By Brian Fagan
Published in 2011 by Bloomsbury Press, New York NY
Buy this book at Amazon.com
Full disclosure: I solicited via e-mail and received a copy of this book for free in exchange for my promise of a published review.
Author's note: A consolidated map including many of the locations that pass through Mr. Fagan's narrative is given for the reader's ease of reference, though the text should be consulted for details and additional locations not noted here. Any mistakes made here in the location of sites of interest, and in the quotation of dates and events from Mr. Fagan's text, are my own. I can only hope that my meager review lends some small service to the magnitude of Mr. Fagan's great work. If that itself is not enough of an endorsement for you, read on...
In his newest work Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, Brian Fagan does not pretend to tell the future of water on our planet. There are enough books already trying to do just that, many released in the past year or so, some of which I have already reviewed here. As Mr. Fagan recounted in an e-mail to me before I began reading this new work, this is likely the most difficult book he has written thus far, which is saying something given his long list of publications on the intersections of anthropology, sociology and climate. In Elixir, however, Mr. Fagan has brought together some of the finest and most accessible scholarship on the interpretation of our human history since the rise of agriculture around 12,500 years ago, together with his own investigations and those of numerous others into the origins and fates of historical societies and the relation of those events to the way we have approached our most fundamental natural resource: freshwater. This is a work of history, sociology, agriculture, hydrology, climate, resource sciences, innovation and humanity that is every bit as relevant to our globalized society today as we could hope, if only we are willing to learn the lessons provided by our checkered past.
Why was this particular book so difficult to write? First, of course, there is little effort required in order simply to add another voice to the recent "tidal wave of books on the current water problem." To distinguish his narrative, Mr. Fagan focuses on the long history of water management, a subject well within his grasp though not yet addressed directly and comprehensively within the Fagan oeuvre. Second, and related to that focus, Mr. Fagan recognizes both the local scale and global scope of water management among various civilizations over the course of millennia. Our heightened awareness, and lack of coherent response, to the twentieth- and twenty-first-century series of water crises around the globe is not the first such episode in human history, and likely won't be the last. The issue to be addressed is, most importantly, will we figure it out this time, and not just for the survival of humanity, but in a manner that helps our descendants over time as well?
|Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala.|
Photo by Chen Siyuan via Wikimedia Commons
It is sometimes recognized that water and its management, and the course of our human story, are vitally intertwined, though more conventional historians like to point to higher-level factors that seem to shape history: land, religion, resources (such as oil and precious metals), science, politics, and personal power seem to have driven many of the great shifts in civil structure over time, at least according to our history teachers in high school and college. In another recent work, Steven Solomon's Water attempts to cast the course of the rise of modern society in terms of water-related innovation, both at home in many of the world's great civilizations and across the oceans in several ages of exploration. Mr. Fagan's work takes a much more decidedly practical approach: without water and sporadic related management and technological innovations for use in agriculture over the past 12,500 years, there might be no politics, few land and resource struggles, and little civilization at all. Without basic science and innovations related to the recognition of water's inherent uses in the production of energy, just within the last couple hundred years, there would have been no Industrial Revolution. But these evolving uses of water have altered our human connection with this most vital natural resource, and not necessarily for the better.
Mr. Fagan organizes his narrative on the history of our connection with water in terms of three stages and around three broad themes of technological progress, though these are not mutually exclusive in the course of his cultural explorations. The first stage of this history extends from the distant past to the present and visible future, in which water is recognized as "an unreliable, often scarce, and always valuable resource, so precious that it was sacred in almost every human society" [emphasis mine]. The suggestion remains that, in some societies, this is still the case, while many others societies have deviated dramatically from that viewpoint. Hence the second stage, which encompasses the general turn of water to a manageable (though not necessarily fungible) commodity and extends from approximately the turn of the Common Era (here BCE to CE, traditionally BC to AD) through the present. This viewpoint, expressed most pointedly in the exploitation of water resources without regard for sustainability, has dominated "western" society for the better part of the past two millennia. It is amid the accumulating impacts of this commodity-oriented econometric approach that we quickly approach a third stage where, in Mr. Fagan's words, "we are finally realizing that water is a finite resource, something to be conserved and treated with respect, even reverence, that we haven't displayed in a long time."
The overlapping themes provide a structure on which Mr. Fagan's narrative is more closely based, beginning with the simplest modes of human water use and ending with the most complex. Loosely tied to the historical progression of our human relationship to water, he begins this account with simple gravity-based methods. Mr. Fagan takes us around the world through space and time looking at the various early civilizations that started with simple flood irrigation of agricultural lands and in some areas moved to furrow-based field irrigation in flat areas, while others retained the flood-based method for terraced hillsides, and in some cases developed mixed methodologies to raise farm productivity. The number of sites, civilizations and examples brought forth my Mr. Fagan is impressive. Readers of Jared Diamond's Collapse, but not well-versed in the academic literature of archaeological research, may be familiar with some, but not likely all, of these (as for this reviewer, I am not afraid to admit). Among these gravity-oriented users of water are those we have frequently, though not necessarily correctly, dubbed the "hydraulic societies" of the ancient and near-prehistoric agriculturalists in our human past. However, there are certain ideas in and implied by that turn of phrase that Mr. Fagan turns deftly on their heads, and to which I will return here in a short while.
View "Elixir" Locations in a larger map
|Map of the Khmer metropolitan complex at Angkor .|
|Pura Ulun Danu Bratan in Bali, Indonesia.|
Photo by Chen Siyuan via Wikimedia Commons
Finally, the third theme of Mr. Fagan's work here addresses the delicate and often narrow balance that humans have attempted to navigate between technology and sustainability. Technological progress has often come at the expense of natural resources, disturbing the sustainability of natural systems that we have more recently recognized for their "ecosystem services" provided to consumers, not limited to the humans in the environment. It may be helpful to provide here, in this reviewer's terminology, a couple of definitions: sustainability is the capability of a human endeavor to keep doing as it was intended, despite its offenses against nature and other humans; resilience is the ability of a human or natural process/system to keep doing as it was intended, despite inflicted human or natural offenses. As the reader can see, the terms are related intimately. Given the vagaries of weather and climate and their role in the provision of freshwater for agriculture and human needs over much of our history, it seems odd that these two terms are only just now entering the lexicon of discussions on the human condition. Nevertheless, the ideas behind these terms have been in operation for millennia, and are essential for a basic understanding of our present situations around the world as well as for planning the future of water-based system progress.
|The Pont du Gard aqueduct in southern France,|
constructed around 19 CE by the Romans.
Photo by Chris O. via Wikimedia Commons
Even more basic technologies were applied over long times to the agricultural fields, at first the basic orientation of villages and communities themselves, and much later around centers of commerce and trade. Flood irrigation of crops alongside rivers eventually gave way to furrow irrigation, which applied less water more efficiently to the base of crop plantings and, along with long-distance irrigation supply canals, were able to conform better to hillside planting areas. In all of these cases, gravity reigned, and it was the task of the farmer and his (her) community to work with gravity in order to serve the purposes of all involved in the sustainability of the community. The system had to remain flexible and adaptable to the availability and timing of water supply, a point that Mr. Fagan draws to a sensible conclusion: agricultural sustainability was best served by organization of farming communities at a low level, with the capability for rapid compromise and action on needed changes according to the condition of water supplies and needs. Collection and control of agriculture by a central authority served most often to reduce the responsive nature of the human organization with respect to the resilience of the natural system, as when floods threatened to wash away vast areas of crops or when drought crept through a vast community that was already dependent on large water works projects. China has seen so many of these shocks, against which little defense could be mounted effectively, but the state has remained sustainable due to the wide area and diversity of its agricultural systems. Smaller regions, like those under Mayan control, collapsed in stages more than once, and then entirely around 1,050 CE, under the pressure of decades-long drought episodes.
By no means are the collapsed, scattered or otherwise failed societies of antiquity the only sources of valuable lessons for our present and future course of water management, however. Mr. Fagan dwells on the valuable lessons of two lasting civilizations in particular: the Chinese over approximately the past 6,000 years, and Islamic culture over the past 1,300 years. These examples have endured hydroclimatic and societal conditions radically different from each other and throughout their own histories, but are connected across the contiguous lands of South Asia by a common experience: the summer monsoon. The wind-borne rains on which southern China, much of Pakistan and India, and modern Yemen depend for their subsistence over the subtropical summer once also nourished the upper Tigris and Euphrates River basins, until approximately 4,000 BCE when the tropical monsoon pattern shifted almost entirely from that region. This was not a local, isolated occurrence, but a global climatic event with widespread causes and effects that I hope to address in another post. It may be salient to suggest one other note about the timing of this event: it was around then that agricultural development took hold along the lower Yangtze River in China, supported by the Southeast Asian monsoon as well as regular flows from the Tibetan Plateau. Meanwhile, the long-established benevolence (in normal years) and malevolence (in drought and flood) of the water gods in early Sumerian civilization turned rapidly to simple malevolence. Desertification quickly took hold of the Mesopotamian region, save for careful irrigation by canal systems under constant maintenance through many changes of leadership and into modern Middle Eastern civilization.
|Restored Islamic-era noria on the|
Guadalquivir River in Cordoba, Spain.
Photo by Graham Colm via Wikimedia Commons
|Map of China's South-to-North Water|
Diversion, Eastern Route Project.
Some of the problems with technological solutions were the same as we see today in many areas of the world. Using flood-based irrigation for agriculture in arid and semi-arid regions, soil salinization eventually plagued Mesopotamian, Harappan and Hohokam cultures alike, as we see now in central Iraq, lower Pakistan and the American Southwest, respectively. In these cases, the needs of the civilization have simply outrun the resilience of the natural system, which over time and with proper cultivation practice is perfectly able to handle the build-up of soil minerals so that crops are not adversely affected. Had we learned from the past, practices would be different now, but instead we are reaching the point in many parts of the world where humans' overwhelming dominance of the capacity and resilience of the natural system is finally feeding back on the sustainability of our own practices for food production. In drought periods we now fall back on the reliability of massive storage dams, which have altered the hydrology and landscapes of entire river systems. And where surface water is not readily available, groundwater mining using pumps developed during the Industrial Revolution provides an ever-diminishing source for marginal croplands in plains areas and domestic use in dense urban regions. Be we are just beginning to recognize that these technological solutions are not sustainable, for many reasons of their own maintenance and suitability as well as their collective impact on the natural system, which seems to have a diminishing resilience to these human offenses. At the same time, faced with massive and potentially rapid climate change, we are finally beginning to question the methodology behind the planning of such artificial systems in an attempt to develop more flexible and sustainable systems for the future.
|Map of China's South-to-North Water|
Diversion, Middle Route Project.
There are lessons in the tales of history that Mr. Fagan brings together here, instructions for ways to deal with water scarcity and its impacts on agriculture and society in times of environmental stress, climate change, and poor legacy management of vital resources. We are given here powerful lessons on the history of our species and humanity's trend away from our connection to the most life-giving of Earth substances, and toward objectification of that resource. Some of these lessons remain puzzles that are yet to be solved in scholarly anthropological circles, but the growing confluence of social and hard sciences will eventually contribute to a clearer picture of our past. With these lessons generously given, the present and rising generations of scientists and social engineers can no longer lay the blame for the state of the planet and our increasingly global civilization at the feet of our ancestors and intellectual forbears. Now, if we fail to do something about it so that the next generations inherit the same or worse, we can only blame ourselves. In the preface, Mr. Fagan quotes Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to significant effect: "In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference." The alternative, as difficult as it may seem to some, is to learn and evolve as better stewards of our environment, and to develop a philosophy and means of human and agricultural sustainability that operates within the resilience capacity for the most fundamental of our natural resources.
 Evans, D., C. Pottier, R. Fletcher, S. Hensley, I. Tapley, A. Milne, and M. Barbetti, 2007: A comprehensive archaeological map of the world's largest preindustrial settlement complex at Angkor, Cambodia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 104, no. 36, pp. 14,277 – 14,282, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0702525104.