Defying gravity

30 Jun 2011

Engineers have been shoring up the banks of the Mississippi River for decades with ever-more-elaborate devices, such as levees, spillways and defences. But this spring, record-breaking floods, possibly made worse by climate change, tempted the river to permanently jump its banks and seek a new route to the ocean. Meanwhile, in China, the government made a rare acknowledgement of problems with the Three Gorges Dam. Although it is the world’s biggest, the dam hasn’t done much to control severe floods, its reservoir is plagued by islands of floating trash, and the tremendous weight of the water may be triggering earthquakes nearby.

These are just a couple of recent reminders that even with today’s sophisticated technologies and with unprecedented energy consumption, we still have difficulty managing water. Yet most people take Herculean efforts to control water, such as those on the Mississippi, for granted, argues archaeologist Brian Fagan in his new book, Elixir — an attitude he says we need to change urgently.

Fagan has written several other popular books that focus on how people have dealt with shifts in the climate hundreds or thousands of years ago, namely The Little Ice Age and The Great Warming. His latest book takes a related but distinct approach, honing in on one essential resource — water — and its use throughout the history of civilization. Although modern-day water woes were a major motivation for Fagan in writingElixir, the book’s main focus is how people worked with water in the distant past, including their ingenious triumphs and epic failures.

Our ancestors had to use gravity creatively to bring water to their fields and cities, carving channels and tunnels into hillsides, as well as using waterwheels to harness flows to power mills for grinding grain. If there’s one thing that sets our present age apart from those that came before us, it’s that we’ve figured out how to defy gravity, Fagan argues. We now use fossil-fuelled pumps to pull water up from deep underground and to push it over mountain ranges. With this power, however, “a sense of conquest, of supremacy, replaced respect for water,” Fagan writes. As a result, he argues “an orgy of consumption ensued and continues to this day.”

Many of our current ways of using water — such as mining fossil aquifers, for example — are clearly unsustainable. This may soon catch up with us anyhow, but climate change will also force our hand, Fagan argues. Informed by scientific projections, he foresees an “era of prolonged global drought” for all those regions that are already struggling to get the water they want.

To see how we might do things differently, Fagan surveys 5,000 years of water management, looking both at the technologies people used and the social systems that went along with them. One of the simplest irrigation techniques — probably employed around the dawn of agriculture, and still in use today by some farmers in Kenya — is to dig furrows in the dirt to divert water as it flows downhill. In societies using these kinds of techniques, decision-making was probably by consensus, and the labour to build the furrows was largely voluntary and communal.

In each region, as societies grew larger, and as agriculture pushed into arid lands such as Mesopotamia or the deserts that now form the southwestern US, incredible amounts of labour were required to build increasingly elaborate works. Often this labour was in the form of slavery; in the case of the Roman Empire, to name just one example, slaves were often captured by conquering new lands. These workers toiled to create the stone channels and bridges that carried water across valleys and maintained the aqueducts, chipping away mineral scaling that would otherwise choke off the flow.

In both small-scale societies and large, centralized empires, water management was typically bound up with religion, Fagan argues. In ancient Greece, for example, Athens’ Acropolis, a complex of temples and other buildings, was at the heart of the city’s administration and its myths. “But its real attraction was its springs and water seeps,” Fagan writes, and large cisterns made the site “in effect, a huge reservoir.” Similarly, as described in a chapter on the island of Bali in Southeast Asia, temples along the route of canals have long been a part of a water-management scheme that intertwines the day-to-day practicalities of farming with religion and politics.

Some of the larger, more complex societies Fagan covers seem to have been attached to clearly unsustainable practices, such as the Sassanian Empire in the sixth century AD, in what is now Iran. There they carved extensive canals to water their fields, but neglected drainage, so salts built up that apparently poisoned their crops and contributed to the society’s collapse after only a couple of centuries.

Other societies’ ways may have been sustained for much longer periods if it weren’t for shifts in the climate that pushed them to the limit — as with the Khmer who built Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, a complex of temples at the heart of a vast network of canals. Recent research found that at the same time medieval Europe was hit by a ‘Little Ice Age’, the monsoons of Southeast Asia were failing, and after suffering two long dry spells in the late 1300s and early 1400s, the Khmer Empire collapsed.

Fagan writes of many failed empires, and is a harsh critic of the use of water in the industrial age, but he strikes a surprisingly optimistic note at the end of the book. “There will be shortfalls, people will go thirsty and die, but in the end, as has happened so many times in the past, human ingenuity, quite apart from technology, will find solutions,” he writes. From his studies of the ancients, Fagan draws some lessons, the most important being “that it is the ingenious and simple that often works best — local water schemes, and decisions about sharing and management made by kin, family and small communities.”

That may be, but how to achieve that on today’s crowded planet is difficult to see. Likewise, it is hard to imagine industrial societies regaining some sense of water as sacred. The best we might hope for in the near term is a new-found respect for water. Reading Fagan’s book is an enjoyable way of gaining that respect, by taking a tour through the hard-won lessons of the past.

© 2011 Nature Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All Rights Reserved.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »