Hydraulic Civilizations and the Philanthropic Industrialists

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  • Topic: Hydraulic empire, Robert Owen, River Clyde
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  • Published : June 2, 2010
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1. Historical Origins
For many planners and historians the origin of ancient cities has been a source of fascination and the cause for much research and debate. One theory developed by the German-American historian Karl Wittfogel was that of ‘hydraulic civilizations’ (Minnery 2010a). Hydraulic civilizations were described as those whose agricultural system was reliant upon significant government-directed water systems for irrigation and flood management (Encyclopædia Britannica 2010). Wittfogel listed that Egypt, India, Mesopotamia, Northern China and pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru were examples of hydraulic civilizations (Minnery 2010a). This paper will focus on the theories of the Wittfogel’s hydraulic civilization and then try to draw conclusions between whether the city of Brisbane shared similar ideals.

Wittfogel’s belief in hydraulic civilizations stemmed from the idea that the civilizations stated earlier were formed unlike to those of the West (Encyclopædia Britannica 2010). It was the idea that these were all situated on floodplain prone areas and irrigative farming was developed to manage these conditions (Butzer 1976). See Figure 1 below for a satellite image of the Nile River’s floodplain. Wittfogel states, while talking about the Yellow River basin in China which sees semi-arid conditions that “in this setting agricultural man created a stable economy by manipulating water productively and protectively (for the purpose of irrigation and flood control)” (Wittfogel 1957 pp.343-344). He also suggested that it was not possible to run an effective irrigation system without the guidance and direction of the government (Wittfogel 1957). He therefore came to the conclusion that hydraulic societies are a type of agrarian society and distinguished peculiarities which rested on five major conditions (Wittfogel 1957) which is shown in the table below. While it would be natural to try to apply Wittfogel’s theories to other cities we know today, Brisbane is another city based along a river but can we use Wittfogel’s philosophy?

Figure 1 - Satellite Image of Nile River Floodplain (National Space Agency of Ukraine 2008).

1.CulturalThe understanding of cultivation
2.EnvironmentalArid or semi-arid environments and the availability of water resources 3.OrganisationalLarge-scale collaboration
4.PoliticalThe organisation apparatus of the hydraulic order is either initiated, or quickly taken over 5.SocialClass order separating those involved directly with the hydraulic government from those who are not Figure 2 – Table of Wittfogel’s Five Major Conditions of a Hydraulic Society (Wittfogel 1957).

Brisbane as we know it before European settlement was inhabited by the Jagera and Turrbal Aboriginal clans at least for 20,000 years prior (Brisbane-Australia 2008, Our Indooroopilly 2002). It was noted by John Oxley after spotting a group of Aborigines hunting near the river, that they were “about the strongest and best-made muscular men I have seen in any country” (Our Indooroopilly 2002). This was so because of the various and vast food resources available in the area (Our Indooroopilly 2002). It must be noted that these Aborigines still employed a hunter and gatherer technique when acquiring food. It wasn’t until 1825 though that the first convict settlement was built in what is the CBD in Brisbane (Brisbane-Australia 2008). The site was purely chosen for its location which apparently proved to be an effective barrier against escape by the convicts (Brisbane-Australia 2008). It was 17 years later when free settlement was permitted and the town of Brisbane soon began to spread along and around the river (Brisbane-Australia 2008).

From the knowledge that Brisbane was formed purely as a convict settlement and prior to that the Aborigines were still employing hunter gatherer techniques we can easily assume that Brisbane cannot be described as a hydraulic civilization. While the city is centered on the river it...
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