28 July 2011

Book Review: "Elixir" by Brian Fagan

"Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind"
By Brian Fagan
Published in 2011 by Bloomsbury Press, New York NY
ISBN 978-1-60819-003-4
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
Mr. Fagan's third objective in the development of Elixir has been to demonstrate that water management methods and outcomes from the past are not so far away as we might like to believe.  As many water-savvy civilizations have fallen to conflict (e.g., many Mesopotamian societies) and attrition (ancient Greek culture and society, eventually subsumed by the Romans) as have seemingly disappeared due to climate change and anthropogenic effects on water scarcity (e.g., the Mayans, most famously).  Mr. Fagan indicates in his Acknowledgements, as a matter of personal motivation, that it was during an exploration of Mayan water history with a colleague that his interest in producing such a work came to the surface.  No matter how much we may see on the fate of Mayan civilization, and how incredible the history remains, the puzzle of that cultural demise is still not yet entirely solved.  We can thank works like Jared Diamond's popular Collapse, Mr. Fagan's earlier work in Floods, Famines and Emperors and The Long Summer, and now his exploration of contextual events in Elixir for valuable pieces of the puzzle and hints toward the understanding of our own human past.

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 [1].
The second theme addresses the bulk of Mr. Fagan's exploration in this work by way of the close relationship, most in antiquity and generally fading over time, between ritual and water management of all variety.  Though ritual permeates daily life, both for those long-gone societies as well as our own lives today, the term often evokes ideas of religion, and it may be an underlying dispensation toward this equivalence that guides the anthropologic study of so many cultures that have disappeared:  the Maya (1,000 BCE – 1,050 CE) and Aztec (~1,500 CE) of Central America; the coastal Moche (200 BCE – 650 CE) and Chimu (800 – 1,470 CE), the altiplano Nasca (400 BCE – 1,000 CE) and Tiwaniku (400 – 1,100 CE), and the upland Inca (~1,400 CE) of South America; the Hohokam (1,500 BCE – 1,500 CE) of southwestern North America; the Khmer around Angkor Wat (1,113 – 1,431 CE) in Southeast Asia.  The Maya civilization grew from an older Olmec society in Central America to a collection of warring city-states in the 1st century BCE and finally to a coherent society of its own around the turn of the Common Era, but along its lifetime suffered one devastation after another in long but seemingly regular cycles of floods, drought, and famine that were well-recorded by the elite scribes serving ever more demanding and divine leaders.  Such records from the Maya are an outstanding example, however, and it is only because of our present ability to correlate artifacts with various scientific dating methods that we can piece together the histories of some of these lost civilizations and societies at all.  The most prominent of their artifacts, the pyramids of Central America, the temple at Angkor, and the ruins of such places as Cuzco and Machu Picchu have been marked as sacred spaces and drawn the attention of historians and anthropologists for centuries. 

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan in Bali, Indonesia.
Photo by Chen Siyuan via Wikimedia Commons
There are exceptions to such disappearances, of course:  clues to the lifestyles of the Maya and Aztec peoples remain visible in native Central Americans today, though distilled by the conquering influences of western European cultures in the latter half of the second millennium CE.  It is thought that some of the Hohokam traditions related to water live on in the indigenous farming practices of native tribes in the American Southwest, including the modern O'odham communities of Arizona.  Even further, the Hohokam did not necessarily equate ritual with "religion" so much as "community," as evidenced by the numerous ball courts excavated in the vicinity of Phoenix, Arizona, that are associated with known irrigation canal systems as well as discovered ceremonial mounds in the area.  It is surmised that regular community challenges between families and villages were carried out on these ball courts in a basketball-like game, with family and friends standing around the raised perimeter, as part of festival celebrations tied to particular times of the year such as planting and harvest seasons.  In sharp contrast, Mr. Fagan spends a chapter in an idyllic tropical setting to describe for us the organization and living ritual of terraced rice irrigation on the island of Bali, where water is blessed and imbued with heavenly significance from the highest lake to the last tenah.  The traditional Hindu Balinese call their religion Agama Tirta, or "Religion of the Water."  In few other stories among Mr. Fagan's narratives is the connection between water and formal ritual more palpable than in his description of the Balinese blessing of the waters and the fields, a practice in the management of abundant (rather than scarce) water that has remained essentially unchanged over the past several thousand years.

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
Stretching the observation of technology back to the beginning of agriculture, Mr. Fagan calls out numerous examples that worked with the environment instead of against it: qanats and step-wells for access to groundwater in arid regions, the human-powered shaduf and Archimedes' screw for field irrigation alongside rivers, the animal-powered saqiya (horizontally-driven water wheel) and eventually the self-propelled noria (vertically-driven water wheel) for raising water from one channel to another and later for driving grain mills, inverted siphons for bridging wide valleys, and the aqueduct networks of the Greeks and Romans.  In an irony of history, we sometimes know the Romans best for their massive aqueducts and water works, but both this technology and the surveying methods required to plan and construct such accurate slopes for efficient conveyance were both borrowed from the forerunning Greek civilization.  It is recognized and pointed out by Mr. Fagan, however, that such systems for the service of Rome's water needs were in constant operation, with few long-term reservoirs for drought or low-flow supplemental storage.  The water system that served the center of the Roman Empire provided abundant freshwater to both elites and commoners, through bath houses and fountains and even in-home service, but the tap was always open, and the water flowed constantly.  This was good for sanitation:  Rome remained one of the cleanest cities in the Empire, because excess and discarded water was always overflowing the fountains and washing waste from the streets into a sewer system that emptied into the Tiber River.  It was not at all, however, a long-term solution with regard to conservation and sustainability of the city's precious freshwater supplies.

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
The deceptively short history of the Muslim religion hides the fact that Islamic culture is built upon the traditions of the longest-cultivated lands in the world, those of the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers ranging back to 10,500 BCE.  That history continued through the Wadi Faynan culture in what is now southern Jordan (~5,000 BCE) and Egyptian civilization on the lower Nile River (~4,500 BCE) and into the Fayum Depression (~2,000 BCE) to the west.  To the east, agricultural traditions in ancient Persia brought to wider civilization the groundwater-tapping qanat (predating 700 BCE), one of the lasting developments in water resources management in mountainous and semi-arid regions.  Even farther east, the massive scale of agricultural development in the lower Indus River basin originated with the Harappan civilization (~2,700 BCE) and continues in modern Pakistan.  In Southwest Asia, a succession of empires and cultures managed the Mesopotamian region over the centuries, from the Sumerians and Assyrians through the Babylonians, Cyrus the Great and Alexander, and the Sassanians up to the time of the Islamic rise in the Middle East (~630 CE).  A vast region of the world came under the influence of Islamic culture, including its founding culture of scholarship and innovation as well as its religious leadership, from Andalusian Spain (~711 CE) through northern Africa, the Middle East including the Arabian peninsula, and into South Asia.  It might be said that, under Islamic cultural and commercial influence, more ideas and practices for water management were brought together, combined, and spread over again a larger area of the known world than at any other time in history, exceeding even the Roman Empire at its height.

Map of China's South-to-North Water
, Eastern Route Project.
The Chinese, taking on an early philosophy of Confucian dominance over nature, developed a culture of large water works for the support of massive populations that is far greater in historical depth than the recent focus on mega-dams and water transfer projects might suggest.  Flood control on the Huang He (Yellow River) was more difficult long ago, before the river's sources began to dry up from diversion and agricultural uses; now, "China's Sorrow" hardly reaches the sea, a common condition among the largest and most over-allocated rivers of the world.  Flood control activities have shifted in China to the Yangtze River in the south, where collections of large dams provide hydropower, year-round water resources for agriculture, and seasonal flood protection in downstream areas.  These dam cascades have also provided, as we have seen recently, ecological problems of their own, the impetus for forced relocation of citizens, and the tendency for leaders to think of water projects on even larger scales.  China's great South-to-North Diversion Project intends to bring the water wealth of the southern region to the populous north, where groundwater and rivers are failing all too often to meet the needs of citizens.  The eastern branch of the Project follows the historical route of the 1,800-km Grand Canal, begun around 600 CE and finally completed by 1,300 CE, and is thus the easiest phase of the present project to complete.  The western and middle (central) routes, however, remain in planning and construction phases (respectively) with significant technical and practical obstacles to be overcome.

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
, Middle Route Project.
When completed, the Chinese South-North Diversion Project may be the largest example of deliberate geo-engineering in human history.  Other examples of accidental geo-engineering abound, but remain marginal in the scope of this book and review, except for one: it remains to be seen what impact the present pace of climate change will have on the seemingly abundant rivers of southern China, and if the Diversion Project could eventually be rendered moot for a critical lack of source waters as Himalayan glaciers disappear and a shift in monsoon patterns becomes more likely.  Successful or not, and only time will tell, the Chinese remain the most enduring societal example of centralized administration over projects of all sizes for the control and use of water within its territory.  For such large undertakings, only state-level control for the provision of strategic planning, labor, wages, and materials would be sufficient.  The methodology and technical application is little different from that used to build the Roman aqueducts, but the scale and scope of the projects are far larger.  The remainder of history, as Mr. Fagan points out, has generally tended toward decentralized water control over reasonable, more human-oriented and less state-level expanses of space and time.  The same tracts of history are littered with examples of regional control on water works, generally oriented on the support of centralized leadership and a proto-urban elite.  Such societies generally disappeared, possibly collapsed under the weight of various tribute and taxation systems, possibly driven to more suitable climates.  In many cases, it seems, the build-up of trust in the ruling elite was eventually dashed by a short-term anomaly in the climate and hydrologic conditions of the otherwise complacent society.  For a religious leader or emperor who claimed a divine source of elite power, there were few accessible others on which drought and famine could be blamed.

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.


[1] 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.

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