The Social Life of Sediment

Giacomo Parrinello*

Everybody in the business knows it: the timing of scientific publications in the humanities is long. It can take several months between submission and acceptance of a paper, years between submission and publication. But when a piece it’s finally out, it feels great. And if the piece is not a single paper, but a whole special issue, it’s even better!

This is why I am truly happy to announce that, after two years of hard work, the special issue of the journal “Water History, entitled “The Social Life of Sediment” is out. This issue, co-edited by myself and Matt Kondolf, fluvial geomorphologist at UC Berkeley, is a milestone of the project. It collects a selection of the papers presented at the international workshop “The Social Life of the Sediment Balance,” held at the University of California Berkeley in May 2019 and convened by myself and Matt Kondolf. The workshop was the launching event of SHIFTING SHORES and was co-funded by the UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix/Sciences Po collaboration and a grant from the France-Berkeley Fund. It gathered an international and diverse group of scholars in fluvial geomorphology, environmental history, historical geography, political ecology, STS, all working at the intersection of sediment and society in river systems and deltas. The special issue presents the research results first discussed at the workshop and further elaborated in the following year through the interdisciplinary collaboration between participants.

The issue as a whole brings into focus the need —and value—of looking at sediment as a social object and sediment transport as a thoroughly historical process. Rivers are made of sediment as much as of water: they move sediment from the mountains to the sea, and in the process they produce river habitats, agricultural soils, coastal landscapes, and more. Fluvial sediment transport, however, has been changing worldwide due to human actions and infrastructure, from dams to dredging, from sand and gravel mining to changes in forest cover. Some rivers are deprived of sediment and as a consequence, their deltas are shrinking and sinking. Others have experienced an increased transport of sediment. This anthropogenic alteration of sediment fluxes is one of the principal markers of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch characterized by human influence at the planetary scale. The alteration of sediment transport in rivers (and the resulting transformations of river systems and deltas) cannot be understood without taking into account the social and historical processes that have caused that alteration. Likewise, the history and politics of river and deltas in the modern era cannot be fully understood without putting sediment at the center of the inquiry, and taking into account the alteration of sediment transport.

Source: Deltas at Risk.

Matt and I develop this key point in our introductory paper, also entitled “The social life of sediment”. In it, we review literature at the intersection of sediment, society and history in fluvial geomorphology, political ecology and environmental anthropology, and environmental history. New literature in the social sciences and humanities has begun to look at the intersection of sediment and society, but without the necessary historical depth. On the other hand, in spite of its environmental and historical importance, water and river histories have surprisingly neglected sediment until recently. We argue for putting sediment at the center of social and historical inquiry and discuss the potential and value of such an approach. To do so, the paper introduces the concept of “the social life of sediment,” that is, the idea that the existence and movement of sediment is entwined with social needs, values, and activities, and needs to be appraised in its historical dimension. We believe that this concept can prove helpful to frame new research into the geomorphological histories of rivers and deltas, and provides a solid basis for our ongoing investigation into the Rhône, the Po and the Ebro deltas.

The paper then reviews the contributions to the issue. The papers of the issue prove the interest and value of looking at the social and historical lives of sediment through a vast array of empirical contributions on multiple river basins of the world, including the Tigris-Euphrates River, the Mississippi River, the Rhône River, the Detroit River and the Po River. Put together, we believe these papers open new avenues for interdisciplinary research on sediment in rivers and deltas. First, they show the possibility and value of interdisciplinary collaborations between historians and geomorphologists. Through this, they advance a new historical understanding of rivers as consisting of more than just water, thus moving past the “water bias” that characterizes much of the river and water history literature. This, in turn, opens up a space to revisit river development processes that have rarely been studied under this lens, such as dam building or irrigation, and their politics. Furthermore, they open analytical spaces to processes rarely studied in history, such as the history of sediment mining for the construction industry, the history of sediment knowledge and monitoring, and the history of sediment regulation. The approach these contributions put forward has the potential to revise some deeply seated accounts about river and water history, opening up new connections and different explanations for both river processes and human actions and choices. We hope this will encourage others to move forward in this direction.

*Giacomo Parrinello is assistant professor at the Center for History at Sciences Po and principal investigator of the Shifting Shores project.

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