Blue History: A Research Agenda

Dr. Gaetano Di Tommaso, Postdoctoral Researcher at the RIAS

Dr. Dario Fazzi, Senior Researcher at the RIAS and Assistant Professor of US History at Leiden University



In the last few years, the humanities experienced a “blue” turn. As an effort to think critically about the role of water in literary, cultural, and historical studies, this turn has created a rich and multidisciplinary conversation aimed to reckon with the commonality of human experiences and the fluidity of human identities. Such a new “hydro-humanism” brings water at the center of people’s actions and relations, questioning the temporality, materiality, and spatiality that land-based analyses have traditionally offered.

Blue history, as a specific field of study within the broader spectrum of blue humanities, takes on similar challenges. It proposes a paradigmatic shift that, while fully embracing environmental hybridity, asks historians to reconsider first and foremost their positionality, urging them to value water as a point of reference and observation. The “blue” in history is thus an invitation to use water as a prism through which to look at the relationship between the human and non-human, and to observe the elements of connection, continuity, and change that shaped our past and define our present. A similar shift of perspective is not only instrumental in widening historians’ interpretive angle, but also particularly timely, given the intensification of contemporary climate crises that reinforce the need to reconnect the trajectory of human society with the structural porosity and permeability of human nature.

The historians who have ventured into blue history so far have contributed to laying down the epistemological foundations of such an approach. Arguably, its most consequential methodological innovation lies in the attempt to overcome common terrestrial biases that have encroached on many historical subfields, elevating water from a mere recipient or disposable entity for societies to an essential factor in human history. By doing so, blue history offers first and foremost a bridge between marine and maritime history, harmonizing histories of vessels and navigation with analyses revolving around the human impact on oceanic ecologies. The consequences of the deterritorialization proposed by blue history are however more far-reaching, as the new interpretative angle enables historians to reconceptualize the space, scale, and time of human development.

The blue turn in history therefore opens a series of intriguing research avenues and opportunities. What does such a change of perspective entail for historical narratives that focus on political, cultural, and social analyses? How can we reimagine historical processes such as those of nation-building and identity formation once water is factored in? How does the study of human interplay with water enrich our understanding of power dynamics as well as artistic representations, religious and spiritual expressions? Which role do water and waterways have in the Anthropocene and its recent “acceleration”?  Answering these and other similar questions means bringing new insights on themes and issues whose study is crucial to the functioning of our societies. We identify here three areas of research that historians could explore using new blue-tinted lenses: patterns of governance, modes of production, and paths of resilience.

Analyzing patterns of governance in this context means reading the historical evolution of political regimes through the ways in which water has contributed to their establishment and maintenance. It means, for example, learning how access to waterways has helped democratic institutions to thrive and how their use and control (and abuse) has served imperial practices and designs. Correspondingly, making space for water also allows scholars to write histories of nations and national histories that reinterpret communities’ needs, objectives, values, and organizational models.

As regards modes of production, water’s relevance is even more indisputable. Throughout history, water’s availability has determined limits and possibilities of growth for communities worldwide. Water is necessary to human life and therefore to any productive human activity. Beyond an obvious value as a survival factor, however, water also has a more practical but equally cardinal role as a means of transportation and energy production – two sectors that lay at the foundation of any industrial efforts. If the notion of water transport is self-evident, a bit more can be said about the importance of water as an “energy producer.” Water, indeed, is both used as a direct source of energy (from water mills to giant hydroelectric dams) and as an essential component in more complex systems of energy production like nuclear power. In this regard, historians focusing on water could offer profoundly innovative accounts of the inextricable relationship between water, energy, and development. These analyses can say something about our past and offer new tools to understand our present, too, especially if we consider what water has been in the last century, i.e., the real “fuel” of our oil age. Petroleum production, refining, and transportation are indeed all water-intensive processes – as attested by the distinctive global geography and infrastructure of the oil industry.

A tremendous amount of water is required to extract oil both in traditional wells, where water is often pumped into the ground to maintain the reservoir pressure, and in modern fracking, where high-pressure water is injected into the ground to break oil-bearing rocks. On the other hand, operations at the well can lead to a release of significant volumes of underground water, with ratios that can reach over 100 barrels of water per barrel of oil. Produced water is later either disposed of or re-used, sometimes in the ensuing refining processes, where vast quantities of cooling liquids are needed. Once processed, oil products are tied to the global transportation network that moves them around the globe – mostly on water. The thousands of giant oil tankers crisscrossing the oceans every day are the staple of today’s world, just like the environmental disasters that go with their ever-increasing use.

The interchange between oil and water also continues during the fuel’s use, since burning hydrocarbons produces water through the oxidation of hydrogen. In a less literal sense, oil generates water even after its use, thanks to its profits. Immense oil rents have allowed countries to radically reshape their landscapes to the point of bringing water where we should not be able to find it, like in many territories of the Arabian Peninsula where the desert has given way to thriving megacities. However, the most important interrelation between oil and water remains arguably the one determined by the climatic, global effect of the use of fossil fuels. Ironically enough, it is precisely the rise of water levels across the oceans that appears among the most visible consequences – and surely among the most notorious features – of the twentieth-century surge in hydrocarbon combustion that is also at the roots of our current climate crisis.

Finally, water histories can also help us to identify and learn about patterns of resilience. To understand how technological progress in the Anthropocene has interlaced with environmental elements – including water – and affected communities’ resilience, historians of the blue expanses have infused their investigations with science and technology studies. In doing so, they have also started exploring the origins and long-term causes of what may be considered as a “blue acceleration,” a period in which the unprecedented upsurge of economic and industrial development, along with a spike in population growth, has irreversibly and uniquely impacted water ecosystems and humans’ relationship with them. Analyses of this sort have stressed the seemingly unstoppable conquest of water environments by land-based mechanisms, the commodification of water resources and, eventually, the progressive “wasting” of water ecosystems. In this respect, blue historical narratives have already identified and discussed the distorted perception of water bodies as resilient and self-healing that lies at the basis of our treatment of the oceans, which are too often used merely as a passive receiving end of wastes generated inland. Blue historians have also begun to show how the interiorization of the threats that waste represented for water has been a terrific incentive to mobilize people and communities on a scale that goes beyond the dichotomy local-global. These types of research prove that “blue practitioners” are among the best equipped to unearth patterns of human adaptation to a changing environment. Eventually, water histories of waste should aim to stress the inherent toxic colonialism underlying modern waste disposal practices, which can be seen as the real epitome of the toll that exploitative land-based activities have extorted from water resources and the environment as a whole.

Blue history, in short, offers a privileged and promising perspective from which to explore and reflect on the interlacement of water and history that impacts the understanding of both our physical existence and surrounding planet, and ultimately permeates our environmental imagination of the global. Let’s get our feet wet.