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Durham University

School of Government & International Affairs


The Ideal River: How control of nature shaped the international order

1st December 2020, 13:00 to 14:00, Webinar, Joanne Yao

Environmental politics has traditionally been a peripheral concern for IR theory, but increasing alarm over global environmental challenges has elevated international society’s relationship with the natural world into the theoretical limelight (Eckersley 2004; O’Neill 2017; Forrester and Smith 2018; Falkner and Buzan 2019). IR theory’s engagement with environmental politics, however, has largely focused on interstate cooperation in the late-20th century with few works that explore the longstanding historical links between the management of natural resources and the foundations of the modern international order (for noted exceptions, see Scott 1998; Epstein 2008; Bowden 2009).

This talk examines how the ambition to control nature (both the natural world and human nature) became an international standard of rational and civilized authority in the 18th and 19th centuries. It contends that this relationship of domination was central to the emergence of early international order in the way it shaped three core IR concepts: the territorial sovereign state; imperial hierarchy; and international organizations. In doing so, this book contributes to environmental politics and IR theory by highlighting the importance of society’s relationship with nature in constituting today’s global order.

Joanne Yao joined Queen Mary in 2019. 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 (her current empirical projects include international rivers and Antarctica), historical international relations, and the 19th century development of international organizations and global order. Joanne was also one of three editors of Millennium: Journal of International Studies for Volume 43 (2014-2015).

All welcome. Please email Louise Haysey ( for the Zoom link to the webinar.

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