Number Narratives: Abundance, Scarcity, and Sustainability in a California Water World



Contributed date

July 17, 2018 - 10:27pm

Critical Commentary


Within California’s envirotechnical system, there is a normative practice of thinking water problems through “number narratives”: numerical stories about how water works in a particular place and time. These number narratives reveal moments where numbers become not only assertions of transparency, trust, or objectivity, but also literary and social technologies that simplify and make sense of relations between people, places, things, and practices in particular water worlds. Smoketree, California, provides an ethnographic case study of three number narratives in practice. “500 years of water,” the historical narrative of abundance, still circulates today as farmers, developers, and water managers struggle with the legacy of the past. “50 years of water,” the contemporary narrative of scarcity, framed local water as a finite resource, sparking debates over its accuracy and implications as locals reckoned with two incompatible number narratives. “Sustainability = zero,” the new number narrative purporting to solve groundwater problems through balance, has been adopted by some as a solution and political plan of action for the problem posed by narratives of scarcity. Together, these number narratives illuminate how numbers about water were produced and circulated; how competing numerical stories framed problems, solutions, and entire values and ways of life; and how number narratives worked as articulatory practices that shaped particular environmental, technological, and political systems. At stake is not whether these numbers are accurate or true to the water problem at hand, but rather what these number narratives afford in terms of possible worlds for the town and its residents.


 Brooks, Emily. “Number Narratives: Abundance, Scarcity, and Sustainability in a California Water World.” Science as Culture 26, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 32–55.

Group Audience

Cite as

Emily Brooks, "Number Narratives: Abundance, Scarcity, and Sustainability in a California Water World", contributed by James Adams, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 17 July 2018, accessed 12 August 2022.