What Difference Does a River Make?

Post #5 in our symposium on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River, from Dr Giulia Carabelli. Giulia is a lecturer in Sociology and Social Theory in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. She is interested in affect theory, nonhuman agencies, and social justice. Her current research project, Care for Plants, explores the shaping of affective and intimate relationships between humans and houseplants during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are three protagonists in The Ideal River: the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo. We meet them at different times in history when they become crucial agents in the (re)making of international orders. These three rivers illustrate different yet analogous processes of intervention aimed at domesticating what escapes human control (nature) to establish order as a matter of “progress”. As Yao argues, the taming of rivers exemplifies the “fulfilment of the Enlightenment promise that humanity stood together as masters over nature”, which is rooted in an unquestioned “optimism toward international progress” (186). The Rhine is the “internal European highway”, the Danube “the connecting river from Europe to the near periphery” and the Congo “the imperial river of commerce” (10). From the outset, the book sets expectations for nonhuman actors to take centre-stage in the recounting of history and to reveal their obscured roles in the development of global (human) politics. My reflections thus aim to discuss how the book foregrounds nonhuman agencies and to advance an argument for centring care and love to appreciate the potentially disrupting roles of rivers in reshaping political imaginaries, which become more and more urgent as that optimism towards human control flails.

1. The image of the river

I start from the cover of this book; an image taken by NASA/USGS Landsat 8 depicting the Mackenzie River in Canada. From above, this river is rendered through solid shades of blues, browns, and greens. This river does not flow. Similarly, when we imagine rivers on a two-dimensional map, they appear as homogeneous streams, whose ability to connect and serve human settlements we value. Such rivers become boundaries, obstacles, or opportunities to facilitate the movement of people, goods and capital, while ignoring their much more complex life as eco-systems in a constant process of change. These static representations of rivers, so instrumental to human life and its “progress”, become protagonists of the historical conferences discussed in the book. These rivers are ideals of what a river can become when understood as precious, yet disposable, resource.

Rivers on maps are what humans have long attempted to tame, because, as Yao discusses, to exercise control over nature ultimately proves, and provides, human progress. It drives and tests advancement in technology whilst gratifying the assertion of moral superiority. Clearly, this perspective results from thinking “human” and “nature” as dramatically different whereby the former is always standing above the ‘Other’; and to tame the Other for the sake of progress. The history of global politics, as shown vividly in this book, can be framed as the history of taming rivers. This is also the history of human faith in science and technology as the desperate attempt to prove that rationality is what sets us above all other species. It is the history of “transform[ing] irrational nature and society into economically productive and morally progressive units of governance” (200). 

2. To tame and to care

Drawing on Zygmunt Bauman’s metaphor of European modernity as the impulse to “weed the social garden”, which engenders modern imperialism, scientific racism, and the Holocaust (31), Yao draws parallels between the taming of rivers and the taming of nature in the garden (Bauman 1989). The gardener becomes the emblematic figure of modernity – the one who transforms the wild into the familiar through a process of weeding. Crucially, to tame nature in the garden means to organise space according to a specific aesthetic that builds order by planting, pruning, or extirpating plants. What drives the gardener is the desire to make plants work and to become more efficient and productive. Yet, as many of us would know from having gardens or houseplants, it is by tending plants that we discover what the garden is, and what makes a garden a garden: a space we cannot fully control but that can surprise and mesmerise us.

The activity of caring for plants enables us to develop intimate relationships that are easily understandable through love. This is a love for disorder. It is a love that grows by letting go of control and accepting that the making of a garden is a collective activity where plans are shared and built with the plants. The garden is a story of compromise, conflict and love. The garden shapes us as gardeners, as much as we shape the garden to reflect our inner desires.

So how does it relate to the river?

3. On Love

What happens when we care for the plants in the garden, and to the life in the river, is that we appreciate them differently because we develop intimate and affective forms of attachment to them, which transform these nonhuman beings from objects to interlocutors. And here, I wish to focus on the tensions that love generates – between the love for order that comes from domination and the acceptance of disorder spurred by another kind of love. 

As Yao highlights in her introduction, “to tame nature has not been confined to rivers and forests but also extends to ‘untamed’ elements in human society – indeed, to civilize the savage beyond the pale has long been a central aim and justification for colonial and imperial practices” (7). 

I wish to connect this point on taming as a matter of civilisation with another argument made by Carolyn Ureña (2020), for instance, about colonialism and love – the coloniser/ the missionary are bound by the love for the uncivilised and it is their love that moves them to re-shape Indigenous lives to become more modern/ more rational/ more right. Thus, she concludes, love needs to be decolonised for love to be freed from desires of control. If we understand love as an affect that shapes relationality, the revolutionary potential of love exists in the possibility of love to make us realise that we cannot be in control. 

To appreciate the river could become an act of love only if we switched our goals towards observing, listening, and learning rather than projecting, assuming, and directing.

If the modern love for rivers reflected the love for progress and order, which translated into a desire to tame them, how can we love rivers otherwise? Or, what makes a river a river?

4. Who is the river?

If only we immersed ourselves in the river, if we entered the water, we could see the plants, the animals, the limestone, soil runoff, sediments, minerals, and algae that colour rivers, making them blue or green or yellow and brown. The river is always changing; it moves, it transforms, and it does so relationally to the multiple human and nonhuman beings that coexist within its eco-system. Thus, to tame rivers can but be a delusion. We can only tame rivers when they are deprived of their life on flat maps. 

Immersed in the river, we can create new connections that are affective, visceral, and potentially transformative. What, then, does the international look like while immersed in the river? What if, instead of drawing on rationality and science to transform the river into the ideal river, which means to cure the river from “its uselessness, laziness, and waste” (207), we could engage with the river by listening to what the river can teach us.

The book has started answering this question by accounting for Indigenous populations living with the rivers who nurture different relationships with their non-human kins. For example, for Native Americans activists at Standing Rock, the river is a nonhuman relative, who cannot be sold (214). Yao warns us from the dangers of essentialising Indigenousness “unfairly making them the bearers of responsibility for saving the destructive modern world from itself” (215), yet re-valorising Indigenous knowledge allows for important interventions in policy making. For example, the rights given to nature in Ecuador and Bolivia or those granted to the Whanganui River in New Zealand or the Ganges and the Yamuna in India (215). Although granting rights did not, especially in the case of Ecuador and Bolivia, stop extractive practices (Valladares and Boelens 2017), it remains a space where to start a conversation about “unlearn[ing] the ideational legacies of colonialism” (216) and the challenges faced when encountering the state in the process.

Crucially, the desire to tame rivers went along with the process of subjugating communities that stood by and with rivers – the “unimagined communities” that stand “on the way to progress” (208) . As the examples of the Narmada project in India and the Aswan Dam in Egypt illustrate, altering rivers destroy places “of cultural and spiritual importance and [the] communities that depend on them” (208). Yet, these colonising projects also serve as platforms to nurture river-human solidarity for mutual survival. Thus, rivers can become allies in resisting the violence of colonialism.

5. Conclusion

The nature we wish to tame is also the nature we come to love and desire. To tame nature becomes one with our love for an idealised form of nature that we wish to preserve and care for as a matter of ethics, and which becomes urgent at a time of environmental crisis.

Lesley Head (2016) discusses this as the paradox of the human in the Anthropocene; 

“a time period defined by the activities and impacts of the human […] [and yet] a period that is now out of human control”. And for Head, the issue of climate catastrophe is emotional as we grief “our modern self, our view of the future as containing unlimited positive potential. We grieve a stable and pristine past” (Ojala 2017)

Thus, the importance of this book is not only in bringing attention to the historical contingencies that shaped human desires to tame rivers as part of the making of global orders. As Yao writes in the conclusion, the “climate crisis has highlighted [..] the catastrophic disconnect between the dream of Western modernity and the nightmare of ecological collapse”, which has been long in the making (219). Thus, the book should also be appreciated as a cautionary tale for imagining our future on this planet at a time when our society has become “disenchanted with the politics of climate change precisely because we are losing faith in the [promise of the] Enlightenment” (221). If we live in a time of change, one that brings more focused attention on the relational modes of worldmaking, we are then tasked with reflecting on what it means to engage with rivers, and by extension nonhuman actors, as political agents. 

I conclude with a question: can our reflection on the international order ever account for the river as the river – without objectifying it but rather embracing the vitality of the river, its visions, needs and life?


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