Ecological imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jun 13 06:40:49 MDT 2001

Julio Huato:
>What do you mean by 'ecological imperialism', Louis?

>From Chapter two ("Water as a Tool of Empire") of Donald Worster's "An
Unsettled Country":

The dictionary on my desk defines water as "a clear, colorless, nearly
odorless and tasteless liquid, H20, essential for most plant and animal
life and the most widely used of all solvents." As definitions go, it is
functional enough, for most readers, whatever their gender, class, or
ethnicity, will be equipped to understand it. They will generally have
their biological senses intact, will know a little about chemistry, and
will have washed dishes at one time or another and watched the grease
dissolve down the drain. They will also, however, have likely thought about
water in far more complex ways than that little three-line definition could
possibly capture, and to leave out those other thoughts is to strip water
of virtually all its richer interest and meaning.

Water has had an incredibly complex cultural history. It has been as vital
to our minds as to our bodies and has been among the most widely used of
all metaphors as well as solvents. Although historians will not be
surprised by such a claim, we have not yet written the cultural history of
water for any of the major or minor cultures, ancient or modern. In
thinking about the past, we tend not to think about water at all, or we
unconsciously think about it in the cultural terms most familiar to us-that
is, in the terms of modern civilization. Today water refers mainly to a
commodity providing material comfort and prosperity. Modern people,
including historians, think less about its mythic, allegorical, or
religious past, its relation to life and death, to moral regeneration or
salvation, and more about its many uses in the economy. We expect it to be
as clear, colorless, and odorless as we can get it, and then we dismiss it
from consciousness. With hardly any effort on our part, it comes gushing
from a tap, while the means by which it has reached us are taken for
granted. But this will no longer do in an era when water has become a
global issue: a substance increasingly scarce, polluted, and fought over.
It is time for historians to look more closely at this substance and the
forms it has taken, the roles it has played, and to probe the meaning of
water beyond what the dictionary provides.

During the nineteenth century, writes the historian Jean-Pierre Goubert,
''water, which had once been a gift of God or of nature and a privilege
reserved for the nobility, now became the property of everyone and
subsequently went on to acquire the status of industrial product.'' He
refers to this transition as the "conquest of water." Through miraculous
new technology, water became an abundant, democratized resource. Water was
made to turn the wheels of industry and earn enormous profits from making
textiles. Water technology altered the landscape and waterscape, the shape
of towns, the relation of city to country. People were not the same
creatures they were before the conquest, for they had been changed as much
as their environment. For one thing, people in advanced technological
societies came to depend on having an abundance of water and to depend on
those who furnished it. Moreover they expected to consume far more water
than their ancestors did. In Paris, the European capital of the modern
conquest of water and its purification, per capita demand went from about
ten liters daily on the eve of the French Revolution to over two hundred
liters by 1900. The conquest brought new emphasis on and new standards of
cleanliness and health. To be civilized meant that people must take a bath
every week and use a water closet instead of an outdoor privy. Beginning in
the last century, the conquest of water became a central preoccupation, one
of the main themes in the modern secular religion of progress.

But my main subject is not this conquest of water for the sake of urban
sanitation or industrial production, or the enhancement of city water
supplies, or the gospel of cleanliness, as described by Pierre Goubert for
France. Although I will later argue that the growth of the metropolis was a
decisive force behind all aspects of the global conquest of water, I want
to deal particularly with the conquest of water for agricultural purposes.
By far most of the water consumed in the world today, 70 percent of the
available freshwater supply in fact, goes for agricultural crops, not water
closets. Approximately 270 million hectares of land are currently under
irrigation. A large part of the world's population depends on those
hectares to stay alive; one-third of the world's food is grown on irrigated
lands. Irrigation was not pursued much in Europe, which has plenty of
rainfall in most places (Spain and Italy are the chief exceptions), but it
became common and essential in many parts of the world where the Europeans
went to live and rule-in the exotic arid lands of Asia, Australia, Africa,
and the Americas. The driving purpose of the Europeans was to win those
lands over to their new religion of progress and make them support their
new metropolitan standard of living. This agricultural conquest of water,
like the urban conquest in France, depended on a profound change in
thinking about water. It became less a sacred, purifying gift from God and
more an instrument of secular materialism.

So extensive and monumental has this quest for agricultural water been that
its impact on the biophysical world has become far more devastating than
all the city water systems combined. It has flooded whole valleys,
destroyed riparian ecosystems, turned dryland habitats into artificial
oases, stimulated disease organisms as well as improved health, allowed the
human population to grow to dangerously high levels, changed the life of
estuaries, and perhaps changed the patterns of rainfall on the earth.

The leading symbol of this conquest of water is the large masonry or
concrete dam, and arguably it is the leading icon of progress throughout
the world today, from the fabled Indus and Yangtze rivers of Asia to
Africa's Zambezi and Zaire rivers to the Colorado River and Rio Grande of
the American Southwest. The dam represents the blessings of technology,
economic development, and modernity. Though dams have been constructed
throughout history, the earliest appearing in ancient Mesopotamia, it was
during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that they became key symbols
of European wealth and power, indeed, along with the railroad, they became
the most important artifacts of European imperialism.

By 1878 the European nations controlled 67 percent of the world's land
surface; by 1914, 84 percent. The causes of that extraordinary expansion of
power are multiple, involving both motives and means; the Europeans, for
diverse reasons, wanted to dominate the earth and, at the same time the
motive appeared, they acquired the technological means to do so. As Daniel
Headrick has written, technological changes "made imperialism happen, both
as they enabled motives to produce events, and as they enhanced the motives
themselves." Among the most important of those technological changes were
those going on in hydraulic engineering, including canals, headworks, and
dams. To a large degree, European imperialism rested on the transfer of
that hydraulic engineering and water-controlling apparatus to the rest of
the world-spreading "the tools of empire," as Headrick has put it, with
profound consequences both for the natural environment and the human
community. This was a long-term consequence, for what the Europeans left
behind, when they lost political control of all that territory, was a
continuing fascination with machinery, innovation, and the conquest of
nature. "This," writes Headrick, "has been the true legacy of imperialism."

If the French became the leading architects of a new urban water regime,
the British led the way toward modern irrigated agriculture. India was the
first target of their conquest, and from that country a model of
agricultural water development went out to Egypt, Australia, South Africa,
and the American West-old and new societies alike, sharing a common
condition of aridity and a common determination to overcome it. Long before
their railway system was of any importance, the British had covered England
and Scotland with canals for the purpose of transportation; they learned
how to make water run in the directions that were most useful to them. Once
in India, however, they discovered that the great need was not canals to
carry barges but canals to bring water to the desert and extend
cultivation. India already had a few such structures, notably those drawing
water from the Jumna River in the north-central part of the country, which
had been built centuries ago but had fallen into disrepair and in many
places were covered with jungle. In 1830 the British engineers, mainly
recruited from the Bengal artillery, tackled the rehabilitation of the
Jumna canals. Six years later they began to make a massive new canal of
their own on the Roorkee plateau between the Jumna and the Ganges
rivers-the world-famous Ganges Canal, 10 feet deep, 170 feet wide, 900
miles long, designed to irrigate almost 600,000 hectares. The Ganges Canal
opened in 1854 and proved to be a fabulous technical success. By the
twentieth century, it was feeding two and a half million people and
returning nearly 12 percent a year on the cost of its construction. Such
irrigation works, the largest the world had ever seen, promised to alter
poor, backward societies forever.

Following those successes the British water experts spread canals over the
rest of India. The success of those canals depended, of course, on the
level of Indian rivers, which in turn depended on the monsoon, the snowpack
in the mountains, the summer runoff. Eventually engineers learned how to
store water as well as draw it off, by building barrages and dams on the
main river courses and near the headwaters. With such works they could
irrigate lands such as the Sind and the Punjab, where agriculture was
otherwise impossible, and the Gangetic plain and much of the Deccan, both
vulnerable regions where sometimes the rainfall was adequate and sometimes
not, causing frequent crop failures, famines, and social unrest. Irrigation
projects became a means of pacifying a volatile country; control the water
and thereby control the people, who in times of drought might grow hungry
and mutiny against the empire. Even after they threw off their rulers, the
Indians would not return to their old relation with water. Richard Baird
Smith, one of the leading imperial engineers, was right when he predicted
that the canals and dams were "more likely, from their relations to the
material prosperity of the country, and from their permanent nature, to
perpetuate the memory of English dominion in India than any others hitherto

Louis Proyect
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