In her recently published book, Just One Rain Away: The Ethnography of River-City Flood Control (2022), Hamilton Lugar School Professor of International Studies Stephanie Kane explores the issue of climate change via river-city flooding and pushes her readers to think outside the box when seeking solutions to the climate crisis. In announcing the book’s release, McGill-Queen’s University Press referred to the work as “Demystifying water governance and opening new ways to sense the ground beneath our feet.”
Kane studied port cities in Brazil, Argentina, and Singapore, as well as the Canadian arctic and subarctic. She researches the political ecology of water, exploring how political, economic, and social factors affect waterways. Kane examines the way the river and coastal city inhabitants embed themselves into the planetary crust and negotiate water disasters such as flooding, pollution, and dispossession.
As an anthropologist, Kane uses an ethnographic approach, immersing herself in the location, observing the environment with a rich qualitative analysis. She describes her new book as “non-fiction creative writing bringing together geoscience, engineering, law, social life, and art into conversation to highlight social justice and environmental justice.”
Kane argues that although climate change research often focuses on carbon, water deserves attention too. She says, “We’ve been out of kilter with water on our planet for a long time. We’ve been polluting it. We’ve been diverting it. We’ve been changing the surface of the planet by manipulating water flows.” She continues, “That may not be causing climate change in the way that carbon in the atmosphere is causing climate change. But it certainly is part of the anthropogenic (human-caused changes on the planet) that are unpredictable and causing extremes – and may trigger a whole, radically different climate that we’re not ready for.”
This work evolved from Kane’s prior study of port cities’ infrastructure, which led her to examine how flooding is related to climate change. Her newest work is based on her 2014 field study of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers in Winnipeg, Canada. She says after the great flood of 1950, the modern water management system in the province of Manitoba was designed to mitigate flooding that typically occurs in the spring when melting ice combines with snowmelt and rain.
Kane says that this system may not work much longer, explaining, “In the spring 1997 Flood of the Century, the design limits of the monumental floodway, built to move excess Red River waters northward around the city, held, but barely. Then in 2011 and 2014, the worst flooding came in the summers from the west along the Assiniboine, not the spring along the Red. So, the Floodway was little help. These flood events could well be symptoms of climate change, because not only have storms become more extreme, but they are also more unpredictable in space and time. And so, like river cities everywhere, Winnipeg’s flood control system needs to be rethought, not just tinkered with.”
When she shifted her focus to flooding, Kane says that she became interested in the way the media – and people in general – think of solutions for climate change. She says, “People think, ‘Well, we need to build another dam,’ or ‘We need to build an embankment, and block the river there.’” Kane continues, “People think, ‘We just have to give the engineers money, and they can do more of the same.’”
From the beginning of the book, Kane invites the reader to a new way of thinking. She opens with two scenes. She explains, “One scene visualizes the planet’s last climate change. It’s a geoscience story that tells how the glaciers moved down over North America, then melted and left a big lake in the middle which eventually exploded in four big outbursts. Today we’re left with the sculpted surface that resulted from these events.”
In the second scene, Kane enacts the embodied experience of the Assiniboine River as contemporary landscape. She says, “Then I describe a visit to the Portage Diversion, where the Assiniboine River is diverted into Lake Manitoba. I just stand there, the ethnographer, the anthropologist, realizing that I’m not just in this physical space…but I’m also in a time, right?” She continues, “The scene where I’m standing at this big engineering monument is inside the last climate change with the outbursts. And that’s how I want to think about how humans are geological actors – by stretching the way we think about time to the geological.”
Another way Kane wants us to shift our thinking is to consider our collective impact on the environment and remove ourselves from the focus. She says, “We all divide each other up, fight with each other, and think in terms of stakeholders. But the river doesn’t really care what ethnicity you are, what language you speak, or what sexuality you have.”
Kane continues, “To understand humans as geological actors who are reshaping the planet, we can also think of historically-changing cities as human collectives. I want to decenter human intention so we can see cities from the river’s point of view.”
Rather than thinking of a river as a natural resource – an object for us to exploit – Kane says, “We need to realize that the river is alive, and it is probably going to be around long after we are. The river is a character, and the river is communicating climate change to us.”
Kane channels the message that she imagines the river might want to send to humans. An excerpt:
“Can we protect the soil on top to replenish but not destroy the pastures, habitats, and crops? … you’ve got sensors making data all over my basin … here, there, everywhere … tracking my flow, feeling my pulse … And you’ve got enough savvy to think hydro-geo-eco-logically … Now, I know you’re going to talk politics, and money … but look where that’s got us …” (Kane, Just one Rain Away, p. 194).
In this work, Kane coins the term “sphere of unintended agencies” which she says describes “all those things that we don’t realize we’re doing, or that we don’t want to realize that we’re doing. Such things work as touchstones, reminders to appreciate the impressive capabilities of flood control alongside a critical analysis of its assumptions, limits, sacrifices, and colonial erasures.”
Kane says the sphere of unintended agencies can result in people blaming the river. She explains, “If we look at the first piece of flood control that was put in place at the end of the nineteenth century, we discover that it was designed to protect settler farmers. It was not an accident that it dumped water into Indigenous communities. Development always creates infrastructural outsiders.”
Even though current laws no longer allow engineers or provinces to create that type of system, Kane says, the problem is already there. She continues, “That’s the kind of truth that underlies so many domains, even slavery reparations. The structure is already there, it happened a long time ago. It wasn’t the people who are alive now who may believe that they would never intentionally do such a thing, and yet, we’re all still privileged or harmed by what came before. All of those in the protected zones like to say, ‘This isn’t we who cause these problems, this is the river that flooded. We’ve got problems with the river.’”
As a result, Kane says we need to move beyond blaming the river. In addition, she says we can’t just do the same things that we’ve been doing. She explains, “In a changing climate, technical traditions for measuring, managing, and understanding river flow are probably out of sync with the new geophysical realities. So, once we open it up, how do we look at it? Who do we include in those understandings? Well, along with engineers and urban planners, along with inhabitants who are affected by virtue of being outsiders to the infrastructured protected zones, artists, writers, water activists and Indigenous legal scholars could all take part. Let’s just blow open the black boxes of technical expertise to look for possible alternatives.”
To learn more about Just One Rain Away: The Ethnography of River-City Flood Control (2022), listen to Kane’s interview on the January 25, 2023 New Books Network podcast.
Kane earned a B.A. in Biology from Cornell University, then completed an M.A. in Zoology and a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. After several years of research, including a Fulbright to Belize, Kane joined the Indiana University faculty in 1993. She says that she has been fortunate to teach courses she loves, focusing on topics such as environmental justice and global activist arts.
As Kane wraps up her 30th and final year of teaching at Indiana University, her intellectual curiosity is as strong as ever. In addition to her recent book publication, Kane has two new ethnographic projects about water and cities on the horizon. Fulbright has awarded her funding for a project entitled “Port Cities as Avian Habitat” to be carried out in Lisbon, Portugal on the Tagus Estuary in fall 2023. This spring, she will carry out preliminary research entitled “Development of Climate-Change-Adaptive Water Infrastructure in the Great Lake and Post-Industrial Port City of Erie,” with partial funding from IU’s Tobias Center for Innovation in International Development.
The Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies is part of Indiana University’s College of Arts and Sciences.