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'Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainity and agitation distinquish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.' Marx

understanding water management in Australia « Previous | |Next »
October 12, 2010

Whilst Sage offers free access to its journals until the 15th October I want to return to Kirsten Henderson's 'Review Essay: Water and Culture in Australia: Some Alternative Perspectives' in Thesis Eleven August 2010 that I had mentioned earlier. This is important because water in Australia has remained under-analysed for so long, and policy responses to water issues have remained constrained by the understandings of water that frame it as an abstract (often economic or environmental) entity and never anything else.

In this review Henderson mentions the work of Eric Swyngedouw---- Social Power and the Urbanization of Water: Flows of Power. She states that his approach has profound implications for understanding water in Australian society. It means reorientating the focus of enquiry from the processes of consumption of water (as occurs in the majority of Australian scholarship on water) to the processes of production of water in Australia as a hybrid, socionatural entity that reflects and creates the relationships between capitalism, modernity, environment, space and contemporary social life.

She says that like Worster and Wittfogel:

Swyngedouw applies a theoretical perspective to the role of water in culture, focusing specifically on tracing it in the production of what he calls ‘socionature’. Writing from a broadly political ecological and critical geographical standpoint and taking his cues from Bruno Latour (1993), David Harvey (1989), Henri Lefebvre (1991), and Neil Smith (1990), Swyngedouw argues for the recognition that nature and society are deeply intertwined and that it is best to consider any waterscape as a ‘hybrid’ of the two.

However, in comparison with Worster, Swyngedouw is far more optimistic in terms of what a Marxist-based interpretation of the nature/culture relationship means for the ecological sustainability of modern societies. Partly this is because he insists, as Worster and Wittfogel do not, on the need to transcend the binary formations of nature and society prevalent in so much social theory in general and writing about the environment in particular.

Rather than arguing as Worster does, that via the social relations of production nature as a real, intrinsically significant, autonomous entity is obliterated in the ‘onward march of progress’ (Worster, 1985: 26):

Swyngedouw calls instead for consideration of humanity’s work in the world as ‘metabolism’ through which both nature and society are produced and reproduced. Nature is not obliterated by labour, only transformed. In consequence there is no ‘first’ or a priori nature and, therefore, neither is there a ‘second’ nature. There is only, following Latour, ‘quasi-objects’: part social, part natural, yet deeply historical and thus produced – objects/subjects that are intermediaries that embody and express nature and society together. These assemblages are simultaneously real, like nature; narrated like discourse; and collective, like society (Latour, 1993: 6; Swyngedouw, 2004: 27; 2006: 25). The ‘enrolment’ of these assemblages into the capitalistic relations of production means that nature becomes a constitutive part of society, one that both helps create and is created by that society.

Unlike Worster with his Frankfurt School influences, Swyngedouw does not see the relationship between nature and society as predicated on domination. But this does not mean that he is unconcerned with the flow of power, particularly when it comes to the nexus, as he puts it, between water, power and money:
rather than conceptualizing the power dynamic between nature and society as one emanating from a unified source leading to the domination of one ‘side’ by the other, Swyngedouw understands this relationship as part of a production process of a nature/society hybrid that leads to the multiplication of sites of struggle in a way that Worster’s perspective does not allow. In other words, power can be exercised (and creative responses to oppressive conditions developed) by groups and through sites that in other formulations (such as Wittfogel’s and Worster’s) would be regarded powerless and inhibited.

Thus, for Swyngedouw, social change mediated by water is not a case of the development of different modes of water control driven by changes in the technological control of water as a response to arid conditions:
Rather than the technological transformation of water provision being the driving force for change, it is the continual socially and technologically determined process of production acting through multiple internal and dialectical dynamics of force and resistance that is the catalyst for change. The resulting creativity of society and nature co-determines environmental and social changes. Both society and nature are produced, malleable, transformable and transgressive. These metabolisms produce a series of both enabling and disabling social and environmental conditions and, as such, are never socially or ecologically neutral. Questions of socio-environmental sustainability then become deeply political questions of what or who needs to be sustained; who controls, who acts and who has the power to produce what kinds of socionature.

This allows us to understand water in Australia as both catalyst and a product of the modernization process, with that process understood as ongoing change that is characterized by a series of social power relations and mechanisms that are structured through contested notions of progress, emancipation and ‘betterment’.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:13 PM |