Conference Report: The Industrialization of Rivers in Comparative Perspective

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September 24-26, 2009
Trois-Rivières, Musée québécois de culture populaire
Shawinigan, La Cité de l’énergie

L’Industrialisation des Rivieres: perspectives comparées / The Industrialization of Rivers in Comparative Perspective Conference brought together 20 scholars interested in the multiple processes of waterways transformations and human interaction with fluvial environments to a workshop meeting in Montréal, Trois-Rivières and Shawinigan, Québec, in late September, 2009. The organizer, Stéphane Castonguay of the Universite de Québec à Trois Rivières, with the assistance of Matthew Evenden of the University of British Columbia (both co-leaders of the Canadian Water History Project, NiCHE Projet sur l’histoire de l’eau au Canada), invited an international group of participants to reflect on three basic historical issues relating to the modern manipulation and management of rivers: Connections between the City and its Hinterlands, Modifications of Urban Space and Relationships with Nature.

The papers presented at the workshop pointed to the topical and analytical breadth of research on the industrialization of rivers, a concept originally advanced by Swedish historian Eva Jakobsson to underline the transformative outcomes of human social, economic and ecological interactions with rivers. The unconventional format, which allowed participants to comment directly on co-panelists’ work, encouraged critical engagement with the central analytical questions of scale, environmental conflict and the politics of nature. While most of the work was regional or national in scale, participants were encouraged to reflect on comparative possibilities in their own work and in the commentaries on others’ work in the hopes that transnational similarities and points of tension would emerge.

Day One
The conference began with a session on the planning and development of networks that emerged as cities expanded and began to dominate the fluvial ecology of surrounding areas. Major regional cities attempted to regulate rivers to match their own changing metabolisms and, as a result, the new hydrologic regimes that were created out of planning and industrial development were both cultural and natural. Smaller regional centres and rural areas were often at the mercy of larger market forces and the bureaucratic muscle of key cities. Often, these socioeconomic factors conspired to foist an unequal burden of pollution onto adjacent areas while hindering access to water and its urban infrastructure. The second session focused on the sociotechnical regimes of management in Paris, Montreal and Brussels. While dealing with different periods, the participants all sought to analyse the metropolitan-hinterland dynamics that emerged out of the industrialization of tributary rivers with the watershed of, and for the benefit of, major cities.

Day Two
The first session of the day extended the conversation on metabolisms and urban-river networks. Participants looked at the changing articulations of the Seine in Paris and the Danube in Vienna with a keen eye to riparian land use planning as a significant driver in the spatial and industrial growth of cities. The second session brought questions of scale to the forefront, while challenging some of the accepted orthodoxies of river history as originally forwarded by Richard White in The Organic Machine. Contributors unpacked the construction of the watershed as a unit of analysis, and perhaps more fundamentally, problematized the notion of the watershed as a unit of scientific practice. The third session dealt directly with the multiple conflicts that emerge out of attempts to develop rivers. Participants tackled the problems of conflicts from disparate directions: within the salvage archaeology discourse; within the political and diplomatic manoeuvring in a transboundary river region; and through the complex intersections of environmental, corporate and indigenous rights-based logics.

Day Three
The first session focused on nature and its perceived degradation in industrializing contexts. Research on the wetlands of the St. Lawrence argued against scientific convention to show how writing about the nature of and risks to the wetlands had undergone a profound paradigm shift in concert with a changing social/environmental consciousness in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Research on the Ohio River focused on the rhetorical power of the scientific discourse of risk and hazards. The enabling power of industrialization in the realm of disaster history was analysed through the prism of uncertainty and vulnerability to show how that understanding shaped assessment and management. The conference wrapped up with a session designed to synthesize common themes, encourage further reflections in problematic analytical areas and push contributions in profitable new directions. Among the more vital of the many incisive points raised, the two commentators asked contributors to pay more attention to spatial scale, to reflect on the different conditions of property ownership, to anticipate the possible comparative dimensions in their work and to consider the moral tone embedded in the stories they are telling.

Participants also engaged in two field trips. On Day Two in Shawinigan, the group spent the latter portion of the afternoon at the Cité de l’énergie Museum, a sprawling, popular facility designed as a catalyst for the region’s revitalizing economy and a talisman for the fading energy- and manufacturing-based economy of the last century. The final afternoon found the group on the south shore of the St. Lawrence en route to Lac Saint Pierre where we met Historical Geographer Rodolphe de Koninck, who spoke about his long interest in the confluence between the geomorphology of the area and its socioeconomic history. A ferry trip and drive through the islands prompted reflections on the long social and environmental history of the region as it changed from an agricultural to a tourism-based economy.

The three days of fruitful discussion will lead to a collective volume. But the discussion also forwarded debate on the myriad problems associated with the industrialization of rivers and forged international research connections sure to push dialogue in compelling new directions.

We would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, NiCHE, the Centre interuniversitaire d’études québécoises (UQTR), the Canada Research Chair in Environmental History (UQTR), the Dean of Research and Graduate Studies (UQTR), and the Quebec Studies Program
(McGill University).

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