04 August 2009

Heart of Dryness -- The Review

James Workman (someone I've met over lunch) wrote an excellent book about the Bushmen in Botswana. What's the book have to do with water? Quite a lot more than I expected.

In Heart of Dryness: How the Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Oncoming Drought [book site Amazon], Workman (a journalist and former staffer at the World Commission on Dams) draws on five years of personal and professional observation of Botswana's Bushmen. With fluid, authoritative, informative prose, Workman describes how the government of Botswana (darling of aid organizations and recipient of much praise for good governance) used force, lies, and outrageous condescension to attempt to force the Bushmen from their traditional homeland and into "reserves." (For more on overbearing government, I recommend Seeing Like a State.)

The Bushmen (led by their wisewoman-in-chief, Qoroxloo) resisted the government, wanting only to stay in the land of their ancestors and live their traditional life. Workman gives an interesting and informative account of how these Bushmen are not only our genetic forebears (all genes lead back to this part of Africa), but also how the Bushmen live in the middle of a place with "no water." Their habits of millennia made him (and me!) rethink how we manage drinking, bathing, waste and environmental water. This isn't just anthropology -- this is resource economics as taught by a people who have lived sustainably for hundreds of generations! This excerpt captures some of these thoughts:
We may not like the rule of increasingly scarce water but at the same time we cannot escape it. And Qorolxoo's band demonstrated how to embrace that reality. Her fundamental rule of adaptation was not to organize and mobilize physical resources to meet expanding human wants, but rather to organize human behavior and society around constraints imposed by diminishing physical resources. To reiterate this book's thesis: we do not govern water; water governs us.
Workman also spends some time thinking about centralized water management. Although he veers off at one point into an anti-capitalist tirade (the book's only weakness), he later comes to this sensible observation:
All of us growing up in cities and suburbs have surrendered both our right and our responsibility to water to state-run or -regulated institutions. Most of these command-and-control structures are now teetering on the brink of physical failure or institutional collapse. The left wants trillions invested to improve all creaky public waterworks. The right wants to privatize them. Ideology aside, it matters little whether our taps and pipes and sewers can be traced back to a government utility or corporate venture if both operate as absolute top down centralized monopolies that impose involuntary and uncompetitive rates and quality about which we cannot, by definition, negotiate. Public or private utilities are neither good nor evil; but right now they still remove all real incentives and accountability to conserve water efficiently, while making us dependent on aging infrastructure, political fecklessness, wistful approaches, and unreliable supply in a radically changing climate.
Now that's what I've been saying (preach! preach!): What matters is not private vs. public ownership as much as community oversight and control.

Bottom Line: I give this book five stars -- it's got a great story, informative facts, useful insights, and real message: Traditional cultures can teach us how to live well and get off our unsustainable path to ruin.

4 comments:

Kai said...

D, you recently wrote about the studies and reporting that are coming out about Angkor Wat and the collapse of the Khmer empire, probably due to water mismanagement and an overstretch of their water resources over large areas.

It's useful to compare societies that use their water wisely when its lacking, like the Bushmen, to those that misallocate their freshwater supply.

Lessons to be learned...

redinhawaii said...

this is absolutely why I read this blog,
great relevant information,
thanks for a link to this insightful wisdom.
aloha
red

Mister Kurtz said...

FYI: Laurens van der Post's books on bushmen (from the '60s) are still good reading, too.

Mister Kurtz said...

What my ancient addled mind forgot was "The Harmless People" by Elizabeth Thomas, which is better than van der Post by a mile.