On the Isar

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The River Isar , Wiki Commons
The River Isar, photo: Wiki Commons

The River Isar drains north from Austria, cuts east through Bavaria and bisects Munich before entering the Danube near Straubing. Viewed from a bridge near the Deutsches Museum on a cold October morning, the post-Oktoberfest fall colours are in view, as well as the modest flow of a redesigned river. Over the twentieth century the Isar, like so many European urban rivers, was plumbed and canalized, made to divert sewage and turn hydro-electric turbines. In the last twenty years a portion of this hard-working flow has been returned from a linear canal to the original river bed studded with new gravels and seemingly natural islands. In Munich’s famous Englischer garden the river tumbles through a naturalistic landscape and cascades in a precise arc over a manicured falls. East of the city, the natural river tumbles past another kind of nature, the Isar nuclear plants near Landshut. Along its length, the Isar reminds us of the many designs on rivers, and of the many rivers made by design.

Recently I walked along the Isar in the early jet-lagged mornings while attending a conference on energy continuities and transitions, an event sponsored by the Peter Wall Institute at UBC, the Technical University of Munich, the Deutsches Museum and the Rachel Carson Centre, and organized by Richard Unger. The key question animating the workshop was how have societies reoriented around new energy carriers over time? What made European societies adopt coal, or hydro and abandon peat and wood? And why did patterns and processes of adoption vary over time and space? Given pressing contemporary concerns about how to foster a post-fossil fuel future, the problem of transitions and how they have occurred is of more than historical interest. Although none of the papers offered prescriptive assessments based on historical research, participants did collectively point to the significance of fuel prices, institutional and policy contexts, crises, transportation geography, regulation and consumer preferences as factors shaping transitions and continuities in energy regimes. A summary of the presentations will be published in the Perspectives journal of the Rachel Carson Center.

Having recently been immersed in a project with Stéphane Castonguay on urban rivers and currently conducting research on urban water history in Vancouver, I was struck by some of the commonalities between energy history and urban environmental history. At the heart of both fields is a core interest in large systems that interact over distance and combine a complex assemblage of human, technological and environmental actors. The literature on urbanization shares some broad parallels with the literature on energy transition; both search for drivers, elements of institutional lock-in and path dependence. The differences I identified could hardly be isolated to the two fields but nevertheless seemed significant: urban environmental history seems more connected to place-based inquiry, energy history to model building and quantitative analysis of production and consumption trends at the national scale. Urban environmental historians seek to relate political and social change to the environmental context of urbanization and vice versa, whereas energy historians are less explicitly environmental in their concerns or treat environmental outcomes in a more abstract, less place-specific sense. Some of my observations were no doubt conditioned by the range of participants– a mixture of economic and environmental historians, historians of technology, museum professionals as well as engineers and scientists.

The comparison nevertheless strikes me as evidence of the balkanization that has occurred in environmental history in the last decade. New subfields, water and energy history among them, with a range of networks, commitments and intellectual linkages outside of the field of environmental history, have recast our foundations and vantage points. Probably a good thing? A sign of maturation in the field and the expanding realm of inquiry? Or is the centre of environmental history too weak to hold the centripetal intellectual forces at play? Is the problem, as Sverker Sörlin and Paul Warde put it a few years ago, that environmental history lacks a coherent problem at its core, beyond a general interest in human-environmental relationships?[1] Food for thought as I rambled along a re-invented river.

[1] Warde, Paul and Sverker Sörlin, (2007) “The Problem of the Problem of Environmental History: A Re-reading of the Field and its Purpose.” Environmental History, 12 (1). pp. 107-130.

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