How do people imagine water, how did they do so historically, and what does that mean? René ten Bos (2015) argues that people seem to take water and its life-giving characteristics for granted, or ignore it. Especially in western thinking, he argues, water has long been ‘objectified’, not seen as something with intrinsic value, but only as something ‘out there’ that humans can use or must control. Imaginaries revolving around water seem to link to a certain human relation to water, and the nonhuman world in general, in which water and other things of the earth are ontologically reduced to being resources, commodities, external supplies, that can be measured, tamed, mastered and/or used by humans. In such a way of thinking, it is overlooked that water is a fundamental part of life on earth and literally a large part of ourselves. This denial, indifference, or downplaying of water’s importance arguably allows for a way of treating it – and the nonhuman world in general – that is only utilitarian and hierarchical: humans above the rest. With such a way of thinking, the step towards doing ecological harm, unintentionally or carelessly, is easily taken, allowing for damming rivers, for dumping waste and chemicals in the ocean, if only it is benefitting or convenient for human beings. Scholars argue that this social imaginary of water, its reduction to its utilities, is one of the root causes of ecological disaster that we need to challenge and question (see for example Ten Bos 2015; Neimanis 2012, and the recent IPBES[1] report 2019).

This idea about water and the controllable ecology has plausibly already been dominant, at least in western thought, since the ancient Greek philosophers and came even more into fashion since the industrial and scientific revolution. Although one of the first European philosophers, Thales of Milete, did coin that water is the primary element that all life begins with, since Socrates and Plato water has not been (philosophically) referred to as the fundamental principle of life (Ten Bos 2015). Since then, western philosophers and thinkers seem to have “attempted to grasp solid ground”: flow and liquid seemed to be too dangerous and dynamic, we cannot rely on it. In this time, bodily senses and the imagination became inferior to the use of logos (ratio) whilst philosophising. In the seventeenth century, senses and imagination in philosophical thought got an even lesser status (Sepper 1989). With the dualist ideas of René Descartes, a binary way of thinking bloomed that conceptually separated the body from the mind, nature from culture, emotion from ratio, and humans from nonhumans (Huggan & Tiffin 2007, Leiss 1994). Descartes argued that the mind is superior over the body, because that is where reason is located, whereas in the body only passion and irrationality are found (Culhane 2016). Following Descartes’ philosophy, the idea became popular that using ratio and critical thinking offers us the best way of knowing the world, and the imagination only distract us from fully comprehending it (Sepper 1989).

Humans in large parts of the world started to believe that we could know, control and use everything in the world by using rational thought. With the invention of the steam engine and the industrial revolution, these ideas of measuring, using and exploiting nature became practiced, amongst other things (but not solely) in the massive extraction of resources for the processes of production. From this revolution onwards, water literally became the lubricant for industrialisation, urbanisation, and agricultural intensification, all processes that required enormous amounts, secure supplies, and fine qualities of water (Bakker 2012). Whilst people had long been using and manipulating water by irrigation systems, redirecting streams and creating water mills, the increasing demands for water in the industrial revolution, the growth of capitalism, and urbanisation – processes that embarked in the seventeenth century and accelerated over the next two hundred years – were of an unprecedented order (Linton 2010).

Not only in relation to water but more generally as well, in the industrial revolution human beings started to change the globe decisively, to such an extent that it marked a turning point in history: the beginning of what scholars widely agree to be a new epoch called the Anthropocene. In this epoch, human beings are directly and indirectly impacting the world unprecedentedly and permanently to such an extent that it is leading to global warming, biodiversity loss and other environmental crises (Crutzen 2002, Zalasiewicz 2013, Lewis & Maslin 2015). There is large scholarly consensus that due to the accelerating use of fossil fuels and rapid societal changes, the industrial revolution marks the Anthropocene’s beginning[2] (Crutzen 2002).

Contested imaginaries

In present times, the urge to ‘do something’ against or mitigate ecological crises is not only felt by scientists but also by many (but far from all) citizens and politicians. According to Anna Tsing, humans started to become aware that they could destroy the liveability of the planet after the bomb on Hiroshima: grasping the atom was “the culmination of humans dreams of controlling nature. It was also the beginning of those dreams’ undoing” (2015: 3). This ‘undoing’ surfaces in the rapid increase of climate marches and student protests (New York Times 2018), investments in technological innovation, climate policies and international treaties (United Nations 2015).

However, thinking of ‘nature’ as usable and controllable for human benefit remains dominant. Infinite economic growth and progress remain the ultimate aims of most states. Politicians, technocrats and scientists attempt to measure effects and predict the impact of current and future environmental crises. They seem to be convinced that better measurements, more efficient use of water and other ‘resources’, and technological solutions will solve the problems (Raworth 2018). Economic growth ought to be a prerequisite to be able to invest in such innovations, and in this logic, consumption and production must continue to increase too (Raworth 2018). The ideas that humans are superior over nonhumans, that water must be tamed and controlled for human’s most efficient use and protection, and that economic growth is crucial for society’s welfare, remain the dominant discourses.

A paradox emerges here: one the one hand, societies are aiming for economic growth as priority, and on the other hand, that growth must be ‘sustainable’, ‘as much as possible’ (source). The paradox, or double-bind (Bateson 1972, Eriksen 2016,), lies in that economic growth inherently requires an increase of production, consumption, energy-use and resource extraction. ‘Sustainable growth’ – often implied by politicians and international institutions like the Sustainable Development Goals – can be called a hoax: ‘economic growth’ and ‘sustainability’ are two inherently incompatible things. Scholars as well as environmental movements therefore suggest that current and future ecological crises are not simply solvable by technological innovations, better measurements, and political policies without breaking with a focus on perennial economic growth, ideas of progress and a rationality of measuring and counting everything, that are dominant in western thinking (see for example Eriksen 2016; Escobar 1995, Acosta 2016, Gudynas 2011).

In the words of Tsing (2015) and Buell (1995), the ecological challenges we are facing today are related to the way we imagine the ecology. Both argue that environmental crises and Western thought are intrinsically interwoven. Buell stresses that “…western metaphysics and ethics need revision before we can address today’s environmental problems. [The] environmental crisis involves a crisis of the imagination the amelioration of which depends on defining better ways of imagining nature and humanity’s relation to it” (1995: 2). Neimanis (2012), in line with Tsing and Buell, wonders how ‘really’ paying attention to water – how it moves, what it does, what it is threatened by, how it organises itself and other bodies – makes her and other people to treat water better. Raworth (2018) suggest that in order to do that, we must ‘unlearn’ the capitalist economic rationales of infinite growth, measurements of GDP as ‘welfare’, and the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. What we need, these scholars imply, is a radical, new way of thinking about human’s place in the world at large, a turn from the discourse of Descartes’ fashion that separates humans from the rest of the earth and all the living and non-living beings in it. We must, they say, problematise ‘anthropocentrism’, that is, the paradigm in which human beings are believed to be the most important beings of the planet.

[1] The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is a renowned international institution which assesses the state of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services it provides to society. Its reports are approved by 130 governments.

[2] Timothy Morton (2016), amongst others, notes that the Anthropocene already has its roots ten thousand years earlier, with the invention of agriculture. The nature-culture split is the result of a nature-agriculture split, he states (Morton 2016: 43).


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