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Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind
     

Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind

by Brian Fagan, James Langton (Narrated by)
 

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Elixir spans five thousand years, from the beginnings of civilization to the parched American Sun Belt of today. It is a story of human endeavor: our present-day interaction with this most essential resource has deep roots in the remote past, and every human culture has been shaped by its relationship to water. For the earliest hunter-gatherers, knowing where to

Overview

Elixir spans five thousand years, from the beginnings of civilization to the parched American Sun Belt of today. It is a story of human endeavor: our present-day interaction with this most essential resource has deep roots in the remote past, and every human culture has been shaped by its relationship to water. For the earliest hunter-gatherers, knowing where to find water was a matter of life and death; the "songlines" of Australia's Aborigines define the whole landscape as a map of sacred water sources. In many agricultural societies, from Africa to the rice fields of Bali, a communal "water philosophy" surrounds the precious resource with social traditions that preserve fair access for people upstream and down. The sweeping narrative moves from the Greeks and Romans, whose mighty acqueducts still water modern cities, to China, where emperors marshaled armies of laborers in a centuries-long struggle, still ongoing today, to tame the country's powerful rivers. Medieval Europe and then the Industrial Revolution brought ingenious new solutions to water management-but, for the first time, turned water into a commodity to be bought, sold, and exploited rather than a natural force to be worshiped and husbanded. By the twentieth century, technology allowed the American desert to sparkle with swimming pools and lush golf courses-with little regard for sustainability. With his customary elegance and peerless scholarship, Brian Fagan illustrates that the past teaches us that technologies for solving one or another water problem are not enough. From a practical standpoint, we still live at the mercy of the natural world. To solve the water crises of the future we may need to adapt the water ethos of our ancestors.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Five thousand years of rising and falling civilizations flow through Fagan's sweeping survey of man's ability to harness water. From the stirrings of agricultural settlements in the Euphrates Valley to the canny manipulation that sent the Owens River's flow to a tiny California town called Los Angeles at the start of the 20th century, Fagan (The Great Warming), an archeologist, digs down into our relationship to water sources, pointing out that "water is capricious and powerful, far more masterful than the humans and animals that depend on it." However, this survey veers unevenly, offering vivid descriptions of the hazards of channeling water in prehistoric northern Iraq, of water distribution in traditional Balinese governance structures, of Middle Eastern irrigation engineering that becomes mired in measurements and dimensions. Fagan prompts an appreciation of water's centrality to civilization and of human ingenuity, but his topic is so broad and his treatment so dry that his conclusion—a call for a profound realignment of an increasingly urban world with its dwindling water supplies—lacks the impact it deserves. (June)
From the Publisher
"Supplying intriguing historical background, Fagan well informs those pondering freshwater's role in contemporary environmental problems." ---Booklist
Library Journal
Fagan (emeritus, anthropology, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; The Great Warming) traces humankind's relationship to water through history. He delves beyond water's life-sustaining properties to explore humans' ritualistic connection to water and the necessity of controlling water in both drought and flood-prone areas. The focus is on technology, ranging from simple furrows to more elaborate aqueducts, and on the correlation between the success of these water-controlling techniques and the civilizations associated with them. Fagan proposes three stages in the evolution of our relationship to water. In the remote past, access to water was unreliable; water was often scarce and therefore sacred. From about 2000 years ago through the Industrial Revolution, water was viewed as a commodity to be exploited. The current era views water as a finite resource that needs to be managed accordingly. VERDICT Recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the history of humans' relationship to water and for science buffs.—Diana Hartle, Univ. of Georgia Science Lib., Athens
Library Journal - Audio
Fagan, the author of numerous books on archaeology and human prehistory, likes to couple historical narrative with archaeological data. Here, he discusses man's relationship to water throughout history. Fagan presents three ages of water: the first age when water was scarce lasted many thousands of years; the second corresponds with the Industrial Revolution and represents man's inventiveness in making water flow in the most arid landscapes, turning it into an exploitable commodity; and the third is represented by burgeoning populations and diminishing aquifers. This is a unique book, coupling history with the scientific nature of one of the earth's most precious elements. Reader James Langton's particular accent is distracting in the way he pronounces some words and his inflection. Perhaps it's the complexity of material combined with the reader that makes this book hard to follow and not a successful listening experience. Recommended for Fagan's fans. ["Recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the history of humans' relationship to water and for science buffs," read the review of the Bloomsbury: Macmillan hc, LJ 6/15/11.—Ed.]—Gloria Maxwell, Metropolitan Community Coll.-Penn Valley Lib., Kansas City, MO
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781452650395
Publisher:
Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date:
06/01/2011
Edition description:
MP3 - Unabridged CD
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.60(d)

Meet the Author

Brian Fagan is the author of Fish on Friday, The Little Ice Age, The Long Summer, and the New York Times bestseller The Great Warming.

James Langton trained as an actor at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. An AudioFile Earphones Award winner, he has performed many voice-overs and narrated numerous audiobooks. James was born in York, England, and is now based in New York City.

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