Organized Session

A Science in Flux: Critical Histories of Geomorphology

Organizer

Etienne Benson

University of Pennsylvania

Chair

Etienne Benson

University of Pennsylvania

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Session Abstract

Although geomorphology is an active area of research in the earth sciences and an important tool for understanding human interactions with landscapes over time, it has received little attention from historians. This session draws on the history of science, environmental history, legal and colonial history, and critical geomorphology to explore the history of geomorphology as a discipline and the role of geomorphological processes in history. The papers share a concern with how capitalism, colonialism, and international relations have shaped landscapes and the production of knowledge about them, as well as with how land-forming processes have influenced human history. They explore periods from the 18th century to the early 21st century, focus on a range of geographical regions, and engage in different ways with the materiality of sediment and the politics of science. The aim of the session is to bring these diverse perspectives into conversation around a science that is just beginning to receive the critical attention it deserves.

The session begins with Parrinello's paper on the idea of "sediment excess" over the longue durée, which shows how an idea with Enlightenment roots shaped sediment management in Italy's Po River basin well into the 20th century. King's paper argues that geomorphologists' involvement in colonial and extractivist land management projects in the US West in the early 20th century laid the groundwork for the mid-century "quantitative revolution." Benson's paper continues the story by describing links between this so-called revolution and the developmentalist ideology of postwar US water policy. Bhattacharyya's paper considers the effect of erosion and deposition in the Bengal delta on recent international territorial disputes and refugee settlement efforts. Collectively, the papers ask both what we might learn about geomorphology by critically examining its past, and how critical geomorphology might contribute to historical scholarship.

Presenter 1

Solid Danger: Sediment Excess in Enlightenment River Science and its Afterlives, 18th-20th Centuries

Giacomo Parrinello

Sciences Po

Abstract

Since the late twentieth century, geomorphologists have raised the alarm about sediment scarcity in rivers and advocated for new river management policies that take into account the positive role of sediment. For almost two centuries, however, the prevalent understanding in river science was that sediment was a nuisance and that most river basins suffered from an excess of sediment. This understanding shaped modern river basin development and was responsible for the associated large-scale alteration of sediment fluxes. This paper tracks the origins of this idea in the eighteenth century and outlines its surprisingly long-lasting legacy in river and sediment management practices focusing on the case of the Po River basin, Italy. The paper shows the emergence of this understanding in the context of French and Italian Enlightenment debates on rivers' morphological histories and on the nexuses between forest cover, soil erosion, and downstream floods. It then follows the perpetuation of this idea in mainstream hydraulic science and forestry over the nineteenth century and its impact on twentieth century sediment management practices in the Po River basin. Whereas it was initially formulated in relation to flood security, the notion of sediment as nuisance and of sediment excess gained salience with the hydropower development of the 1920s and the menace of reservoir sedimentation. Later into the twentieth century, the notion of sediment as nuisance would shape the relaxed attitude of engineers and overseers toward sediment flux-altering practices, from hydropower in the main river channel to sand and gravel mining in the tributaries.

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Presenter 2

Dams, Ditches, and Disciplinary Entrenchment: Legacies of Early 20th Century North American Land and River Engineering in Contemporary Geomorphology

Leonora King

Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Abstract

Geomorphology as a discipline cultivates an image of itself as a 'restorative' science whose mandate has evolved from the exploitation and degradation of our biophysical resources. However, the values and practices of the discipline have not simply evolved in response to this degradation, but have in fact facilitated it. Grappling with the historical complicity of geomorphology in land transformation and degradation offers an opportunity for the geomorphology community to take ownership of our violent legacies and to reveal how complex power structures such as colonialism and capitalism have shaped and continue to shape our field and how we might imagine a liberatory or restorative geomorphology with new relations between science, people, and land. To this end, this contribution explores the relationship between geomorphology and the landscape engineering programs that facilitated the colonization of the Western US and Canada in the first half of the 20th century.
Whereas this time period is broadly regarded as a quiescent period in the disciplinary history of geomorphology, I argue that river science was actively complicit in the colonial transformation of the West during this time, forever altering the western biophysical landscapes and the disciplinary landscape of geomorphology. Additionally, far from being disciplinarily quiescent, the roots of contemporary geomorphology were actively growing during this time. I explore how the aggressive land management practices of the early 20th century and their increasingly apparent costs (such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s) laid the foundation for the engineering turn in geomorphology from the 1950s onwards. I argue that this historically extractivist and colonial relationship between the science of landscapes and the landscapes themselves has carried forward in time to become invisibly entrenched as the dominant framework within which contemporary geomorphology operates.

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Presenter 3

Water Facts for the Nation's Future: Data, Development, and the Quantitative Turn in Fluvial Geomorphology, 1945-1975

Etienne Benson

University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

In the 1950s, a time when concerns about the "water problem" reached crisis proportions in United States, the Conservation Foundation supported a series of publications by experts on water policy. One of them was Water Facts for the Nation's Future (1959), authored by two long-time employees of the U.S. Geological Survey's Water Resources Division, Walter B. Langbein and William G. Hoyt. Originally titled "Data for Decision," Langbein and Hoyt's volume was narrowly targeted at an audience of administrators and policymakers who were responsible either for running data-collection programs or for using the data they produced to shape policy. It sought to convince them that only a massive increase in data collection coupled to major advances in data interpretation - such as those that Langbein and Hoyt were in the process of developing with their colleagues at the USGS - would allow the United States to overcome its water challenges, particularly water scarcity and flood hazards.
Although quick to criticize the failings of science and government as they saw them, Langbein and Hoyt took it for granted that the basic driver of the "water crisis" - namely, the explosive postwar growth in U.S. industry and infrastructure - would continue indefinitely and inevitably. In this view of an unending water crisis, the role of water facts and water science was to mitigate the worst consequences of unrestrained development, not to question or redirect development itself. In this regard, Hoyt and Langbein were typical of water scientists and engineers of their time. This paper explores how the near-universal acceptance of economic developmentalism as it was defined and practiced in the United States in the postwar decades shaped the sciences of hydrology and geomorphology, and in particular their embrace of quantitative data, mathematical models, and mechanistic explanations.

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Presenter 4

Decolonizing Sediments

Debjani Bhattacharyya

Drexel University

Abstract

This paper argues that sediments in the Bengal Delta should be seen as geopolitical elements of decolonization. I will explore two major 20th-century geohistorical events in the Bay of Bengal. The first one was the continental shelf dispute between Bangladesh and India over the now disappeared Talpatty Island. The second one will focus on the ongoing relocation of the Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char (char is a sedimentary deposit) in the Bay of Bengal. The sudden deposition of a mobile island in the Bay of Bengal in 1971 thrust India and Bangladesh into an almost 30-year territorial dispute in the International Court of Justice, solved partly by the disappearance of the island in 2010. Currently, Bangladesh is attempting to relocate the Rohingya refugees to a UN shelter in the Bhashan char - temporary homes for the Rohingyas in temporary landscapes. In both cases, geologic forces of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system interact with the highly dynamic ocean movements to create both morphological and political precarity, turning them into flashpoints of conflict. Focusing on the contested history of these geohydro sedimentary terrains (Elden 2017), I explore how oceanography, geomorphology and geomythic accounts intersect with international laws in adjudicating cross-border conflict during decolonization. In this account, the sedimentary deposits erupt into the politics of post-colonial statemaking in the fluid territories of eastern India and Bangladesh.

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