Let the River Live

October 19, 2022

More from Boyce’s Imperial Mud (previously), here from a pamphlet written in 1772 by the disaffected Lincolnshire landowner Robert Carter, following the partial draining of his local river, the Redbourne (more commonly known as the Ancholme):

Alas, poor Redbourne! What hast thou ever done to provoke the Rage and Malice of thy enemies against Thee! … Alas! Friendship, Honour, Justice, Truth must all fall a Sacrifice to the Altars of Interest. Thou didn’t ever stir out of thy peaceful Domains to disturb and invade the Possessions of others, and to impose Laws and Taxes upon them which they were not able to bear, pretending to know their Interest, Situation and circumstances better than their Possessors … Redbourn meets not with one Friend or Advocate in the House of Commons to defend it from Wrong … Though thou hast always contented thyself in cultivating thy (by Nature) too barren Fields … yet from hence the Neighbouring Poor were cloathed, and the Hungry fed … [until] a most cruel spoiler came and at one Stroke robbed thee of all the Fruits of thy Labour … But where interest is the ruling passion, and Rage to increase estates, expectations of redress are chimerical.

What Carter is doing here, for a modern reader, is appealing to and on behalf of the personhood of the River – both by addressing it as its own being, and by noting that it has no friends in the House who might speak on its behalf.

This acknowledgement of personhood is what is enacted in the recent elevation of the Whanganui in Aotearoa New Zealand to the status of a legal person, and the change in relationships that results is best captured in this quote from Dr Erin O’Donnell, a senior fellow at the University of Melbourne law school and author of a book on river rights: “The act shifts us away from this resource construction where we ask, ‘what do we want from the river?’ and into a space where we can say, ‘what do we want for the river and how do we get there with the river?’”

Going further, we might ask, “What does the river want?” One answer is about to be found in Exmoor, where a stretch of River Aller is being partly filled in to allow water to spill out and ‘decide where it wants to go’. This is described by one of the National Trust managers of the project as “like the ‘ctrl, alt, delete’ computer reset”. It’s also termed a ‘Stage 0’ reset, an attempt to get back to the state of the river before any human intervention – hopeful, perhaps, but still a real attempt to listen to and engage with the river’s own needs and desires.

I think these impulses, towards personhood and agency of watery and other bodies, could be usefully moderated by Gregory Bateson’s identification, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, of an ‘eco-mental’ system, in which both we and the waters are imbricated:

Let us now consider what happens when you make the epistemological error of choosing the wrong unit: you end up with the species versus the other species around it or versus the environment in which it operates. Man against nature. You end up, in fact, with Kaneohe Bay polluted, Lake Erie a slimy green mess, and “Let’s build bigger atom bombs to kill off the next-door neighbors.” There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself. It branches out like a rooted parasite through the tissues of life, and everything gets into a rather peculiar mess. When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise “What interests me is me, or my organization, or my species,” you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system—and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.

Elsewhere, Bateson writes about his understanding of intelligence, in a way that I think is incredibly powerful, and which I still struggle to paraphrase in clearer terms: “What ‘thinks’ and engages in ‘trial and error’ is the man plus the computer plus the environment. And the lines between man, computer, and environment are purely artificial, fictitious lines. They are lines across the pathways along which information or difference is transmitted. They are not boundaries of the thinking system. What thinks is the total system which engages in trial and error, which is man plus environment.”

[Above para, and this, edited out of Ways of Being because I couldn’t make them fit: Bateson used this cybernetic understanding of thinking to elucidate what he considered to be the “epistemological fallacy of Occidental civilisation.” First you had Darwin, who considered the central subject of evolution – the ‘unit of survival’ – to be the family line or species, in opposition to other species, and then you had industrial society, which pitted humankind against other species and against nature itself. But for the cybernetician, the “unit of survival is organism plus environment.”]

lines across the pathways along which information or difference is transmitted – this is the space of relationships, which are more important than individual forms. The bounds of personhood are likewise lines across the true paths. We think with the river, the river thinks with us. We go forward together.

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