University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

On “agency” and rivers

November 12, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on On “agency” and rivers

For most folks, pairing the words “agency” and “rivers” will mean that we’re talking about the Corps of Engineers, or maybe a state Department of Natural Resources.  There are many federal and state agencies that govern parts of the considerations we have for rivers, and most of us who have been at this for a while can rattle off the “alphabet soup” pretty quickly.

For academics, though, “agency” has a very specific philosophical meaning, associated with will, or maybe intent.  To say that something has “agency” is to say, over-simply, that it can act.  I would love to know what this meaning has to do with “government agencies” as a general term; maybe someone can enlighten me here?

The point is that our John E. Sawyer seminar discussion last week considered the question of “agency” and rivers in the context of the Anthropocene, that much-debated term for the global era that we may be in now, where human beings are fundamentally altering earth’s geological processes.

I’m not well-read enough, and didn’t take good enough notes, to fully capture the ins and outs of our full discussion.  But here are some points that I think we made, in context of how they help us think about the Mississippi River:

  1. To ascribe “agency” to a geological feature of the earth, such as the Mississippi River, is to say that the said feature is not stable, unchanging, a fundamental unalterable “fact” on the ground.  Rather, taken in a long time horizon, we have to see the Mississippi as a dynamic, almost living, thing.  It moves, and will always move, in obedience to physical laws, such as gravity.
  2. To attempt to alter the river permanently, as so many of the Corps of Engineers structures do, is to attempt to “stop history,” an expensive and time consuming effort to interfere with physical laws and stop a river from doing what physical laws (its “agency”) dictates.  As a friend of mine used to say “Dams are just long term experiments on rivers.”
  3. Acknowledging that the Mississippi River is highly dynamic, and responsive to physical laws, means that we shouldn’t be shocked when it acts according to those laws, whether in an instance of breaking through a levee and rewatering a floodplain, or moving its main channel to the present Atchafalaya corridor in Louisiana.  Engineers will tell you there are only two kinds of levees:  those that have failed, and those that have not yet failed.
  4. If the above three points are true, then perhaps disputes over the physical future of the Mississippi River and its floodplain, the fight about the New Madrid Levee for instance, ought to be regarded as a debate between people who recognize the inevitability of physical laws such as gravity and people who think humans can outsmart nature or build enough concrete to stop water from flowing downhill forever.  This would certainly be a more honest debate than the way it’s framed now, as between “interest groups” such as “jobs vs the environment” or “ecology vs navigation.”  In fact, projects that propose to permanently alter the Mississippi (or any other large river) are simply unconscionable hubris and, ultimately, doomed to fail.

We didn’t get that far in our philosophical, theoretical discussion last week but it would have been fun if we had.

Tagged ,

Related Posts

Comments are closed.

Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.