Despite all the ‘punny’ things you can say about big dams, Professor Paul Josephson gave a very interesting talk entitled, “Big Dams, Big Damage? Brute Force Technologies and 20th Century State Power.”

I attending this talk with my dad on parents weekend and I think he thoroughly enjoyed it as well, especially with Professor Josephson touches of humor. Oftentimes a government and society believed, and still does, in the importance of transforming nature for our own benefit. So you know what? That’s exactly what we did. Josephson listed and delved into a number of examples of this. Canals, such as the Panama canals, are seen as massive fears of human ingenuity – taking nature on and winning. And how can’t we as humans be amazed by some of these things? Yes a beaver takes a few logs and can create a small pond on a river, but humans build damns that are in a totally different league. It is incredible and a direct demonstration of human involvement with nature, but it certainly has consequences. For example, Mao’s call to “tame the Yangtze” lead to the displacement of millions. Josephson described the legitimacy that a big project like this can bring to political leaders, but also the consequences for humans an nature.

These big projects aren’t just water related either, we can look back to cathedrals, towers, and putting men on the moon. Another thing that the professor brought to our attention was how often projects like these benefit cities much more than their surrounding. A Stalinist plan calling for a grid on a landscape, belts of forests and hydroelectric power station all benefit Moscow.

I also found interesting the relationship between initially science and the military, and now government and private enterprise. During the talk we explored some of the Tsarists exploration endeavors by military engineers in the 1880s. I suppose the initial problem was much could only be accomplished by the military or state finding. Now projects, like energy projects are more often conducted by private entities.

While many western parts of the United States experience large droughts, we are reminded that it is actually dessert out there, and the feats of engineering required to actually stick a city in a sand dune. The question is how do you dig yourself out of a hole this deep? One of the answers, and maybe unfortunately, would be to ‘tame’ nature yet again. So,etching like a large scale desalination plant for example, but what effects might this have, and is it just pushing back a greater problem that we have? I think the world being more global especially makes it harder to dismiss large scale projects and replace them with more local ones. But at the same time, I think in some cases we are better of allowing nature to do its thing, rather than to fight it in a very long term battle of attrition.

Now, there is certainly a push for returning some projects to their natural states, such as small dams. But, it’s not like you can undo Las Vegas or Ctrl-alt-delete the 3 Gorges Dam. While we can be smarter about how we tame nature, and leave a smaller footprint, I don’t we’ll stop anytime soon.