From rain-making to hydrology; public healing to public health
On Julie Livingston’s talk “Rain-making and other forgotten technologies”
Julie Livingstone began the evening lecture at a productive, and increasingly familiar, point: sheer shock and bafflement in the face of global ecological crisis. Given that immensity, she chose to trace a careful path through a particular, local crisis. Starting with the drying-up of Botswana’s largest dam in February of this year, she discussed the technologization of water provision in that country and its spectacular failure in the face of a sustained absence of rain.
In Botswana in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, political authority depended on rain-making. If the leader could not produce rainfall, his tenure was likely to be short. Rain-making proceeded through a variety of technologies medicine pots symbolizing an ‘animated ecology’. Perhaps not unexpectedly, these technologies regularly failed and were gradually rationalized and replaced.
In particular, rain-making was replaced by hydrology, and rain no longer imagined as part of an animated ecology but as an object to be managed. Chiefs embraced boreholes, dams, and other technologies. The water thus produced enabled large-scale mining and cattle farming, which formed the basis for national wealth. National wealth in turn ensured the provision of free water to all citizens. However, mining and agriculture also consume the greatest percentage of Botswana’s water. This is the fragile cycle – water from wealth from mining from water – that has been shattered by drought.
Botswana’s drought cycle has accelerated as a result of global warming, to the point that drought is reported twice as often as several decades previously. As Livingstone pointed out, the classic folly of development ideology is expecting narrow technological solutions to solve what are ultimately problems of maldistribution. But what about when the substance itself runs out – when the problem is therefore not maldistribution but lack?
More generally, the telos of the developmentalist state is growth. But this, as the Botswana dam example suggests, should now be seen as ‘self-devouring growth’, a cancerous model on a human, local, and planetary scale. Within this telos of growth, what sort of politics can lead to what sort of happiness? Or, to highlight the sense of embodied thirst and to return to the starting point of affective horror: what happiness without water?
University of the Witwatersrand