Shaped the International Order – Manchester University Press, March 2022 – book symposium at The Disorder of Things | Progressive Geographies

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