Knowing Water in the Anthropocene

Student post by Terry Adams.

Nicole Starosielski’s discussion of the cultural and environmental concerns that accompany transoceanic cable systems provided an appropriate segue into the second conversation of the Bodies/Water event. Titled “Knowing Water,” this graduate research panel featured four presentations by current doctoral students that all focused on an important, overarching question: how do we know about water? By addressing the unique ways in which water and the Anthropocene has and continues to affect their research, each speaker sought to illustrate the connections between the water of the world, the way humans experience this water, and how these experiences impact the scholarship that both they and others produce.

The presenting scholars reiterated how the Anthropocene has consequences on the research of individuals in a wide range of fields. Transitioning from Starosielski’s approach that was influenced by her background in media and communication studies, the panel was comprised of students from various disciplines: Meredith Denning in transregional history and Jewel Lipps in ecology and evolutionary biology from Georgetown University, Clare Fieseler in ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Ben Kochan in history at Boston University. With each discussing the ways in which water influences their unique scholarly concerns, the panel recognized the interdisciplinary nature of the Anthropocene.

The topics of discussion ranged from coral reefs to salt marshes and from the Great Lakes to New England fisheries. Jewel Lipps’s presentation, showcasing research focused on anthropogenic harm towards wet lands, was similar to Clare Fieseler’s studies on how climate change damages the Caribbean coral reefs. Both researchers were not only interested in how global warming and other human-induced phenomena harms the natural world—especially water—but also in how natural disasters impact their own research. Fieseler gave a particularly relevant example in Hurricane Irma, an event that dramatically affected her findings, bringing with it new problems and questions that needed to be explored.

Meredith Denning’s research on Canadian and American management of the water within the Great Lakes during the twentieth century and Ben Kochan’s discussion of the New England fishing industry and the federal regulations that seek to manage it both grappled with the problems associated with knowing water and the challenges that arise from different forms of knowing. Denning and Kochan’s different areas of study raised similar questions: what are the differences between a personal, lived experience with water and a detached, scientific understanding of water, and can these differences be translated and work together to bring about effective change?

The panel concluded by widening the discussion to include members of the audience, a group of individuals who, like the speakers, represented a wide range of scholarly interests and backgrounds, asking how does knowing water influence their own personal work. Among the many responses that came from the audience, some ideas were particularly significant. Given that water and the Anthropocene more broadly will inevitably impact all of our work, how can we use our knowledge, in the words of one audience member, to “catalyze care.” How can we ensure that our work as scholars, regardless of the field we are in or the approaches that we take, positively influences the wider population? As Denning stated at the beginning of the panel, scholarly work is “always in reaction and in response to things in the wider world, which are then filtered through our own perceptions and understanding.” We as scholars can either further enhance the status quo, remaining in many ways disconnected from the material realities of the world, or we can use our knowledge to influence the institutional changes that are necessary during the Anthropocene.

Terry Adams is a first-year Master’s student in English Literature at Georgetown University. His research focuses on the intersections of gender, performance, and trauma in 19th-20th century British literature.

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