Modernizing the Rural: Environmental Imaginaries, Agriculture, and the TVA-concept in the Desert, The Jordan River Valley, 1953-19xx

TVA’s Pilot Sites: Fertilizers and the rise of agriculture in the American South

TVA’s Pilot Sites: Fertilizers and the rise of agriculture in the American South

Maps, documents and descriptions of the Middle East in the early twentieth century construct the region as one that needs to be saved, restored, or controlled, developing what is called an ‘environmental imaginary.’ The 'environmental imaginary' is defined as “the constellation of ideas that groups of humans develop about a given landscape, usually local or regional, that commonly includes assessments about that environment as well as how it came to be in its current state.”1 The US’s environmental imaginary of the Middle East coupled society and the landscape as archaic, degraded, and barren. Foreign experts were needed to transform and modernize the ‘rural’ desert, and importantly its people, through strategies such as sedentarization schemes, model homes, pilot projects and home economics programs.

Archetypical symbols of modernization and development. c. 1940s.

Archetypical symbols of modernization and development. c. 1940s.

Dam along the Tennessee River. c. 1940s.

Dam along the Tennessee River. c. 1940s.

Europeans, and later Americans, sought to make the deserts bloom and in this process also aimed to sedentarize nomads and civilize society.2 Civilizing of both society and landscape is a recurring modernization trope in the region which was furthered with the advent of aid in the region. Architects, Engineers, and Planners (‘technical experts’) played a crucial role in the transformation of the desert through first studying the terrain and secondly developing strategies that were used to modernize the desert, and in turn the region. Here, ‘technical experts’ generated an expertise that was utilized to deliver the Western consumer culture and iconography into the region through ‘development programs’.3

The TVA-model around the world. c. 1959.

The TVA-model around the world. c. 1959.

One such ‘bold new program’ was announced on January 20, 1949 by President Harry S. Truman to promote peace, freedom and democracy to underdeveloped nations in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa which came to be known as the ‘Point Four Program’.4 The program mobilized American expertise through nation-to-nation partnerships by providing technical and practical training in the fields of education, health and agriculture.5 Development was fostered through the introduction of ‘model’ methods of modernization, one of which was the transfer of the ‘Tennessee Valley Authority (hereafter TVA) concept’ of modernizing.6 Point Four actively sought to physically, and ideologically, modernize budding states in the ‘developing world’ through the use of American technological prowess to thwart the potential spread of communism which was done through the exportation of American consumer culture.7

Artist rendering of the TVA-model in China: the Yangtze Valley Authority (now Three Gorges Dam). 

Artist rendering of the TVA-model in China: the Yangtze Valley Authority (now Three Gorges Dam). 

As a techno-scientific project, the TVA saw the success of harnessing and overcoming nature, or in other words taming nature, which was a critical aspect of the promise of technological advancements. Natural resources, and specifically water, were seen in the earlier part of the twentieth century as untapped sources of potential energy that needed to be harnessed by technology to aid in global advancement. The peoples of the ‘Third-World’ were either incapable or unknowledgeable of harnessing this power without foreign assistance which came either through the communist bloc or the democratic model from the U.S.8

Superimposition of the Skyes-Picot Agreement and political borders, 1916.

Superimposition of the Skyes-Picot Agreement and political borders, 1916.

Skyes-Picot Agreement, 1916. 

Skyes-Picot Agreement, 1916. 

In 1951, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan entered into an agreement with the U.S. under the Point Four Program where “the United States would share its techniques, information, educational methods and organizational procedures with underdeveloped nations so that they might gain greater economic security and higher standards of living. In 1952 the program in Jordan was expanded to provide greater assistance in order to increase agricultural production, improve health and sanitation, develop water resources, make effective use of mineral resources, and improve transportation. By the 1960s, the focus of U.S. aid to Jordan had changed somewhat to greater emphasis on developing new institutions such as the Water Authority of Jordan and the Jordan Valley Authority.”9

By 1953, the TVA was invited to draw up a unified plan for development of the Jordan Valley Region upon the request of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Undertaken by Chas T. Main of Boston, Massachusetts, the study and development was to be funded by Point Four, the UN and the governments of the nation-states and was built upon the premise of an entirely constructed environmental imaginary. The plan came to be known as the “Unified Development of the Water Resources of the Jordan Valley Region” (or Unified Plan) The study’s authors have not visited the site and studied, planned, and recommended the entire study “based upon materials, reports and data made available to TVA and was made without field investigations.”10 This sheer belief in both the American expertise and the ‘universality’ of the TVA-model is astounding. The plan’s recommendations ranged from irrigation and canals to technical expert training. With a complete disregard of the local and existing onground conditions, the Unified Plan was a completely technological project. The people, the culture, and everything human was ignored. The disregard was so profound that even the political boundaries were dismissed. The Introductory note states: “Many of the earlier plans were prepared when the present political boundaries did not exist. Partly for this reason, but principally in the interest of sound engineering practice, the TVA was invited to disregard political boundaries, and to prepare a report indicating the most efficient method of utilising the whole of the watershed in the best interest of the area.”11

Left: Overall scheme of the ‘Unified Plan.’ Right: Overlay of political boundaries. Part of the ‘Unified Plan.’

Left: Overall scheme of the ‘Unified Plan.’

Right: Overlay of political boundaries. Part of the ‘Unified Plan.’

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In essence, the study ‘un-anthropocinized’ the landscape. In doing so, the study become a spatial, instead of social, endeavor and more critically with the focus on agriculture, the mounting political tensions and conflicts were put aside in favor of a much more desirable physical transformation of the desert. Thus, by ‘reading the landscape’12 through its constructed environmental imaginaries, the “socioenvironmental fallout from developmental agendas whose primary beneficiaries live elsewhere” becomes at the core of this rereading of Point Four and moves beyond the dominant political, rentier theory, and bureaucratic narratives of aid.13 In doing so, the study aims at making an epistemic contribution to the fields of design and environmental humanities by providing an understanding of the impact of international development aid on various aspects of the modernization of a non-western society and its landscape. 

 

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Dalal Alsayer is a Kuwaiti architect, urban designer and researcher interested in the architecture, urbanism, and landscapes of the Arabian Gulf cities within the larger context of the Middle East. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Architecture in the Penn School of Design.

Footnotes: 

[1] Davis, Diana K, and Edmund Burke III, eds. Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa. Ecology and History. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2011, pg 3. The term is derived from ‘social imaginary’ and political geography.

[2] See Davis and Burke III, Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa.

[3] See, for example Mitchell, Rule of Expert: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity; Panayiota Pyla, “Architects as Development Experts: Model Communities in Iraq and Syria,” in Landscapes of Development: The Impact of Modernization Discourses on the Physical Environment of the Eastern Mediterranean (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2013).

[4] Truman, Harry S. “Four Point Speech.” President Truman’s Second Inaugural Address, Capitol, Washington DC, January 20, 1949. www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/50yr_archive/inagural20jan1949.htm.

[5] See George V. Allen, “Where Do We Stand on Point Four?” (Address, Troy, NY, June 23, 1949).

[6] David Ekbladh, The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order, America in the World (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2011), 97–102.

[7] See “American Embassy Buildings,” Architectural Record 119, no. 7 (June 1956): 160–65; “Architecture to Represent America Abroad,” Architectural Record 117, no. 5 (May 1955): 187–90; Elizabeth Gill Lui, Building Diplomacy: The Architecture of American Embassies (Los Angeles, CA: Four Stops Press/Cornell University Press, 2004); Jeffrey W Cody, Exporting American Architecture 1870-2000, Planning, History and the Environment Series (London; New York: Routledge, 2003); Eva Franch i Gilabert et al., eds., OfficeUS Agenda (Zürich, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2014); Eva Franch i Gilabert et al., eds., OfficeUS: Atlas (Zürich, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2015); Jane Loeffler, The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies, Second Edition (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011); P.I. Prentice, ed., “U.S. Architecture Abroad,” Architectural Forum 98, no. 3 (March 1953): 101–15; “U.S. Building Abroad,” Architectural Forum 102, no. 1 (January 1955): 98–119.

[8] The TVA-model saw its first experimentation abroad in China under the China International Famine Relief Commission (CIFRC) and Rockefeller Foundation’s “rural reconstruction” in the late 1930s and early 1940s

[9] The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. “Photographs Relating to U.S. Foreign Aid to Jordan, 1953 - Ca. 1961.” Governmental. Guide to Federal Records. Accessed April 17, 2016. www.catalog.archives.gov/id/7320760.

[10] Main, Chas T. “The Unified Development of the Water Resources of the Jordan Valley Region.” Boston, MA, 1953, pg. i.

[11] Main, Chas T. “The Unified Development of the Water Resources of the Jordan Valley Region.”Boston, MA, 1953, ‘Introductory Note.’

[12] See William Cronon, “How to Read a Landscape,” Academic, Learning to Do Historical Research: Sources, (2009), www.william-cronon.net/researching/landscapes.htm.

[13] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pg 16