Elixir: A History of Water and Humankindby Brian Fagan
Elixir spans five millennia, from ancient Mesopotamia to the parched present of the Sun Belt. As Brian Fagan shows, every human society has been shaped by its relationship toour most essential resource. Fagan's sweeping narrative moves across the world, from ancient Greece and Rome, whose mighty aqueducts still supply modern cities, to China, where emperors
Elixir spans five millennia, from ancient Mesopotamia to the parched present of the Sun Belt. As Brian Fagan shows, every human society has been shaped by its relationship toour most essential resource. Fagan's sweeping narrative moves across the world, from ancient Greece and Rome, whose mighty aqueducts still supply modern cities, to China, where emperors marshaled armies of laborers in a centuries-long struggle to tame powerful rivers. He sets out three ages of water: In the first age, lasting thousands of years, water was scarce or at best unpredictable—so precious that it became sacred in almost every culture.
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, human ingenuity had made water flow even in the most arid landscapes.This was the second age: water was no longer a mystical force to be worshipped and husbanded, but a commodity to be exploited. The American desert glittered with swimming pools— with little regard for sustainability. Today, we are entering a third age of water: As the earth's population approaches nine billion and ancient aquifers run dry,we will have to learn once again to show humility, even reverence, for this vital liquid. To solve the water crises of the future, we may need to adapt the water ethos of our ancestors.
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.
- Bloomsbury USA
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- 6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)
Meet the Author
Brian Fagan was born in England and spent several years doing fieldwork in Africa. He is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Cro-Magnon and the New York Times bestseller The Great Warming and many other books, including Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World, and several books on climate history, including The Little Ice Age and The Long Summer.
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