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capital outlays for the construction of a series of multi-billion-dollar dams, is quite small.
To villagers, however, this sum would provide crucial support. Evidence suggests that
households who receive higher compensation are more likely to engage in entrepreneurial
activities, start businesses, or otherwise engage in the process of rebuilding their lives.
In a recent speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, then-U.S. secretary of
state Hillary Clinton specifically addressed dam construction in the Mekong Region, in-
voking the American experience as a cautionary tale: “I'll be very honest with you. We
made a lot of mistakes.… We've learned some hard lessons about what happens when you
make certain infrastructure decisions and I think that we can all contribute to helping the
nations of the Mekong region avoid the mistakes that we and others made” (qtd. in The
Economist 2012).
Throughout the process of learning more about the history of large dams as a develop-
ment strategy, I have been fascinated to see how many of the historical precedents point
back to the United States and its efforts to supply water and electricity to the arid Western
regions. In hindsight, viewed through a lens in which people value free-flowing rivers, the
ecological costs of America's large dams—hundreds of which dot the West—do in fact
make this strategy look like a “mistake.” But to many government officials, energy corpor-
ations, and even citizens in southwest China and Southeast Asia, dams still appear to hold
the promise of cheap, reliable energy, not to mention revenue returns.
As we seek to understand the technical, financial, ecological, social, and even moral di-
mensions of hydropower development—and to avoid repeating many of the worst mistakes
of the past—what role should scientists play? I recently sent a paper to a colleague for a
my role in interdisciplinary modeling efforts to improve decision making, she scrawled,
“Oh, you're one of those kinds of anthropologists.” Her comments were meant as friendly
criticism, but also as a reminder to reflect on the risks, challenges, and contradictions in-
volved in engaged scholarship.
I have chosen to participate in the highly charged discussions and debates surrounding
dams affect ecosystems and communities to be an empirical one. It should be approached
with data, wise analysis, and critical discussion. Second, as my use of the moral economy
framework is meant to emphasize, what we see often depends on what we include—and,
just as crucially, what we exclude—in the analysis. If we consider the question of a dam's
impacts to be an empirical one, then it follows that decision making can be done well by
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