Spring Course Offering: Water: A Human History

Maureen Langlois Events

Prof. Nicholas Breyfogle will offer a spring semester course exploring the relationship between people and water over time and place.

Water: A Human History (History 2704)

Lecture: Monday, Wednesday 12:40-1:35 p.m.
Recitations: Friday 11:30 a.m; 12:30 p.m.; or 3:00 p.m.

Satisfies GE requirements in “Historical Study” and “Diversity-Global Studies.”

Contact: Prof. Nicholas Breyfogle (breyfogle.1@osu.edu)


Throughout human history and across this very diverse planet, water has defined every aspect of human life: from the molecular, biological, and ecological to the cultural, religious, economic, and political. We live on the “blue planet.” Our bodies are made up primarily of water. Without water, life as we understand it could not exist. Indeed, water stands at the foundation of most of what we do as humans: in irrigation and agriculture; waste and sanitation; drinking and disease; floods and droughts; fishing and other food supply; travel and discovery; scientific study; water pollution and conservation; dam building; in the setting of boundaries and borders; and wars and diplomacy. Water lies at the very heart of almost all world religions (albeit in very different ways). The control of water is at the foundation of the rise and fall of civilizations, with drought and flood perpetual challenges to human life. Water serves as a source of power (mills, hydro- electric dams), and access to water often defines (or is defined by) social and political power hierarchies. Water plays an important

symbolic role in the creation of works of literature, art, music, and architecture, and it serves as a source of human beauty and spiritual tranquility. Thus, to begin to understand ourselves as humans—our bodies, minds, and souls, past and present—we must contemplate our relationship to water.

At the same time, water resources—the need for clean and accessible water supplies for drinking, agriculture, and power production—will likely represent one of the most complicated dilemmas of the twenty-first century. The World Water Forum, for instance, reported recently that one in three people across the planet will not have sufficient access to safe water by 2030. As population grows, glaciers melt, hydrological systems change, and underground aquifers are depleted, many analysts now think that the world will fight over water more than any other resource in the coming decades. The moral and logistical question of how to ration water (who gets access and for what purposes) will be a foundational ethical question of the twenty-first century.

In this class, we will examine a selection of historical moments and themes to explore the relationship between people and water over time and place. The format of the course will be a combination of lectures, in-class discussions, workshop activities, and presentation of your work to fellow classmates.


Image source: Flickr user Jonathan Stening