Initial Publication Date: July 6, 2012

Historicizing Water and Development

Abigail Schade, History and Environmental Studies, Davidson College

As a historian, I hear historical reasoning — whether implicit or explicit — in many discussions about sustainability and development. Human historical perspectives on environmental resources include the human perception of those resources. I am particularly interested in historical perceptions of freshwater and groundwater, and how the logic of economic development is presented by expert sources. In other words, ideas do matter. The ways we shape our material world, and our place in it, are created through our perception and valuation of these resources, and how we envision their role in our society and economy. By teaching the 'long run' of environmental resource use, bringing student attention to changing human perceptions over time, and considering the time-frame of sustainability goals, students can consider some of the unknown factors in decision-making, and articulate some of their own assumptions about best practices for sustainable development.

Through teaching a course like "Critical Studies in Water and Development," I seek to engage undergraduate students with their own authentic observations and interventions in a proliferating landscape of information. The central strength of undergraduates who enroll in this course is they want to make a difference for the better. By demonstrating some ways that development practitioners, economists, non-governmental organizations, activists, governments, scientists, anthropologists, and historians have presented, understood, and challenged the "problem" of water and development, students can find their own point of view. Again, this works because students are motivated to find where the "problem" lies, and eager to find the "correct" solution. This course functions in a discussion format, and works best when participants are willing to read widely and engage constructively with each other.

The physical basis of freshwater supplies and scarcity is an important piece in this process of asking students to make critical assessments and interventions. As a historian, not a hydrologist, I have tried to learn the basics of hydrology to point students to good sources of information, or at least know how to formulate their questions in the first place. To engage in critical source analysis, students should be able to identify confusion in popular and activist publications, while many audiences remain unaware, for example, of the role of groundwater in the hydrologic cycle.

When is undergraduate geoscience competence "good enough" for the purposes of critical thinking, assessment of discourse, and debate about how we want to understand and shape our world? I continue to struggle with this question, and hope to come out of the workshop with more defined parameters.

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