Rivers of the Anthropocene

Tyne RiverSummary

Rivers of the Anthropocene is a comparative research project examining international river systems during the age of the Anthropocene (1750 to present). The first phase of the project uses the Ohio and Tyne Rivers as case studies. Approaching rivers and their landscapes not simply as natural phenomena but as human artifacts, a group of international researchers seeks to provide a transdisciplinary analysis of the interactions between humans and their river environments. By mapping the ecological, geographical, cultural, social, political, and scientific histories of river systems, this project will provide insight on issues of relevance to public policy, environmental conservation, and heritage management.



80% of the world’s population is under the imminent threat of water insecurity and biodiversity loss.  This situation has the potential to endanger nearly every person on the planet and could lead to widespread disease, hunger, and warfare.

Protecting our freshwater networks and the ecological systems that they support 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 transdisciplinary 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 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 Age of the Anthropocene, a geological period in which humans have become a major force in altering the planet’s environment — 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 brings together scientists, humanists, social scientists, 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 the methods and scholarship of each field informs the others. The Rivers of the Anthropocene research team recognizes that only by bringing together our areas of expertise — by bridging the humanities, human sciences, and earth sciences — are we likely to discover sustainable solutions to the complex environmental problems that we face in the 21st century.


Phase 1

During Phase 1 (February 2013 – January 2015), Rivers of the Anthropocene brings together scientists, social scientists, and humanists to answer some “big” questions about the human-environment interface during the age of the Anthropocene. This direct engagement with others across the disciplines is essential; only through this approach can scholars and policy makers properly construct frameworks for dealing with environmental problems.  Phase 1 uses two historically significant river systems, the Ohio and the Tyne, as a lens to create a methodological and conceptual framework for speaking about the human-environment interface across disciplines.

Despite their geographical separation, the Ohio and the Tyne represent a common story about the role of human culture and the transformation of ecosystems. In the past 250 years, the Ohio and the Tyne have been as much products of human actions as they have been natural systems. Both provided transportation and facilitated urban/industrial development, and both suffered from the largely unintended and unanticipated consequences of that development, e.g., shifting land use patterns, point and nonpoint pollution, siltation, habitat loss, decline of native species, and an influx of exotics. Each river has faced a challenging and accelerating conflict between the demands of clean water uses and simultaneously serving as sinks for domestic and industrial wastes. And both rivers have been part of an international, maritime transportation system since at least the eighteenth century. By the last third of the 20th century, due to an expansion of scientific knowledge, the shift to postindustrial economies, and a growing environmental movement based on popularized ecology, the people along these rivers began to engage with them differently.  Attitudes and expectations towards rivers shifted, resulting in new ecosystems, cultural perceptions, ecological priorities, and policies. As such, the Ohio and Tyne are microcosms of the Anthropocene — revealing the complex interplay of biophysical and human systems.

The “big” questions Phase 1 seeks to answer are primarily of two types — conceptual and methodological — and include the following:

  • How do scholars from across the disciplines frame the problems of environmental change differently? In what ways does an international, comparative perspective alter their approach?
  • How do scholars from across the disciplines create an Earth Systems Science model(s) that accounts for both emergent environmental patterns and the agency of human individuals and societies?
  • In what ways do human systems have a palpable effect on earth systems, and what is the most useful way for humanists, social scientists, and scientists to address them?
  • In what ways does an international, interdisciplinary, and collaborative approach to international river systems create new answers and provoke new problems for environmental scholarship?

Central to our work will be constructing a conceptual model and methodology that tackles the issues of scale, flow, and change in ways that are meaningful across the disciplines.

The centerpiece of Phase 1 will be a three-day workshop/symposium in Indianapolis, IN on 23-25 January 2014.  The papers created for this symposium will be published in an open access edited collection with a university press, and the questions that emerge from the symposium will serve to form the core research agenda for Phase 2.

Visit the website at rivers.iupui.edu.

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