The Rhine

An Eco-Biography, 1815-2000

Mark Cioc
Foreword by William Cronon

  • Published: July 2015
  • Subject Listing: History / Environmental History; Environmental Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 280 pp., 43 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
  • Contents

The Rhine River is Europe's most important commercial waterway, channeling the flow of trade among Switzerland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In this innovative study, Mark Cioc focuses on the river from the moment when the Congress of Vienna established a multinational commission charged with making the river more efficient for purposes of trade and commerce in 1815. He examines the engineering and administrative decisions of the next century and a half that resulted in rapid industrial growth as well as profound environmental degradation, and highlights the partially successful restoration efforts undertaken from the 1970s to the present.

The Rhine is a classic example of a "multipurpose" river - used simultaneously for transportation, for industry and agriculture, for urban drinking and sanitation needs, for hydroelectric production, and for recreation. It thus invites comparison with similarly over-burdened rivers such as the Mississippi, Hudson, Colorado, and Columbia. The Rhine's environmental problems are, however, even greater than those of other rivers because it is so densely populated (50 million people live along its borders), so highly industrialized (10% of global chemical production), and so short (775 miles in length).

Two centuries of nonstop hydraulic tinkering have resulted in a Rhine with a sleek and slender profile. In their quest for a perfect canal-like river, engineers have modified it more than any other large river in the world. As a consequence, between 1815 and 1975, the river lost most of its natural floodplain, riverside vegetation, migratory fish, and biodiversity. Recent efforts to restore that biodiversity, though heartening, can have only limited success because so many of the structural changes to the river are irreversible.

The Rhine: An Eco-Biography, 1815-2000 makes clear just how central the river has been to all aspects of European political, economic, and environmental life for the past two hundred years.
Mark Cioc is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of Pax Atomica: The Nuclear Defense Debate in West Germany during the Adenauer Era.

"Mark Cioc shows with intriguing clarity how the staggering degradation of a modern river occurred and how visionary people seek to reclaim what they can. Add this fine book to the select list of great river biographies."
-Tim Palmer, author of The Heart of America, The Columbia, and America by Rivers

"A formidable amount of research went into The Rhine: An Eco-Biography. The result is a clear picture of a river refashioned to suit the needs of industrialization."
-John McNeill, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

"Over 120 years after Mark Twain wrote A Tramp Abroad, another American has taken a journey down the Rhine, Europe's most celebrated river. It is a very different river today, one that has been tamed, channeled, straightened, shortened, and abused to such an extent that it has barely managed to survive the onslaught of the industrial age."
-F. J. Bruggemeier, Albert Ludwig University, Freiburg, Germany

"A formidable amount of research went into The Rhine: An Eco-Biography. The result is a clear picture of a river refashioned to suit the needs of industrialization."
-John McNeill, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

""The Rhine: An Eco-Biography is the first true environmental history of a major European river. The story Mark Cioc tells in these pages is both fascinating and cautionary. What happened to the Rhine during the 19th and 20th centuries was unquestionably one of the success stories of modern history, a triumphant example of the human benefits that can flow from harnessing nature's power to benefit humanity. But an immense price was paid for those benefits."
-William Cronon, from the Foreword

Europe's "World River"
Water Sorcery
The Carboniferous Rhine
Sacrificing a River
Biodiversity Lost
A River Restored?

"As demonstrated by historian Cioc, the defilement of the Rhine is a case study in the tragedy of unintended consequences. But it is also a fascinating story because the river today is the product of the complex interplay among all of the major forces that shaped modern European history- industry, technology, economy, politics, and, finally, ecology. As such, its story is similar to those that could be told about many other major rivers. . . . Impressive scholarship."
-Library Journal

"This enjoyable, scholarly and well-written book is a very welcome addition to the literature in English on the environmental history of Continental Europe, and students as well as professionals will certainly read it with profit and pleasure."
-Environment and History

"Sometimes ironic and humorous, consistently clear and persuasive, Cioc's 'life story' of the Rhine deftly weaves together politics, economics, and river ecology.. A compelling study."
-Environmental History

"A concise and remarkably authoritative overview of the Rhine..Compelling reading."
-American Historical Review

"An impressive book..It is erudite, well-written, and informatively illustrated, and it will unquestionably serve for years to come as an obligatory point of departure for further research into the environmental dimensions of the Rhine's turbulent history."
-Technology and Culture

"As the first true environmental history of a major European river, Mark Cioc's stimulating new book is a sign that European environmental history is entering a period of maturation; his eco-biography will serve benchmark for future scholarly work in the field. By tackling the Rhine, the classic European river, Cioc offers an environmental history that transcends national histories."
-H-German Reviews