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Using water to understand human society, from the industrial revolution to global trade
Date:11/26/2008

Water shapes societies, but it is a factor only just beginning to be appreciated by social scientists.

The Norwegian professor, writer and film maker Terje Tvedt, of the Universities of Oslo and Bergen, argues that water has played a unique and fundamental role in shaping societies throughout human history. Speaking at a European Science Foundation and COST conference in Sicily in October, Tvedt proposed that social scientists and historians have long made a serious error by not taking natural resources into account in their attempts to understand social structures.

Water, according to Tvedt, is a unique natural resource for two reasons. First, it is absolutely essential for all societies, because we cannot live without it. Secondly, it is always the same. Whatever you do with water on the surface of the Earth, it reemerges. "You can destroy or create rivers and lakes," he says, "but you cannot destroy water itself."

How rivers shaped industry

Tvedt used the example of the industrial revolution to show how water can help to understand human history. Historians have proposed two contrasting theories to explain why the industrial revolution started in Europe, specifically in Britain, and not in China, India or Australia. They debate about whether it is because of specific political ideologies and social structures in Europe at the time, or due to the unequal relationship that already existed between Europe and the rest of the world, through slavery and colonialism. The two theories can be termed exceptionalism and exploitation, respectively.

But according to Tvedt, the structure of the water system can adequately explain why the industrial revolution began in Britain. The early industrial revolution was enabled by the power of water mills, and bulk transport of goods by canal. Britain's rivers were perfect for both things. They provided a good network across the country. All are fairly close to the sea, with goo
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Contact: Professor Terje Tvedt
terje.tvedt@sfu.uib.no
472-212-2500
European Science Foundation
Source:Eurekalert

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