Anthropologist Fagan (Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, 2010, etc.) spins a tale of water, water everywhere—water that is damn hard to get at, and getting harder to find every day.
Humans cannot live without the stuff, of course. Yet, writes the author, “[o]f all the resources that we rely on for survival in today’s world, water is the least appreciated and certainly the most misunderstood.” It has not always been so. Fagan serves up anecdotes and historical episodes showing how pre-industrial people, or at least people wiser than we, properly appreciated water, from the San hunters of the Kalahari, who see the whole world as a sometimes grudging source of the substance, to John Wesley Powell’s efforts to create political divisions in the American West not based on surveyors’ straight lines but on natural watersheds. Politics is important to Fagan’s story, for much of human history hinges on control of water. The author examines the famed Wittfogel hypothesis of anthropological renown, which keyed the development of political institutions to bureaucracies surrounding water in places such as Mesopotamia. However, the control of water is not necessarily coercive—and there the story turns to lessons for our own time, a scramble for control on the part of private concerns wishing to monetize what has long been held a public good, which will require of us “long-term thinking ... decisive political leadership and…a reordering of financial priorities.” If that seems improbable, so do some of the engineering feats that Fagan recounts—even if it seems that, over time, we've gotten worse at managing this essential resource.
Long and discursive, but a rewarding survey of water’s role in history and contemporary politics alike.