Using Water To Understand Human Society

Using Water To Understand Human Society

Some of the greatest societies would not have lasted as long as they did without water and the use of it in their infrastructures, agriculture, and traditions. The one that first comes to my mind is Ancient Rome. Their intricate and brilliant aqueduct system (though built through plundering Gaul and Britain) was an engineering marvel that rivaled and even surpassed water systems of today. Even the Roman baths were well known historically for their influence on social mores.

The Great Pyramids of Egypt would not have been built without the access to the Nile River. The Nile, the Amazon, the Ganges, even the Hudson and Mississippi Rivers here in the US have all had an influence on life as we now know it. Trade would also not have been possible from early centuries to current times had it not been for the access to water. Water has been instrumental in the economic and environmental lives of people for many centuries.

It is then about time that water is being included in the histories of these great civilizations in trying to understand human society. Water is really the one element that binds all humans together. It is the one resource that can spark war and yet also bring peace. It can bring sustenence and also unfortunately tragedy as in floods. However, it cannot be denied that water has shaped human civilization as we know it, and today as it has been for centuries remains the only liquid on Earth that gives us life and shapes our destinies.

From the article:

Water shapes societies, but it is a factor only just beginning to be appreciated by social scientists. The Norwegian professor, writer and film maker Terje Tvedt, of the Universities of Oslo and Bergen, argues that water has played a unique and fundamental role in shaping societies throughout human history.
Speaking at a European Science Foundation and COST conference in Sicily in October, Tvedt proposed that social scientists and historians have long made a serious error by not taking natural resources into account in their attempts to understand social structures.

Water, according to Tvedt, is a unique natural resource for two reasons. First, it is absolutely essential for all societies, because we cannot live without it. Secondly, it is always the same. Whatever you do with water on the surface of the Earth, it reemerges. "You can destroy or create rivers and lakes," he says, "but you cannot destroy water itself."

How rivers shaped industry
Tvedt used the example of the industrial revolution to show how water can help to understand human history. Historians have proposed two contrasting theories to explain why the industrial revolution started in Europe, specifically in Britain, and not in China, India or Australia.

They debate about whether it is because of specific political ideologies and social structures in Europe at the time, or due to the unequal relationship that already existed between Europe and the rest of the world, through slavery and colonialism. The two theories can be termed exceptionalism and exploitation, respectively.

But according to Tvedt, the structure of the water system can adequately explain why the industrial revolution began in Britain. The early industrial revolution was enabled by the power of water mills, and bulk transport of goods by canal. Britain's rivers were perfect for both things.

They provided a good network across the country. All are fairly close to the sea, with good flows throughout the year and not too much silt. Elsewhere in the world, rivers were too silty, too large and uncontrollable, all flowing in the same direction or had flows that were too seasonally variable.

The exclusion of nature from our understanding of society is not a benign, academic problem. "Since World War II, the dominant theories relating to the international aid system have, without exception, disregarded the role of nature," Tvedt says.

"Modernisation theory has told us that all societies could develop modernism in the same way, if they just find the right economic instruments." This, he argues, is simply not right.

This is a great site to read about the history of water in society from ancient times until now:

Water History