Day four in the Disorder symposium on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River, where we are joined by Dr Ida Danewid, who has visited with us before.
Ida is Lecturer in Gender and Global Political Economy at the University of Sussex. Her first monograph, Resisting Racial Capitalism: An Antipolitical Theory of Refusal, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. Ida’s research interests are in anticolonial political thought, Marxism, and intellectual history. Her work has previously appeared in Third World Quarterly, Millennium, European Journal of International Relations, International Political Sociology, Security Dialogue and with the Black Mediterranean Collective.
Lake Kariba would soon become a river. The dam would become a waterfall. And miles away, the Lusaka plateau… would become an island.
In The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell writes about the history of colonialism in southern Africa and its global ripples in the present. Told as a story about three families (European, African, and Indian) and spanning three generations, the novel centers around the Zambezi river and the adjacent Kariba dam that transforms the currents of the river (its “drift”) into hydropower. Originally commissioned by the British controlled Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) in the 1950s, the dam was built at a place well known to Dr. Livingstone and countless other colonial explorers. (As Serpell notes, “This is the story of a nation—not a kingdom or people—so it begins, of course, with a white man.”) Throughout the novel, Serpell cleverly uses the dam as a symbol of empire, enclosure, and extraction. When the book finally ends, the dam has burst and flooded its surroundings. As the great Zambezi flows freely again, Victoria Falls in more than one way.
I was reminded of Serpell’s novel when I read Joanne Yao’s breathtaking new book The Ideal River: How Control of Nature Shaped International Order. Straddling historical sociology, international theory, and environmental politics, Yao explores the relationship between empire and the control of nature, or what some scholars have recently termed hydrocolonialism. Focusing on the 19th century projects to domesticate three different rivers—the Rhine, Danube, and Congo—Yao examines how the mastery of wilderness was central to the rise and development of the modern/colonial world system. The dream of the ideal river, it here turns out, drifts straight through the heart of empire.
Yao’s immediate focus is on how and why this desire to domesticate the wild became such a central tenet of the imperial standard of civilization. She frames this as a story about the Enlightenment and its commitment to ideas of linear progress, order, rationality, and science. By following the river upstream, she demonstrates how European empires saw the “failure” to conquer, improve, and control nature as a sign of “barbarism” and, thus, as “being too close to nature.” Colonialism, Yao explains, unfolded as a project of eliminating “the barbarity of swampy disuse.” Over time, this mission would come to engulf the globe, ranging from “the floodplains of the Arno River… to the wetlands of the Danube delta and the megadams of the Indian subcontinent and American West.” This desire to master nature has remained a central tenet of coloniality, despite the formal end of empire. In the mid mid-20th century, many newly independent states in the global South chose to showcase their rising power and status precisely through the control of rivers and construction of megadams. Today, the quest for green and renewable energy forms part of yet another attempt to plunder and domesticate the wild.Continue reading