Historical Waterscapes in Crosscultural Perspective

  • Start: Jul 5, 2023 02:00 PM (Local Time Germany)
  • End: Jul 7, 2023 04:30 PM
  • Speaker: Various
  • Location: MPI of Geoanthropology
  • Host: Department of Structural Changes of the Technosphere
  • Contact: rennoffice@gea.mpg.de
Historical Waterscapes in Crosscultural Perspective

This workshop aims at a comparative study of historical waterscapes in different sites across the world by looking at the epistemological connection between cosmological and ecological knowledge in water-landscapes engineering. In doing so, we intend to addresses one of the most urgent questions of today’s hydrogeology, which relates to the natural-cultural nexus, as indicated in the IX strategic plan of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Hydrological Program: “What is the role of water in… the dynamics of human civilization, and what are the implications for contemporary water management?” (IHP-IX Strategic Plan, Annex 2, n. 23). The main goal is to study water heritage as an open-ended historical geo-anthropological process, comprehend the current conjuncture, marked by socio-ecological unbalances, and assess alternative pathways to a sustainable future. The water-cycle, seen from a historical and anthropological perspective should open up new meaningful pathways, which are apt to address the environmental crisis of the Anthropocene by crossdisciplinarily integrating the agendas of socio-hydrology and hydro-sociology.

Waterscapes transformation, especially through their constant engineering, aims to secure various social uses of water (access to drinkable water, agriculture, health, transportation, energy, defense, recreation), has always rested on complex forms of ecological, social and cosmological knowledge. Land surveying and cosmographic knowledge, including astronomy, have always played an entangled role, although the scientific activity of the agrimensor (or land surveyor) and the astronomer/cosmographer have often been segregated in accordance with epistemological and social divisions of labor. Medieval and early-modern India is a case in point, as the mathematical practices connected with astronomy and surveying were organized alongside caste and linguistic separations (Senthil Babu D. 2022). In early-modern Europe, the practices of water management, hydrology, territory mapping and cosmological inquiry often merged, in line with political and economic drivers of productivity, control and efficiency. In early-modern Venice, cosmological knowledge constituted an essential basis for territory management and waterscapes architecture, as is witnessed by the scientific activity of the water officers of the Republic of Venice on matters as varied as territory mapping, tidal studies, and eco-hydraulic engineering (canalization, coastal areas interventions, lagoon management, fishing regulations) (Omodeo and Trevisani 2022). European early-modernity also witnessed to the rise of new mixed intellectual-practical professionals, in line with the requirements of a process of societal restructuring (marked by technological innovations, capital-oriented forms of investment, novel forms of land and labour valuation, and colonial expansion). In this context, of an increasingly interconnected modernity, the commonalities and specificities of water-and-territory scientific practices can only be understood through historical and comparative studies. The case of Mexico City, former Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, shows the parallel and different evolution of an island-city that has been transformed in a very different direction than Venice for different geoengineering and political decisions on the part of the Hispanic colonizers and the post-colonial engineers (Rodríguez-Camarena 2023). More comparative studies are necessary: the socio-political history of Chinese rivers management ought to be carefully considered, too (Mostern 2021). This conference in historical geoanthropology aims to strengthen a productive interdisciplinary and crosscultural exchange among scholars on questions of environmental history, water heritage, and sustainable development. The theoretical framework will also be addressed. It addresses crucial questions of historical geo-anthropology, conceived of as an environmental development of historical and political epistemology (Renn 2020 and Omodeo-Garau-Rispoli 2023).

Moreover, the geomorphological relevance of our historical inquiry into landscape management needs to be stressed. Landscape practices such as deforestation, agriculture, and land reclamation, are strictly linked not only to surface water but also to groundwater exploitation. Human agency and hydrological processes also imply multiple processes of sediment dynamics such as soil erosion, landslides, and deposition. Accordingly, a historical analysis of water management ought to take into account geomorphological and land-use modifications as anthropic alterations of the waterscapes. The analysis of historical waterscapes should also make the derivation of quantitative and semi-quantitative information on geoenvironmental processes and drivers possible. This kind of geoenvironmental information is fundamental for the diachronic spatial analysis of the geoenvironmental dynamics in the long-term. Geomorphological modifications, relative sea level variations, hydrologic measures, and extreme events are examples of precious information that can be derived. On one hand, this typology of information provides objective information to interpret geo-anthropological dynamics; on the other, it provides information for the Earth-sciences community, which are fundamental in order to analyze and model geoenvironmental dynamics in the long term.

A group of scholars belonging to the network of the Max Planck Partner Group The Water City (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin) will present their research on the social history of hydrology and cosmography in the longue durée in the Venice area and comparative sites. Their research also connects with research that is conducted in the framework of the FARE Project EarlyGeoPraxis (funded by the Italian Ministry of University and Research), the NICHE Center for Environmental Humanities and the UNESCO Chair of Water Heritage and Sustainable Development in Venice. Specific attention will be devoted to history and knowledge theory, as is currently developed by the VerumFactum network of political epistemology.

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