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  • Posted July 31, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Steven Solomon's engaging and wide ranging Water, the Epic Strug

    Steven Solomon's engaging and wide ranging Water, the Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, presents a fascinating lens on human history by focusing on the role of water as related to agricultural and military technology, trade, and frequently unpredictable catalyst of change. The book covers both history, and in the last chapter, current issues, with some predictions.
    I liked the history the best. I really enjoyed the discussion of the role of good or bad Nile floods in the history of Egypt, Rome, and the Muslim world as contrasted with irrigation in the Fertile Crescent and early Europe. Solomon makes a compelling case that water use and technology was instrumental in the rise of human civilization. It also puts into perspective that old interest in having the desert bloom.
    There is a thorough review of some of the defining economic, political, and military events in history and how water use played into those events, primarily related to navigation and trade, the rise of European sea power to protect those trade routes, and how success or failure on the seas shaped political history. I really enjoyed the discussion of water power in the American Revolution, including the luck of timing. Some reviews suggest that the discussions of navigation and naval power are unrelated to the overall discussion of water usage. Maybe. But it's fascinating and fits with the effort to make a history of the world's relationship with water. And it sets up the discussions of technology like the steam engine that are critical to the overall thesis about man's relationship with water as related to technology.
    There is a certain bias for market economies that may be justifiable, but is never justified. Rather, it is presented as the inevitable best choice. In the discussion of the United States, particularly the dry West, the book describes in detail the primary role of government in securing finance and overcoming market weaknesses to yoke the Colorado and other great western rivers. The Hoover Dam section is fascinating. The book argues that the government-lead approach is faltering based on modern market forces, but doesn't present good proof of that. The only example is the Imperial Valley selling part of its Colorado River allotment to San Diego, but there was still a lot of government involvement in that.
    There is considerable current evidence that federal and state government policies favoring particular types of agriculture distort market forces. While I love almonds, I’m concerned about their intense water footprint. But alfalfa is also super water intensive and is primarily used for livestock, and yet government policy does so much to support cattle ranching.
    The last section on current water challenges is sobering. As California struggles with a massive drought, the discussion is timely and scary. I certainly hope that technology can help address our water shortages, especially given that current estimates have us in for a dry spell. Farmer family members say that there can't be water in heaven or people will fight over it. This book shows that geopolitics is consistent with farmers. I hope that Solomon is right to hope. In the meantime, I'm taking a serious look at my water usage, including what foods I chose to eat.

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    Posted March 9, 2013

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    Posted September 8, 2010

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