Water & Human Ecology   1 comment

I recently attended the 18th conference of the Society for Human Ecology, an international & interdisciplinary group, on “Human Responsibility & Environmental Change: Planning, Process, & Policy.” It was the first time for me to participate in a meeting sponsored by this body, & at the very first event I found myself at a table with a cultural geographer from India studying a river in Japan, a soil chemist from Saudi Arabia, an urban geographer from NY working on the “ecopolis” & Asian cities,  a psychologist from Northwestern studying “environmental epiphanies,” & an ethnobiologist from Brazil studying the fisheries.

A number of speakers addressed issues of water. The first keynote, on “Water & Cities: Their Uncertain Future Human Ecology,” by Ian Douglas of the University of Manchester, dealt with matters of private rights & public access to fresh water. Ranging from agricultural runoff problems in his home in England (“There’s a lot of stuff going through those pigs, getting out, & entering the water supply”) to related concerns in Jordan, Tunisia, Rome, Gaza, as well as “the great Libyan man-made river project,” Douglas touched on a variety of disturbing facts: 1 in 8 people lack access to clean water; 98% of water-related deaths occur in developing countries; “climate change is aggravating this situation.” The key question of this keynote: “Who owns the water cycle?”

Near the end of his presentation, Douglas shared a table that placed Los Angeles as the #1 city in the world with water problems worsening due to climate change. As my own contribution to the conference was titled “Strange Waters: Paradox on the Los Angeles River,” Douglas’s table held much interest for me. This was especially true given the keynote conclusion: that scholars concerned with the environment “must step outside of their current boxes, silos, & paradigms, … get outside of your scholarly comfort zones.” I too was urging a measure of intellectual discomfort, suggesting that the L.A. River was paradoxically a river & not:

Running 51 miles from concrete headwaters through the heart of one of the most paved and populated places on earth and emptying into the Pacific at its engineered mouth in Long Beach, the L.A. River is a study in paradox. Perhaps better than any other stream in the United States, it makes plain that an obtuse question worthy of Heraclitus—When is a river not a river?—is more than a philosophical conundrum. For the ancient Greek thinker, flowing water was an opportunity to consider a fundamental paradox of reality: things constantly change, including human beings, even though forms seem to stay the same: “We step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.”[1] Paradox—etymologically, thinking in a manner that moves one beyond convention or orthodoxy—entails an unbelievable or even absurd contradiction that nonetheless enables one a glimpse of something true. The Los Angeles River, by both being a river and by not being a river, poses a host of questions about our understanding of natural phenomena: questions about being and meaning; about what we call “the environment”; political and societal questions; and questions about the ecological and economic future of cities.


[1] Heraclitus, Fragment 49a (Robinson 35). Cf. The Meaning of Rivers 28-29.

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Posted April 26, 2011 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

One response to “Water & Human Ecology

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  1. Scott, thank you for your contributions to our rivers! I’d like to invite your readers to learn more about the amazing Los Angeles River through the website for our documentary film, ROCK THE BOAT: There’s a River in LA?! http://www.rocktheboatfilm.com We are in post-production and working towards completing the film this year. Our film in part follows the efforts of George Wolfe via his kayaking expedition that helped keep the river covered under the Clean Water Act, but also touches on many issues such as the water crisis, the importance of our watershed as a whole, and the ways in which people are beginning to re-imagine both our river, and our overall connection to nature. Thank you again! Heather

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