Reviewed by Thomas Lekan (Department of History, University of South Carolina)
Published on H-German (July, 2003)
The Life Cycle of a European River
Environmental history is one of the newest and most vibrant fields of historical research, yet in comparison to the rich array of monographs and textbooks now available about the North American landscape, European environmental history is a field that is still in its infancy. As the first true environmental history of a major European river, Mark Cioc's stimulating new book is a sign that European environmental history is entering a period of maturation; his eco-biography will serve as benchmark for future scholarly work in the field. The Rhine has been the subject of numerous historical studies dealing with Romanticism, nationalism, and modern warfare, but Cioc's book demonstrates the power of environmental history to document nature's role as an active participant in historical processes and to traverse traditional chronological and political boundaries. Fragments of Rhine history and ecology have appeared in hundreds of scholarly articles, essays, and books, but Cioc is the first to bring these disparate studies together into a coherent "life story" of the modern Rhine. This eco-biography reads as a cautionary tale about the unforeseen consequences of the Enlightenment's belief in the need to "improve" natural systems to suit human economic needs.
The period of 1815-1817 serves as a convenient birth date for the modern Rhine, which Cioc portrays in his introduction as "an offspring of the French and industrial revolutions," especially Napoleon's elimination of the numerous petty states that lined the Rhine's banks and the Congress of Vienna's decision to promote unfettered international commerce on the Rhine. In 1815, the Congress established the Rhine Commission to eliminate trade barriers and standardize navigational regulations, police ordinances, and emergency procedures on the river. In 1816, the arrival of the first steamship on the Rhine ushered in a new age of faster, mechanized, upstream transport for coal, iron, and other bulk goods. Finally, in 1817, the Baden engineer Johann Gottfried Tulla, the celebrated "Tamer of the Wild Rhine," began a project that eliminated the Rhine's "imperfections"--oxbows, braids, islands--that exacerbated flooding on the Upper Rhine. In Chapter Two, Cioc examines the Rhine's main geographic features and introduces us to Tulla's problematic anthropocentric vision of the perfect river. In Tulla's eyes, the ideal waterway had geographic length, but no geographic breadth; floodplains should be used for farms and towns, rather than the absorption of high water during seasonal variations in water level. This ideal resembled a canal: "straight, predictable, easily controlled, specifically designed for navigation, not prone to flooding, easily contained within a single channel, but not so sluggish as to breed disease" (p. 39). The triad of "cooperation, coal, and concrete" thus initiated a "riparian revolution" that transformed the Rhine in the space of only 150 years into a navigational canal shorn of its biological and geological diversity (p. 3).
The move to create this unencumbered waterway and to use it to ship raw materials and finished products from the coal and chemical industries created a host of unintended ecological problems, as detailed in Chapters Three through Six. Tulla's project initiated a wave of rectification work among the riparian states along the Rhine's banks in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, each with its own goals, such as flood control, navigational improvement, land reclamation, or hydroelectric power generation. Cioc notes that because these projects lacked effective coordination, a classic tragedy of the commons developed in which all states tried to maximize their share of trade and commerce while ignoring the consequences further downstream. Despite warnings that Upper Rhine rectification would exacerbate flooding in the lower reaches of the river, for example, Tulla went ahead with flood control measures that largely eliminated the rift valley floodplain at the foot of the Alps. The result, as dissenting voiced predicted, was larger and more devastating floods in downstream cities such as Strasbourg and Koblenz. Cioc argues effectively that the recent rash of enormous "hundred-year floods" along the Rhine (1983, 1988, 1993 and 1994) were thus the result of human folly as much as the caprice of nature.
Some of the industries that profited from the expanding transportation possibilities on the Rhine were coal mining and iron-steel manufacturing, which benefited from the unique geographic convergence of extensive waterways and dense coalfields in the Prussian provinces of Rhineland and Westphalia. Chapter Four details the German government's willingness to look the other way as self-regulating dam associations and water cooperatives transformed Rhine tributaries such as the Ruhr, Emscher, Lippe, and Erft into sources of either freshwater or wastewater dumping for mining pits, iron and steel foundries, or municipal consumption sent tons of pollutants such as coal dust, phenol, chlorides, and metallic tailings into the Rhine, overwhelming its "self-cleaning" capacity. In a similar vein, Cioc documents in Chapter Five the power of the mammoth chemical, hydroelectric power, petrochemical, and nuclear industries to champion the "sacrifice" of incremental stretches of the Rhine to commercial needs, which inevitably led to dangerous levels of contamination along the river's entire length by the 1970s.
Chapter Six looks at the troubling decline in biodiversity that occurred on the Rhine as rectification projects and chemical pollution destroyed woodlands and wetlands along the river's banks and aquatic habitats within the river itself. Polluted water, swifter currents, damming, and dredging also took their toll on desired migratory species such as salmon, shad, and sturgeon, causing the Rhine fisheries dependent on these stocks to collapse for good by the 1950s. Within the new river, only species that can tolerate saltier, warmer, and deoxygenated water have thrived. Cioc ends the book on a cautiously optimistic note by examining post-World War II efforts to clean up the Rhine's waters, to reintroduce salmon, and to restore floodplains, which in the long run may help to revive some of the river's wildlife populations and to lessen the impact of floods on the Middle, Lower, and Delta Rhine.
In analyzing the canalization and industrialization of the Rhine, Cioc links his environmental account to broader processes of historical change, particularly nation-state building, militarization, and capitalist accumulation, without any hint of simple environmental determinism. For example, Cioc shows that the juggernaut of German nationalism and militarism as well as the monopolistic practices in the coal and chemical industries depended on easy access to raw materials in the Rhine-Ruhr basin and helped to fuel reckless environmental exploitation, despite local protests and scientific evidence detailing the potential public health effects of toxic pollutants. Yet processes such as state-building often have an impersonal, meta-historical quality in Cioc's account that sometimes obscure the historical particularities and contingent decision-making that perpetuated environmental exploitation. Closer attention to the narratives and symbols that statesmen, engineers, local politicians, scientists, and citizen groups used to justify or oppose Rhine rectification or unregulated dumping would have helped to flesh out the competing material interests and cultural discourses that have shaped the Rhine's watershed. Although Cioc's eco-biography admirably seeks to portray a non-anthropocentric view of the Rhine's environmental decline, it is difficult to analyze the river's "near death" apart from the human interests that depend on it. Cioc's book therefore still leaves the reader wondering about how the Rhine's human communities made sense of and dealt with the devastation of flooding, the contamination of water supplies, or the decline of fisheries, and how those experiences in turn have shaped recent demands to restore the Rhine's lost biological vitality.
Cioc's comprehensive and engagingly written book will prove valuable for both scholars and undergraduate students of environmental and modern European history. By tackling the Rhine, the classic European river, Cioc offers an environmental history that transcends traditional national histories. His warnings about the consequences of hydro-technological manipulation will draw favorable comparison to classics of American riparian history such as Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire and Richard White's The Organic Machine while broadening the discussion to a European setting.
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Thomas Lekan. Review of Cioc, Mark, The Rhine: An Eco-Biography, 1815-2000.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.