The ideal river

How control of nature shaped the international order

Author: Joanne Yao

Environmental politics has traditionally been a peripheral concern for IR theory, but increasing alarm over global environmental challenges has elevated international society’s relationship with the natural world into the theoretical limelight. IR theory’s engagement with environmental politics, however, has largely focused on interstate cooperation in the late twentieth century, with few works exploring the longstanding historical links between the management of natural resources and the foundations of the modern international order. This book examines nineteenth-century efforts to establish international commissions on three transboundary rivers – the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo. It charts how the ambition to tame nature (both the natural world and human nature) became an international standard of rational and civilized authority and informed our geographical imagination of the international. This notion of domination over nature was central to the emergence of the early international order in the way it shaped three core IR concepts: the territorial sovereign state, imperial hierarchies, and international organizations. The book contributes to environmental politics and IR by highlighting how the relationship between society and nature, rather than being a peripheral concern, has always lain at the heart of international politics.

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