Engineers Rule the World

The second post in our symposium on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River.

This one is from Dr. Cameron Harrington, an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. His research centres on the shifting contours of security in the Anthropocene, with a particular focus on the concept and practices of water security. His work has appeared in journals such as Millennium, Global Environmental Politics, Environment and Planning E, Critical Studies on Security, and Water International. He is the co-author of Security in the Anthropocene: Reflections on Safety and Care (2017, Transcript), and is a co-editor of Climate Security in the Anthropocene: Exploring the Approaches of United Nations Security Council Member-States (forthcoming 2023, Springer).

While studying at my alma mater, Western University, in Canada, I would frequently run into the same graffiti scribbled across bathrooms, classroom desks, library walls, and study spaces. 


It wasn’t a secret code or the mark of an exclusive academic society. In fact, you could see it emblazoned on the back of t-shirts handed out to hundreds of freshman students every year.

Engineers Rule the World

The idea that engineers – and by extension engineering – are, in fact, responsible for holding society together, is a powerful boast. It certainly helped young undergraduate engineering students construct an image of their studies as immensely important. While the rest of us spent our days studying the words of long-dead philosophers or burrowing deeper into arcane debates about “the international order,” these intrepid future engineers would learn to do the real work of building the world that we all inhabit. No engineers, no world. 

I was reminded of this slogan – ERTW – as I read through Joanne Yao’s book, The Ideal River: how control of nature shaped the international order. Yao’s book is a richly detailed examination of the various imaginaries, schemes, and tools that propelled European efforts across the nineteenth century to tame – to engineer – nature. Yao argues that the desire to control nature reflected and refracted a larger modernist “faith in science and rationality to conquer the messiness of entwined social and natural worlds…” (pg. 36). This ability to control a wild and unpredictable nature was one key standard by which civilization could be judged. Her account focuses on the social and material construction of three specific rivers: the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo. Though each river was imagined uniquely, they all became embedded within a larger modernist political project of world-building. From these rivers emerged the first modern manifestations of what we now term international organizations. 

This is, then, another story of Enlightenment-bred confidence in the ability to overcome nature’s “limits”.

Yet Yao’s nuanced account pushes further. She shows how geographical imaginaries of nature and civilization propelled Europeans and their allies to not only bend the rivers to their needs but also shaped the ideas of what a civilization’s needs were in the first place. The effects of this interplay are now deeply rooted within key IR concepts and institutions. They frame a dominant understanding of political purpose and state legitimacy as the fixing, controlling, and defending of territorial boundaries (cf. Ruggie 1993). The cases also show how a vision of political authority legitimated through the control of nature became universalized at the same moment it was dispersed unequally around the world through a hierarchical relationship between core and periphery. Yao’s archival research, which she combines with gothic literary criticism (yes, really), shows how imaginaries of the ideal river – wild entities tamed through science and engineering to serve human progress and economic development – drove the formation of the first modern international organizations. While Yao is careful not to draw a straight line from the 1815 Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine to the creation of the United Nations, the international agreements and Commissions which formed along these rivers do expand our understanding of the history of global governance. Yao concludes her book by connecting these stories to the contemporary shape of water security and ecological sustainability as objects of contemporary global governance.

Bridge over the Danube, about 1850–1860; Unknown maker, Austrian.  The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy the Getty’s Open Content Program.

This last point is perhaps the book’s most ambitious and compelling. Today, frequent alarms are raised about the perilous state of global water resources and the inherent risks to human, national, and international security which emanate from this. The dominant governance discourse surrounding water, despite a number of alternative interventions, continues to emphasise its potential as a driver of either conflict or cooperation in a world of worsening scarcity. We are frequently warned that water’s volatile mixture – its importance, scarcity, and its failure to respect political boundaries – means conflict will inevitably emerge. That, or humanity’s shared reliance on water can lead to the interdependent peace we’ve been promised again and again. All we need to do is get the right institutions in place or start valuing water properly. In both cases, water – whether it is to be fought over or shared via institutions, laws, and balanced economic valuation – is rendered as timeless, natural, and inert. There is an ontological stickiness to water and waterways which holds them as distinctly modern entities. 

The concept of “modern water” has been developed by critical geographers over the last two decades. It explains how our contemporary understanding of what water is represents only one, albeit hegemonic, way of knowing and relating to water. According to Jamie Linton modern water is a “pure hydrologic process” (2014, 113), which has roots “originating in Western Europe and North America, and operating on a global scale by the later part of the 20th century”  (2014, 112). Modern water is divorced from any social or ecological context, existing as a singular, pure resource that is available to be exploited. 

Much of the recent western academic interest in the ontology of water can be traced back to an influential article published in 2000 by the science historian Christopher Hamlin. In it, Hamlin showed how this master narrative of modern water emerged at a specific time and place, namely in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. “Premodern waters” were diverse, heterogeneous entities which could never be found pure in nature. They displayed infinite “aspects of the histories of places” (Hamlin 2000, 315). One need not read deeply across classical and medieval history or religious texts before coming across references to the varied properties of different waters found in rivers, streams, mountains, wells, etc. 

Two key events mark the emergence of modern water. The first came in the 1770s when work by scientists such as Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley showed that all waters were in fact derived from a single compound of oxygen and hydrogen. The second moment arose when John Snow famously discovered he could arrest the spread of cholera in London in 1855 by removing the handle of the water pump on Broad Street. In so doing, water became a simple substance, “whose most interesting quality was its pathogenic potential” (Hamlin 314). 

These two moments alone are, of course, insufficient for explaining the shift to modern water and should be situated within the larger geohistorical context. Yet, in Europe by the end of the 19th century, the premodern idea that waters were many had clearly been supplanted by a new type of water: singular, knowable, manageable. This shift was propelled by a larger Enlightenment ethos that placed its faith in science to overcome a messy and irrational world. As Jeremy J. Schmidt describes it, “out went water sprites and multiple ontological kinds of water, and in came chemistry, physics, and engineering” (2017, 28).

The contours of this paradigm shift drive Yao’s narrative. She draws from James Scott’s seminal work, Seeing Like a State, to show how the emergence of the modern state arose through techniques that made irrational nature legible to new forms of governance. The Rhine, Danube, and the Congo rivers were each brought under the calculating eye of the state (and empire) through various bureaucratic and engineering practices. The engineers straightened the Rhine to improve its commercial potential. The geography of the Danube offered the opportunity to expand western European civilization to its near-periphery, taming the physical danger of flooding while also securing it from the moral dangers emanating from the distorted, semi-familiar frontiers to the east. Finally, European bureaucrats and diplomats thought it their moral duty to impose a colonial system of control over the Congo that would enable free navigation and trade. This depended upon infrastructural projects like ports, roads, and railways that would transform the Congo (and Africa) from a conceptually empty space into one bursting with European free trade and civilization. Together the cases show how water became modern and the modern state (of IR) became riverine.   

While not using the concept explicitly, Yao’s book is a rich historical account of the formation of what critical geographers call hydrosocial territories. According to Boelens et al (2016) these are the spatially-bound, multi-scalar, socio-ecological networks of humans and water flows. The consolidation of a hydrosocial territory is mediated by a complex interplay between social imaginaries, political hierarchies, and technological infrastructure. Hydrosocial territories consolidate a particular order of things. In 19th Century Europe, they emerged from various techniques, including the deployment of specific geographical imaginaries and vast engineering projects to position and order humans, nature and thought within a global network of modern water. From this process emerges the early forms of global governance. 

One of Yao’s key arguments is that this process of hydroterritorialization was deeply contingent upon the political activation of specific geographical imaginaries. This is because a river’s geography must be imagined before it can be governed. 

Yet, at the risk of contradicting myself, the reliance on imaginaries is troublesome. Conceptually, imaginaries are often left underdeveloped and the power attributed to them overstated. They are relied upon to account for an awful lot. This may be the point. The sociologist Johann Arnason (2022, 13) has called them “a crossroads concept”, able to tie together and anchor a variety of metaphysical and political concerns. Charles Taylor famously developed the idea of social imaginaries as an answer to the problem of explaining “that largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of the whole situation, within which particular features of our world show up for us in the sense they have” (2007, 173). 

Imaginaries are increasingly used by IR and politics scholars to explain diverse phenomena and across vastly different contexts. Their power and influence almost limitless, imaginaries can travel back and forth across time and space, moving in almost quantum-like ways to mimic or create different realities. The Rhine was imagined as economic highway, the Congo as an abstract, empty colonial space. Yet, these seemingly vastly different imaginaries led to similar political projects and the first attempts at establishing modern international organizations. If imaginaries truly play such a decisive role in the political processes of institutionalization, then more explicit theoretical and empirical work is needed that shows how and why. Or, put another way, a key puzzle presented in The Ideal River is how the endless creative potential of the imagination was so narrowly expressed through political, institutional, and infrastructural expressions of modernity.  Thus, further work might explore how the imaginaries themselves are transformed, oppressed, modified, or contested through the genesis of specific political and material projects. 

As it stands, in all cases and across time periods, imaginaries make everything possible, including every subsequent practice and process. Their malleability is alluring but that same flexibility risks conflating a number of other dimensions of social and political life. They all get ensnared in the net of the imaginary. Do these engineers, artists, policymakers, and colonial bureaucrats always, necessarily require a geographical imaginary to get on with other things like practice, habit, prejudice? There is a distinct risk from scholars fixing an ontological permanence to imaginaries as a constitutive energy and thereby inadvertently reinscribing the same totalizing logics of modernity.

Near the end of The Ideal River, Yao (207) quotes the German engineer, Otto Intze, who proclaimed in 1902 that the key to taming a river was presenting “water with a battleground so chosen that the human comes out the victor.” The battleground would be large dams, built to discipline the river and physically bend it to the will of civilization. From this martial framing sprung the still-dominant approach to modern water management. All the dams subsequently constructed around the world thus represent the apotheosis of modern water and its conquering of alternative water ontologies. These hydraulic infrastructures are the “technological shrines” (Kaika, 2006) to modernisation and scientific progress. But one need not gaze upon these massive infrastructural shrines to understand the creation, spread, and influence of modern water. Instead, you need only look at the scribblings on creaky desk at the back of a university classroom.


They say that no river ever really ends. The engineers probably agree. 


Adams, S., & Arnason, J. P. (2022). A Conversation on Social Imaginaries: Culture, Power, Action, World. International Journal of Social Imaginaries1(1), 129-147.

Boelens, R., Hoogesteger, J., Swyngedouw, E., Vos, J., & Wester, P. (2016). Hydrosocial territories: a political ecology perspective. Water international41(1), 1-14.

Hamlin, C. (2000). ‘Waters’ or ‘Water’?—master narratives in water history and their implications for contemporary water policy. Water Policy2(4-5), 313-325.

Kaika, M. (2006). Dams as symbols of modernization: The urbanization of nature between geographical imagination and materiality. Annals of the Association of American Geographers96(2), 276-301.

Ruggie, J. G. (1993). Territoriality and beyond: problematizing modernity in international relations. International organization47(1), 139-174.

Schmidt, J.J. (2017). Water: abundance, scarcity, and security in the age of humanity. New York University Press
Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Harvard University Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s