Sandra Postel: Repairing the Water Cycle

Originally a podcast…

Water wired on the hydrosocial cycle

Michael Campana has some interesting thoughts on my paper on the hydrosocial cycle, including a great diagram, over at his blog Water Wired.

The hydrosocial cycle & why to rethink some versions of it

I’ve mentioned my comings and goings with the concept of the hydrosocial cycle before. And I mentioned last week that a new paper of mine would be out soon. It’s here. Well, technically it is here [pdf]. It is an open-access article from Water Alternatives (which is currently transitioning its website to a new server so if it isn’t a smooth link, it should be soon). The special selection of papers on informal water spaces also looks really interesting in this issue of the journal.

My essay makes an argument about some of the current ideas popular in the literature that suggest a key feature of modernity was that water (and nature in general) was understood as a passive and inactive thing. From this premise, there is often an attempt to re-read history with contemporary understandings of water (and nature in general) as a more active player. In this paper I suggest the former view is wrong. Water was understood as an active planetary agent in precisely some of the cases theorized as exhibiting the modern society/nature divide. Because of this, the attempt to re-read history needs to be rethought with these earlier understandings of water in mind. All comments welcome. Here is the abstract:

Historicising the hydrosocial cycle

This paper examines the historical claims made in support of the hydrosocial cycle. In particular, it considers how arguments advancing the hydrosocial cycle make historical claims regarding modernist conceptions of what water is (i.e. H2O) and its fit with society. The paper gives special emphasis to the society/nature dualism and to the notion of agency as key sites of contest in arguments regarding the hydrosocial cycle. It finds that, while several versions of the hydrosocial cycle seek to advance a political ecology more sensitive to non-human actions, these same accounts often do not address the robust account of non-human agency in the historical record. Evidence is presented regarding water’s agency amongst late 19th and early 20th century architects of key water management norms in the United States. This evidence troubles accounts of the hydrosocial cycle that critique the US experience and suggests new directions for rethinking the role of historical and institutional norms in water policy.

The hydrologic cycle – where are the people?

Jamie Linton’s book, What is water?, provides a critique of the way that the hydrologic cycle is presented as an abstract way of understanding water that rarely, if ever, includes humans. Here is the “hydrologic cycle” as it is presented on the Environment Canada website:


To try and counter the idea that humans somehow exist apart from nature, many theorists now posit something called the “hydrosocial cycle” – which is a term designed to direct us to the fact that water cycles through social spaces: our homes, cities and so on. Further, it helps attune us to the way that our growing impact on the planet makes the Earth a sort of social space as well. Ultimately, there are not any non-social spaces in a human dominated planet.

Anyways, I have my comings and goings with the “hydrosocial cycle” and, as I work on a paper I am presenting this spring, I recalled another way of presenting water without people (UPDATE FEB 16, 2014: You can now read my paper here, which shows Jamie Linton has the history quite wrong. UPDATE 2017: If you read my book, you will see Linton is wrong on virtually every key historical point about America and “modern water”). It was one developed by the World Economic Forum. Take a look at the video below and note that while it begs consideration of the way we value water, in economic terms, there is nothing particularly “social” about it either even though it uses the language of “crisis” to motivate the audience.