February 21, 2011

[Social Nature] The Hydrosocial Cycle

At the Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Boston in 2008, a session was held on the "hydrosocial cycle". Not to be confused with the "hydrological cycle", the "hydrosocial cycle" was defined in the agenda as follows:
"The 'hydrosocial cycle' is a way of representing the deepening entanglement of flows of water and social power relations (e.g. Bakker, 2003; Swyngedouw, 2004).  Unlike the scientific 'hydrologic(al) cycle', consideration of the hydrosocial cycle makes it impossible to abstract water from the social conditions that give it meaning, and from the people and the societies through which it flows."
I have found this concept extremely compelling in the way it follows from recent explanations of 'social nature' (Castree & Braun 2001). The tendency to want to force a divide between 'humans' and 'nature' is one that has prevailed for hundreds of years, if not longer. One can see, for example, in the medieval Chain of Being, a rationalization of the presumed superiority of humans because of their ability to reason in ways (then) thought to be particular only to homo sapiens

The Enlightenment only furthered this 'rational' divide between humans and nature! The Copernican revolution, rather than questioning the very way 'subject' and 'object' have been cognitively divided, instead focused on inverting their relationship. Wikipedia actually puts it nicely:
"Kant's Copernican revolution was the inversion of the traditional relation between the subject of knowledge and the object of that knowledge. Instead of the observed objects affecting the observing subject, the subject's constitution affects the way that the objects are observed. Following this transcendental idealism theory, the possibility of knowledge was thus to be found in the structure of the subject itself, instead of in an objective reality from which nothing can be said."
However, with the rise of new understandings of humans within (and constitutive of) nature, in particular through the popularization of the concept of the Anthropocene, some have argued that we are entering into a new philosophical era and playing witness to the so-called 'Second Copernican Revolution' (Clark, Crutzen and Schellnhuber 2004). As Ignacio Ayestaran has written,
"The latter revolution is in a way a reversal of the first: it enables us to look back on our planet to perceive one single, complex, dissipative, dynamic entity, far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Such revolution strives to understand the Earth system as a whole and to develop, on this cognitive basis, concepts for global environmental management. From this new perspective, our planet is a global network of living information, provided by real, virtual, and global interfaces between the biosphere and the noosphere. In this geopolitical interplay toward a sustainable scenario, we, women and men, should not use the global (world-teletechnologies) to exploit the real (raw materials, environmental resources) to obtain the virtual (financial speculation). We must use the virtual (mathematics, software, biocomputering, Internet) to measure the real (biogeochemicalphysical) to obtain the global (ecological economics and human ecology in Gaia, our planet)" (Ayestaran 2005, 2006 and 2007).
What does this all have to do with water? Well, perhaps - as Jamie Linton has argued in "Hydrolectics" (Chapter 12 of What is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction) - the entire way we've been thinking of water as some 'non-human' completely 'natural' element is problematic. As Linton shows so well, the entire idea of the hydrological cycle as we have come to learn about it in high school science classes has been conceived within the ontological and epistemological presuppositions of Enlightenment logic. Linton is worth quoting at length here:
“The case for the ontological relevance of the hydrosocial cycle is suggested in the fact that practically every body of water on the planet bears traces of human involvements in the form of minute quantities of anthropogenic substances such as chlorinated organic compounds. And almost everywhere it falls, snow is laden with particulates and other residues of human activity. The flows of water on the earth’s surface, moreover, are radically affected by people: In the Northern Hemisphere, some 80 percent of river discharge is regulated, or controlled, by dams. Combined with this vast scale of human diversion and regulation of streamflow on the earth’s surface, the systematic and global effects of anthropogenic climate change on hydrological processes mean that these processes are thoroughly and unavoidably involved with human ambition. The very nature of the circulation of water on earth, in other words, has to be described in social as well as hydrological terms” (229).
In our efforts to 'manage' environmental problems associated with water, it seems we need to recognize both that such systems are immutably complex (and thus we should proceed with extreme caution when influencing the flow or physical experience of any water body), but also that such flows and physical experiences are fundamentally connected to our social selves. Influencing social relations can thus have as much of an impact on the experience of water as can physical influences on what we know of the hydrological cycle.


  1. Thanks for the post! Very helpful synthesis.

  2. Thanks for the post! Very helpful synthesis.