31 Oct 2011

Elixir -- the review

Brian Fagan is a storyteller and showman, in person. His book, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, does not deliver the same wonder, mystique and humor.* That's perhaps an impossible thing to ask (perhaps the same can be said of my book), but it does give you an idea of the gap that may exist between what we want to read and what we are given to read.

This 350 pp book tells many stories of how people from long-forgotten civilizations managed their water. Nearly all of it takes place before the Industrial Revolution brought powered pumps to the movement of water. What we get, then, are descriptions of how water was managed in "the age of gravity," when water sustainability was a given but human sustainability was not.

Let me drop in this observation at the start: Elixir tells a different story from Solomon's Water, The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. Solomon narrates the development of water, politics and economics across many cultures. Fagan describes how different civilizations managed their water, without spending too much time tracing impacts and trends. In my notes, I wrote that "Solomon traces grandiose projects across large areas" while "Fagan observes the details of small and (usually) sustainable solutions to local problems."

At least, that's my feeling after reading through it, but that feeling may be affected by the "too many notes" problem: I cannot keep track of so many kings, canal dimensions, and geographies without seeing some patterns. Maybe they were there, but they didn't grab me.

But let's get to some detailed comments:
  • Fagan provides a deep description of why farmers may be conservative. They have, after all, been trying to control water and grow food for hundreds of generations. We have to respect their conservatism as the result of protecting success amidst multiple opportunities for failure. 
  • Fagan, as an archeologist, has a different view that emphasizes the physical remnants of past civilizations over their (soft, eroded, washed away) cultural institutions. It's hard to reconstruct a legal or economic system from a culture whose language was never written down. 
  • I was very pleased to get a deeper description of the "fall" of Sumeria, which was more about drought than salt (given an extensive -- over extensive? -- irrigation system).
  • Slave labor is very handy when you want to dig canals and build dams!
  • One of the more interesting cultural vignettes comes from Fagan's own experience in Tanzania, where the assembled villagers argue and fight over who's to get what share of the water. I found the description of this process -- and the resulting settlement -- to be a compelling observation on the balancing act that takes place over and over in a community where nobody is a winner for long and everyone's voice has a place. In the end, someone gets the water. The tricky part is that everyone needs to accept that fact -- for now.
  • At the end of Chapter 4, Fagan claims that the Hohokam (of Africa) would be horrified by the water consumption of Phoenix, but I am not so sure. If anything, Elixir provides ample evidence of people pushing supplies to the limit (to the margin), subject to their technology. They are no wiser than us; they merely lacked centrifugal pumps!
  • Chapter 8 delivers an excellent example: Rulers of the Sassanian empire (220 CE to 650 CE) were able to build huge irrigation works in today's Iraq and Iran, but their push for economies of scale in producing grains undermined the diversification that had protected earlier farmers from over-reliance on a single food source. When instability (and Islam) arrived, the Sassanians fell.
  • I enjoyed the detailed description of Roman water distribution, especially the observation that outbound pipes from the castellum at the end of an aqueduct were at different levels. The lowest level went to fountains for drinking water. Then came baths and theatres. At the highest level -- and first to get cut if water levels dropped -- were private residences.
  • Such an equitable system didn't keep rich people from building their own aqueducts, pipes to castella, or punching holes in pipes to bring water to their houses!
  • I also enjoyed the tale of Chen Hongmou (1696-1771), a Chinese official who understood that investment today would lead to returns tomorrow -- and who also understood that villages should pay for part of the cost of improvements that would soon make them rich.
  • p 291: "on the day of resurrection, Allah would ignore those who possessed surplus water and withheld it from travelers." This gives you an idea of the moral and legal foundations of the wondrous water works that Muslims constructed across North Africa, Spain and the Middle East.
  • These skills, on the other hand, were strained by the adoption of water thirsty crops (cotton, sugar) that strained local water supplies -- a problem that persists today in many arid areas.
Fagan ends with an eloquent plea for local sustainability (p. 347):
Humans have managed water successfully for thousands of years... it is the simple and ingenious that often works best -- local water schemes, decisions about sharing and management made by kin, family and small communities. These experiences also teach us that self-sustainability is attainable... Only one thing is certain: Descartes was wrong. We will never master the earth.
Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR stars for its interesting description of "the way it was" and "the way it fell apart" across the centuries. Elixir provides useful context while we ponder the difference between "sustainable" and "imperial overreach."

* I asked Brian about the title. He said it was not his idea. I am particularly bothered by books that do not match their covers, and "Elixir" denotes a mystique absent from the book.

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