Archival photo of Rhone waterway

Lori Sonken (ACSF policy specialist) interviewed ACSF Faculty Fellow, Sara Pritchard (Science & Technology Studies), who examines the history of the transformation of France’s Rhône River 

Interview with Sara Pritchard

May 3, 2012

Archival photo of Rhone waterway

Lori Sonken (ACSF policy specialist) interviewed ACSF Faculty Fellow, Sara Pritchard (Science & Technology Studies), who examines the history of the transformation of France’s Rhône River since World War II.

How does your research relate to sustainability? Although I focus on water management in France’s history, the questions and debates I am wrestling with, such as who should benefit from these policies and projects, have present and future implications for the United States and globally.  If we think about technical systems as always being connected to the environment, then when we make technical choices we have to take the ecological dimensions into account.

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Sara PritchardSara Pritchard (STS)

Since coming to Cornell in 2007, Sara Pritchard has taken full advantage of the benefits of cross-disciplinary engagement as befits a scholar whose research blends history, technology and the environment.

“By talking with colleagues across disciplines, you begin to see what your own discipline takes for granted and what others do not,” says Pritchard, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Science & Technology Studies.

Pritchard specializes in 20th-century France and the French empire.  Her current research focuses on the “circulation of hydraulic knowledge between France and French North Africa during the colonial and postcolonial eras. In other words, she studies the politics of water in the past and especially the role of water experts in that process.

Pritchard’s work spotlights the relationships between people, nature and technology.  She explores what she calls “envirotechnical” systems and landscapes to show how politics, culture, nature and technology interact with and transform one another, oftentimes with mixed benefits or even disastrous impacts, such as the March, 2011 nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi  power plant, that occurred in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

“As an environmental historian, I have not only emphasized the nature of the technological system at Fukushima but also argued that we should think of these systems as envirotechnical to capture the ongoing ways that environmental processes shape and are shaped by technologies,” Pritchard writes in the journal Environmental History published earlier this year.

Her first book, Confluence, illustrates how politicians, scientific experts and ordinary people shaped and remade France’s Rhône River after World War II through the construction and operation of technologies designed to suit their shifting and often competing goals.

While her research highlights the past, she sees lessons relevant to contemporary issues, such as climate change. As politicians, scientists and activists turn to biofuels, wind and hydroelectricity to address global warming, she believes it’s important to understand these alternative energy sources have significant consequences for the species and ecosystems affected by their development.

“In reality, both carbon-based fuels and alternative energy are envirotechnical systems, a point that has been largely overlooked in recent debates. In contrast, an envirotechnical perspective situates these various forms of energy squarely within both “ecological” and “technological” systems, thereby facilitating comparisons among these difficult choices,” she writes in her book, Confluence.

In her view, policy makers would benefit from understanding more about the past; the end result would likely be informed and better decisions.

“In thinking about contemporary environmental debates and historical perspectives, it helps to understand how decisions made in the past are built into our society through things like water infrastructure and energy facilities.   We have built our lives around these technical systems that both reflect and reproduce relationships between people and the environment.  They are not easy to change for political, economic and cultural reasons,” she adds.

Given her multi-layered research agenda, Pritchard has found the Aktinson Center for a Sustainable Future a natural fit.

“I’m grateful for the ways the Atkinson Center brings together professors from different disciplines – all of which are trying to address important sustainability questions.  People get to know each other intellectually, personally, and professionally.”

–by Lori Sonken