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The dam as catastrophe: connecting geological models to modern history

Abstract

The concept of the Anthropocene implies a coincidence of modern history and geological time. This coincidence has generated controversy, animating debates in several disciplines and obscuring other profitable ways to connect history and geology. This article draws inspiration from British geologist Derek Ager’s seminal 1973 text, The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record, to suggest how different geological models of change might influence modern historical interpretation. Such models suggest new ways of conceptualizing the historical relationship of material, time, and space. Drawing also on recently translated work by Reinhart Koselleck, this research applies Ager’s geological models to a history of dam building in Turkey. The result is a layered, nonlinear, entangled, and decentralized narrative that suggests new methods of analysis in modern environmental history.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It should be noted here that environmental history owes a great deal to geography, the field of knowledge most concerned with spatial analysis.

  2. 2.

    Alfred Wegener (1920) theorized “continental drift” in 1915 but could not explain why the continents moved. Later work disproved his specific theory but developed the concept of the crust’s movement through plate tectonics. In history, several recent works have undertaken global analyses of capitalist development (e.g., Osterhammel 2014, Beckert 2014).

  3. 3.

    It seems possible, however, that a future environment might be conducive to the return of those who were displaced. A decrease in precipitation in the Euphrates River Basin has resulted in a lower water level in the Keban Dam reservoir, allowing local people to return to farmland that had been inundated (Kazaz 2014).

  4. 4.

    Indeed, Koselleck’s English translators, Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman, note that Koselleck often uses “spatial metaphors” to illustrate time (xii). Meanwhile, Koselleck himself struggled to connect his theories of time with a commensurate spatial theory, noting that his thoughts on the matter “move on unstable ground,” itself a spatial metaphor (25).

  5. 5.

    Steinberg does not reference Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but his characterization of environmental history calls to mind The German Ideology (1932): “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven.”.

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Acknowledgements

The author wishes to acknowledge the generosity of the Institute of Turkish Studies and the New York University Abu Dhabi Humanities Research Fellowship for their support of this research.

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Correspondence to Dale J. Stahl.

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Stahl, D.J. The dam as catastrophe: connecting geological models to modern history. Water Hist 13, 137–160 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12685-021-00278-4

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Keywords

  • Dams
  • Anthropocene
  • Stratigraphy
  • Geology
  • Environmental history
  • Turkey
  • Middle East