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BIPR | Researching Global Environmental Politics: Water, Ice, Sky, and Penguins?
Researching Global Environmental Politics: Water, Ice, Sky, and Penguins?

September 21, 2023 - 15:30

Joanne Yao, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe and University of London

Event Recap

Dr. Joanne Yao analyzes the intersections of environmental politics and international relations, an area of growing concern as the climate crisis worsens and international actors must find their role in a new global order. Yao's book, The Ideal River, focuses on three nineteenth-century river commissions: the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo. While the three rivers span vastly different regions (the Netherlands to Switzerland, Germany to the Black Sea, and across the Democratic Republic of the Congo respectively), their geographical importance is understood by diplomats and societies alike.

Although Yao states that ultimately, the ideal river is imagined, she highlights three crucial factors that rivers bring to communities. First, successful river management displays state sovereignty and control over vital resources. Second, there is an imperial or international hierarchy that states judge each other on, and river utilization portrays dominance. Finally, the creation of the first international organizations can be traced back to river commissions, most notably the Rhine. History plays an important role in the commission formations. The 1815 Congress of Vienna that reorganized Europe after the Napoleonic Wars included the founding of the Rhine Commission. The 1856 Treaty of Paris authorized the Danube Commission. The Congo River Commission can be tied to the Berlin Conference and the Partition of Africa where Belgium was given ownership of the country. Yao explains that the Berlin Conference was a failure precisely because the African continent was viewed with a 'conceptual emptiness' – though not empty of resources.

Apart from river commissions, Yao also takes an interest in the beyond, including outer space and Antarctica. Both areas are often portrayed exotically in media with mystical inhabitants and scifi-esque origins, but Yao's research delves deeper into the 1959 Antarctic Treaty System and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty through a post-colonial lens. Have these regions seen the same 'flag-staking' as the rivers? Are western countries gatekeeping these largely untouched areas through sovereignty claims? Current research seeks to solely view space and Antarctica through science, but politics is unavoidable according to Yao. At the Antarctic Conference in Washington in 1959, 12 nations signed the treaty signifying that the continent would be used for peaceful purposes only. What will the future hold?

For Yao, the unknown is exactly what motivates her to continue her research. And for those seeking more information, Yao recommends the short story Sur by Ursula K. Le Guin which follows a group of South American women who discover Antarctica first, and what that means for the disgruntled men who may come after them. Yao also mentions the classic Heart of Darkness, which displays the atrocities of western colonialism in the Congo. Additional river commissions may be of interest, including the Mekong Commission from 1995, or the concept of heterotopia, spaces that are viewed as 'other' with different societal rules.



Researching Global Environmental Politics: Water, Ice, Sky, and Penguins?


Supported by the Associazione di cultura e di studio italo-americana Luciano Finelli Friends of the Johns Hopkins University
hosted by Professor Nina Hall

Joanne Yao
Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe and University of London

Joanne Yao is Adjunct Professor at SAIS Europe and Senior Lecturer, Queen Mary, University of London.

Previously, she taught at Durham University and the LSE, where she completed her PhD in 2017. In addition, she has worked in the US public sector and for international nongovernmental organizations including CARE International.

Her research centers on environmental history and politics, historical international relations, international hierarchies and orders, and the development of early international organizations. Her first book, The Ideal River (Manchester University Press, 2022) examines the construction of the "ideal river" in the European geographical imagination and the establishment of the first international organizations. Yao's next project focuses on the history of Antarctica and early outer space exploration.

Yao was also one of three editors of Millennium: Journal of International Studies for Volume 43 (2014-2015) and is currently a member of Millennium's Board of Trustees.
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