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”.Continue reading