About Rivers of the Anthropocene

80% of the world’s population is under the imminent threat of water insecurity and biodiversity loss.  These stresses on the environment threaten nearly every person on the planet and have the potential to lead to catastrophic disease, hunger, and warfare.

This problem is one of the most pressing challenges of this century, and it cannot be solved by creative technological or policy solutions alone. It requires a multidisciplinary approach and set of solutions premised on an understanding of the complex historical and cultural dynamics between human societies and their environments.

Humans’ relationships with their environments — particularly freshwater environments, such as rivers — are rarely simple. Rivers, for example, often serve as resources upon which humans impose conflicting demands. Most obviously, rivers have served as both sources of clean water and as sinks for domestic and industrial waste. Often, the consequences of human use is unintended and unanticipated, and, importantly, these consequences emerge from multi-local activities which have complex roots in disparate political, economic, social, and cultural systems and practices.

Over the past 250 years, the impact of humans on river ecologies has been profound. Population growth, fossil fuels, global commerce, and industrial chemical processes have combined to amplify and accelerate the environmental consequences of human development. Human migrations have been accompanied by the decline of native species and the introduction of exotics. Agricultural runoff and factory emissions have transformed river ecologies far away from the point of pollution. And, a combination of dredging, building levees and locks, and wetlands development, have altered habitats and stressed ecosystems.

Rivers of the Anthropocene seeks to bring together scientists, humanists, social scientists, artists, policy makers, and community organizers to begin a new type of discussion about humans and their river environments — one in which specialists can speak across disciplinary and professional boundaries; one in which which the methods and scholarship of each field informs the others. The Rivers of the Anthropocene Research Network recognizes that only by bringing together our areas of expertise — by bridging the humanities, human sciences, earth sciences — are we likely to discover sustainable solutions to the complex environmental problems that we face in the 21st century.


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“Rivers of the Anthropocene” addresses a fundamental problem facing scholars and policy makers alike: despite important advances in our understanding of the earth as a system — one in which humans and human systems have become recognized as prime agents in effecting changes to the earth — we have yet to create an approach that brings together scholars of earth systems with scholars of human systems. This is to the detriment of our overall understanding of global ecological change and limits our ability to respond to escalating crises.  Without integrating methods from the earth sciences, social sciences, and humanities, scholars of the environment lose important tools in tackling some of the biggest issues facing humanity in the 21st century. As humans continue to play an increasingly significant role in altering their planet, it is incumbent upon environmental scholars to understand the human-environment interface in all its complexities. It is not enough that scientists measure what humans have done or what they can do to shift environmental systems; it is necessary that they work hand-in-hand with specialists in human systems to understand the limits and feedback mechanisms that beliefs, practices, ideologies, social structures, and cultural norms impose on human action. A comparative study of international river systems is a good place to begin building more meaningful bridges across the science-humanities divide, and it addresses the pressing issue of global water insecurity, which 80% of the earth’s population faces. The first stage of “Rivers of the Anthropocene” will create a flexible, interdisciplinary methodological and conceptual framework for examining the human-environment interface, one in which specialists in the earth sciences can learn from the approaches of the humanities and human sciences and vice versa.

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