Jerome Whitington's Anthropogenic Rivers: The Production of Uncertainty in Lao Hydropower (Cornell University Press, 2019) examines the dynamics and discourses centered around the development of hydropower dams in the Mekong River Basin. Through deep and connected ethnographies, the book traces how such projects create ecologically uncertain environments and the surprising ways they offer new capacities for being human. Along the way, this study unpacks puzzles such as why corporate developers would engage with activists in environmental sustainability initiatives even in the absence of legal compulsion, the evasion strategies of rural peoples struggling with the currents of such developments and the managerial tactics as well as failures among hydrological experts. By viewing large-scale development projects as collaborations between infrastructural developers, financiers and activists, the book is able to interrogate “late industrialism” not as a high modernist project but in terms of uncharted temporalities.
In our conversation, we discuss how infrastructure like dams can lead to uncertainty, the limits of the ‘Anthropocene’ as a conceptual framework, how uncertainty was utilized and managed by various stakeholders who might not see themselves as environmental actors as well as the new positioning of white male experts in Asia.
Jerome Whitington is a visiting assistant professor at the Gallatin School in New York University.
Faizah Zakaria is an assistant professor of history at Nanyang Technological University. She is completing her first monograph on dialectical relationships between landscape and religious conversions in maritime Southeast Asia. You can find her website here or on Twitter @laurelinarien