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A Historian’s Perspective on Rivers of the Anthropocene

Part of the Springer Water book series (SPWA)


The assertion by leading scientists that the Anthropocene has replaced the Holocene as the most recent geological epoch represents an important opportunity to promote interdisciplinary communication. Determining the existence of a new geological epoch and naming it the Anthropocene is largely the domain of science. Analyzing and explaining the long-term human impact on earth systems that produced and sustained that epoch is the domain of humanists and social scientists, such as historians and archaeologists, who address the complex and changing connections between culture and nature. Historians look at the evolving relationship between people and their environment. History adds both the longue durée and context to present-day understanding of the interplay between human and natural systems. Writing in Smithsonian Magazine (January 2013), Joseph Stromberg, journalist and science writer, posed an essential question: “Have human beings permanently changed the planet?” His question is simultaneously historical and interdisciplinary; it highlights the role of human agency driven by an evolving mosaic of human culture. Rivers offer a metaphor for understanding the human environmental experience. As such they present an opportunity for the real and sustained interdisciplinary study, communication, and collaboration that could yield a credible and effective answer to Stromberg’s question.


  • Great Lake
  • Zebra Mussel
  • Historical Archaeologist
  • Environmental Movement
  • Navigation Channel

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  1. 1.

    The information on the European languages comes from The web site’s author Dr. Mark Stoll, an Associate Professor of History at Texas Tech University, worked with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in developing the web site. Stoll’s list of the languages into which Silent Spring was translated includes: “German in 1962; French, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, and Italian in 1963; Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese in 1964; as well as in Icelandic in 1965, Norwegian in 1966, Slovenian in 1972, Chinese in 1979, Thai in 1982, Korean in 1995, and Turkish in 2004.” Stoll also notes that abridged versions appeared in several popular European periodicals.

  2. 2.

    Paul Shepard developed a tremendous reputation as a human ecologist and environmental philosopher. His career was markedly interdisciplinary. He earned an A.B. in English and Wildlife Conservation from the University of Missouri in 1949; his MS in conservation from Yale University in 1952, writing a thesis on art and ecology in New England; and, his PhD from Yale in 1954, an interdisciplinary degree in Conservation, Landscape Architecture, and the History of Art. From 1973–1994, he was the Avery Professor of Natural Philosophy and Human Ecology, Pitzer College and the Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, CA. See:

  3. 3.

    A useful summary of industrial development and river improvements may be found in Henry E. Armstrong, “Port Sanitary Administration on the Tyne: A 7 Years’ Retrospective (1881–1887), in Proceedings of the Society of Medical Officers of Health and reprinted from Public Health (June 1888): 4–10. Armstrong was the Medical Officer of Health for Newcastle and the associated port. Accession, 604/1207, Tyne and Wear Archives, Newcastle, UK. Hereafter, Tyne and Wear Archives.

  4. 4.

    John Wilson Carmichael, 1799–1868, lived and worked in Newcastle until he moved to London in 1846; known as a marine painter, See: Marshall Hall, The Artists of Northumbria, p. 71. The booklet also uses the work of others but features Carmichael’s art.

  5. 5.

    Tyne Improvement Commission: Centenary, 1850–1950, “Foreward by the Chairman,” p. 3, Accession 604/1230, Tyne and Wear Archives.

  6. 6.

    Newcastle City Library, Proceedings of the Council of the City and County of Newcastle upon Tyne for 1895-96; being the 61st Year After the Passing of the Municipal Reform Act, reference to 1891, pp. 110–111; “Report of the City Engineer to the Town Improvement and Sanitary Committees, for the Year Ending March 25, 1896,” Table IV, “Lengths and Descriptions of Sewers Known to Exist in the City,” p. 20; Table XIII “Census of the City from the Year 1801–1896,” p. 33. Hereafter, City Library, Proceedings.

  7. 7.

    City Library, Proceedings for 1930–1931, Part II “Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health on the Sanitary Condition of the City during the Year 1930,” pp. 45, 49.

  8. 8.

    The Fishery Board for the Fishery District of the River Tyne, Annual Report for the Year 1943 and Yearbook for 1944, Appendix B, p. 28, Tyne and Wear Archives, Accession 3983/9, Newcastle, UK, Fishery Board for Fishery District of the River Tyne Annual Reports 1943–1947. Hereafter, Fishery Board, Annual Report.

  9. 9.

    Fishery Board, Annual Report 1945, Tyne and Wear Archives, pp. 20, 36.

  10. 10.

    City Library, Proceedings for 1960–1961, “Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for the Year 1959,” pp. 26, 27, 28.

  11. 11.

    Observations on the present-day “look” of the Tyne River and its surroundings are based on field work by the author in 2011 and 2013.

  12. 12.

    The State of New York completed the Erie Canal in 1825 connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River, which was navigable to New York City. The former Erie Canal remains open to recreational use. The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, creating a deepwater channel from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean. For an excellent overview of navigational improvements on the Great Lakes, See: “A Chronology of Great Lakes Navigation,” prepared at Northern Michigan University, For a useful overview of the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River via the Illinois River, See: “Constructing the Sanitary and Ship Canal,” Helpful on navigational improvements to the Ohio River, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “History of Navigational Development on the Ohio River,

  13. 13. provides a sequence of maps that illustrate the spread of zebra mussels from 1986 through 2010.

  14. 14.

    Toronto Globe and Mail, 7/15/95, D8.


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Scarpino, P.V. (2014). A Historian’s Perspective on Rivers of the Anthropocene. In: Bhaduri, A., Bogardi, J., Leentvaar, J., Marx, S. (eds) The Global Water System in the Anthropocene. Springer Water. Springer, Cham.

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