River Talk

October 2010 Archives

"In the view of conservationists, there is something special about dams, something...metaphysically sinister....the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam."
John McPhee Encounters with the Archdruid (1971)

Dams have been characterized as "long-term experiments on rivers," and as affronts to the freedom embodied in flowing rivers. But they also provide needed hydroelectric power to many parts of the world, and serve as important regulators of floods. Dams represent tremendous concentrations of engineering expertise, capital, and political power in the developing world, and they disrupt biological and hydrological processes. Yet they keep getting built.  

This conference brings together diverse experts from a range of academic practices and disciplines to examine the phenomena of dams and the consequences, intended and unintended, that accrue from their construction.  The sessions entail a broadly dialogic approach, with perspectives focusing on global as well as more localized frames of reference, critical and theoretical perspectives as well as immanent and pragmatic views, and the understandings derived from biological and physical sciences as well as disciplines that might be thought of as the "human sciences."

Our intentions with the conference are to raise questions and explore complexities, to provoke reflection from consideration of new perspectives, and to suggest future lines of inquiry in diverse disciplines and practices.  Our sessions will most likely not speak directly to present questions of removal of actual dams, but will, we hope, suggest areas of research, policy, and thinking that can guide future actions.

The conference is free and open to the public, however, space is limited and pre-registration is advised. Box lunches will be available for conference attendees who register by November 9. You may register by contacting the Institute for Advanced Study at ias@umn.edu or 612-626-5054.

The conference begins with a Thursdays at Four presentation on November 11, and continues on Friday November 12, 2010.

More information, including a schedule, driving and parking directions for the St. Anthony Falls Lab, can be found at http://www.ias.umn.edu/Initiatives/ExperimentsOnRivers.php

This conference is organized by these University of Minnesota programs: the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC), the Institute on the Environment, and the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. The conference is part of the University Symposium on Abundance and Scarcity, with support from the University's Office of the Vice President of Research, the Office of International Programs Global Spotlight, and the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics with funding from the National Science Foundation.

On November 4, the Science Museum of Minnesota and Fresh Energy are hosting the film premiere of the documentary A Sea Change.  Though it is talking specifically about oceans and their acidification due to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, this important issue effects the entire water cycle - including our rivers.  The web site for A Sea Change is excellent with a very interesting blog that discusses a range of topics from science to art.  The Science Buzz blog has details on the film premiere events that include a Q&A with the film's director.

If you'd like to know more about ocean acidification, see Ocean Acidification Unprecedented in Earth History for more information.

Have we passed the tipping point, or can we mitigate the damage already done and prevent future catastrophe?

Science Buzz

The Science Buzz blog, hosted by the Science Museum of Minnesota has had some excellent posts recently talking about water and water issues.  

Water Use: On Personal Habits and Water

There's been a lot of focus recently, and rightly so, on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, especially by people who are interested in water and water issues. Sometimes it's good to take a step back and return to the basics, and think about what is happening with water locally and how your own personal habits impact water and its consumption.  See Water Footprint for more information on how your choices impact your water footprint.

Water Runoff: Running On about Runoff

The Science Buzz had another recent post that has some interesting statistics illustrating some of the changes in water runoff caused by climate change and agriculture.  See We Sure Are Silly When It Comes To Water for a nice summary and a couple of surprising statistics.

Have you seen any interesting posts or articles lately that are returning to the fundamentals of water and water issues?  If so, let us know!
OK, so this is my latest on the "Troubled Waters" film and it may not be the last I write on the movie.  It certainly won't be the last on the film's subject:  the connections between agricultural practice and water quality in the Mississippi River.

So here goes:  I've now seen the film, thanks to a screening shown to attendees of the Mississippi River Network's annual meeting.  I'm glad the film was made, glad it raises the points it raises, and hope that the project furthers more discussion on the subject.  More discussion is needed, because no single film or any other presentation can adequately address the subject's complexity.  To me, the issues raised here are issues of what we value as a society and how we make communal decisions on structural questions that change the ways we live.  No wonder people get passionate about this!

Last Sunday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune editorialized about the issues posed by the film to the University, including conflict of interest and academic freedom.  The same day's editorial section also included a commentary by David Mulla, a soil scientist at the University, taking issue with some of the facts and claims in the film.  The fact that Mulla, a highly respected scientist, could debate other University scholars and program staff in this open forum demonstrates that academic freedom is not dead yet at the University.

Then on Wednesday, Barb Coffin and Larkin McPhee, the executive producer and director of "Troubled Waters," wrote a rebuttal to Mulla's piece.

This robust exchange between knowledgeable, thoughtful people is what the University excels at.  It is one of our primary contributions to the state and region.

I look forward to the discussion continuing.  Please weigh in with your thoughts!  And if you want to watch the movie, go to the Twin Cities Public television web site, click "tpt on demand," and there you'll find it.

Quick Note on Feeds

Hello everyone!  This is Joanne, I work for River Life and I do a lot of the behind-the-scenes tech support and administration.  I just wanted to drop in here for a minute and let you all know that the RSS feed is back up and running - we'd had a couple of reports of things going awry and it looks like we've got the problem solved.

As always, if you have any questions about the blog, the feed, or other technical questions, please don't hesitate to drop me a line at holr0002@umn.edu or respond to this message in the comments.

If you are wondering what on earth I'm talking about when I mention the 'feed', then this link might be of some interest to you: http://www.whatisrss.com/  Basically, every time we post a blog entry a little bit of automated technical magic goes on behind the scenes and if you've subscribed to the blog in your feed reader, then you'll get automatically notified.  This is particularly helpful if you read 37 (give or take) blogs, and don't want to have to visit 37 blogs every day to see which ones have been updated.  Get an account with a feed reader, we suggest Google Reader, subscribe to the blogs, and you'll only have to check one page each day, rather than 37.

Again, I invite you to email me directly if you have questions, comments, or concerns! 

Cheers, all!

Eastman-FtS-2milesbelow.jpgThe other day I was reading the paper and was attracted to a headline by Minneapolis author Greg Breining.  I've followed Breining's work off and on for a couple of years, and he interviewed me once for a story.  I expected that he would have something intelligent to say on the subject.

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Well, he did, and what he had to say kind of got under my skin.  I won't elaborate on the whole argument, but in his piece, Breining follows an argument laid out by Stewart Brand that sees two distinct types of environmentalists.  Romantic environmentalists, the "birds, trees, and bunnies" swooning "at One with Nature" crowd has been heavily influenced by Walden and other literary works.  (Let me be clear:  I'm paraphrasing Breining's argument here, not concentrating on the details.)  The other kind of environmentalist, the one Breining is more sympathetic to, is the scientific, technologically oriented thinker who is concentrating on real solutions to the earth's problems.

OK, I thought, so far, so good.  I share Brand's sense that the romantic environmentalists too often seem to suggest that we can "return to Eden."  But this line caught me up short:  "Unless the can-do of scientific bent can wrest control from the romantics, environmentalism might produce beautiful art and literature, but it has no relevance to our future on earth."

No relevance?  I beg to differ.

One response arguing with brand and Breining is relatively simple:  it takes both kinds of thinking, both forms of knowledge, to address environmental problems.  We need scientists as well as poets and artists (and designers, planners, and engineers also, while we're at it."

In terms of river sustainability, there is clearly a need for the scientific understanding that tells us the water quality of a river, how concentrated the pollutants are now, and what level we should strive for.  Most scientists, though, will tell you that establishing policies that will get us to those goals is not their work, but the work of policy makers.  And here's where the poets and artists come in.  Poets and artists, working in whatever media and genre you choose, shape our narratives of ourselves, our images of who we are and who we might become.  Rachel Carson and Aldo leopold, two giants of 20th century environmentalism, were both scientists, but it was the quality of their prose that spoke to us most deeply.

Our program has been saying for some time that river managers of the future need to have three sets of skills and bases of knowledge.  They need to know something about science and about the implementation frameworks of planning, policy, and design.  We do pretty well at teaching young people out of those disciplines.  But we have to do a better job of engaging the public, of speaking to people who are not "river rats" about the importance of rivers in our lives.  This work, which brings budding hydrologists into discussion with public artists, and has ecologists talking to historians, is much harder.

So my question is:  how do we bring more diverse knowledge to river managers? Can we ask people to know more, and about more of the human dimensions, as we face the rivers of our future?

Is it important that "romantic environmentalists" have a place at the table with the technologically savvy, or are the poets and artists, ultimately, irrelevant to our future?

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.