Water presents a bold and ambitious effort to place the evolution of water management within a framework that combines geography, anthropology, and philosophy. Jeremy J. Schmidt courses through the ideas of leading water thinkers, principally John Wesley Powell, WJ McGee, David Lilienthal, Gilbert White, and Aldo Leopold, to develop the concept of “normal water,” sort of a pan-disciplinary hydrological determinism. He traces this line of thought through the successive stages of alleged abundance, scarcity, security, and, ultimately, the “water-energy-food-climate nexus.” At the heart of Schmidt’s analysis is his notion of “normal water,” which “refers to the program of bringing water’s social and evolutionary possibilities into the service of liberal forms of life” (6), and “names a set of judgments that were used to stop the search for further justification of one picture of the world” (206). A case in point is the popular water management framework known as Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), which morphed into concepts of resilience, adaptive management, and the nexus alluded to above, but suffers from a “mismatch” of its “aspirations and its implementation” (155). Water is a telling critique of the notion that water is a mere “resource,” and can somehow be controlled in a rational, planned way (i.e., by “conservation” and “multi-purpose river basin development”). Schmidt is very effective at pointing out that prevailing concepts of water development and management create a set of cultural, social, and ethical blinders that inhibit more advanced, nuanced, and inclusive concepts that could penetrate the “gossamer” (166) of prevailing water institutions. And this is why “some water challenges are recognized and prioritized and why others are not” (223). For example, the claim that water has become scarce is based on a peculiar notion of scarcity that tends to support traditional notions of water development; this “shift[s] water scarcity from premise to proposition” and allows “the search for justifications of any particular metric to come to an end” (142). Indeed, the real “scarcity” is not in water but in a better conceptualization of water. Many of the problems exposed by Schmidt’s analysis stem from the annoying fact that water is a fickle, unpredictable natural element that refuses to cooperate with the rational, modernist schema that have been imposed on human water institutions: “Many water problems are … the outcome of a philosophy of water management that already exists” (3). This philosophy simply fails to deal effectively with “a host of social and political relationships, and relationships to water, that are all open to contest” (27). The entire ideological edifice for normal water is overlaid by the prevailing norms of classical liberalism, which Schmidt dismisses as nothing more than “social pretense” (146). A prevailing theme in this book is environmental justice, both on a cultural scale—the treatment of Native peoples by neocolonial institutions (11, 27, 46)—and on an international scale (195). Normal water suffers from an “ethnocentric and colonial outlook” (196). My only critique of the book is that Schmidt may be a bit too hard on the water managers and philosophers of the last one hundred years. Though they have, in his telling, developed a concept of water management that might be workable, he still says, “I have significant doubts” (32). To be sure, there is plenty to critique about the way water has been mismanaged in the past—and continues to be mismanaged by current institutions that still cling to outmoded models of water development, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The fomenters of this approach might be characterized as “dead white males” in other quarters, attendant with all the baggage that comes with such privilege. But, they did build a system that supplies water to 310 million people, feeds them, even to excess, provides a system of water-borne transportation, and generates millions of kilowatts of clean hydropower. Not bad for a “failed” philosophy that Schmidt characterizes as mere “luggage” (36). And scarcity is not just a philosophical chimera, especially in the age of climate change. Indeed, in some areas of the planet the only alternative to coming to the conclusion that water is scarce is to conclude that there is an overabundance of human beings. True, the U.S. may not live up to its status as a “model post-colonial state” (42), but there should be room for some credit for having gotten us this far. That said, Schmidt most definitely provides us with a telling critique, an astute analysis of the weaknesses of normal water, and insightful ideas for moving beyond our current water philosophy stalemate. Ultimately, Schmidt makes a valiant effort to resolve a “glitch—an ontological hiccup” in Western metaphysics (36), and addresses the “ontological gap between humans and nature” (189). He also adroitly dispels the myth that “water is a resource” (224). But perhaps his greatest contribution is to point out how prevailing water norms have been used to justify hegemonic notions of global water management and both internal and external imperialist expansionism. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the nexus between ideas and water, writ large. It is an impressive and incisive look into the minds of those who control a substance that is essential to all forms of life. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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