Reviewing Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon (HarperCollins, 2010)
My interest in issues related to water has developed during my retirement years. In part, this was because we lived for a time in the desert southwest where golf courses and lush agricultural fields luxuriated despite the aridity of the climate and where archaeological remains testified to the fragility of previous hydrological societies.
My interest in water also developed as a corollary to my activities as an open road cyclist, taking long tours through river systems drained by the Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande in the West and the Potomac and Ohio in the East. The writing on water that I have done has been primarily as a secondary theme within travel narratives based on cycling expeditions.
One of the reasons for giving more sustained attention to water related issues is the growing evidence that climate change has become a serious issue now rather than one that is waiting to happen in another generation. The hydrological systems of the earth are behaving in ways that are outside of our experience. Deluges, droughts, and intense fires are more common and more extreme than they used to be, and they take place simultaneously. Climatic patterns that our civilizations have relied upon are becoming undependable.
A second reason is my interest in reflecting upon the meaning of these changes from a theological and ethical point of view. Current literature tends to focus on factual descriptions: where water is found, how contemporary societies are using it, and changes that are taking place in the availability and use of water. As long as we focus on description, it is possible to reach broad agreement on water in the current global economy and political scene.
A more difficult challenge is to agree on evaluations of how well the hydrological systems are working and prospects for both the near and longer term futures. More difficult still are the challenges of agreeing on the causes of the hydrological challenges now confronting the people of the world and determining courses of action that we ought to be taking.
The first step in moving the discussion forward is to recognize the varied roles that water has played in the development of human civilization—water for drinking and cleansing, water as a means of exercising power and developing wealth, water as the enabling agent for urban society and also the source of some of the most urgent problems facing these societies, water as the substance upon which everything else seems to depend.
This is where Steven Solomon’s 500-page book Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization is the very thing we need. In a remarkably comprehensive, concise, and compelling manner, this journalist, who publishes in major American media, describes “the twisting flow of water” (quoting from a statement by Daniel Yergin on the book jacket).
In his prologue, Solomon summarizes the major themes of the book: (1) Control and manipulation of water has been a pivotal axis of power and human achievement throughout history. (2) Preeminent societies have invariably exploited their water resources in ways that were more productive and unleashed larger supplies than in slower adapting societies. (3) Water challenges on an epic scale are unfolding today. (4) The societies that find the most innovative responses to these crises will most likely come out as winners, while the others will fade behind. (5) Civilization also will be shaped by water’s inextricable and deep interdependencies with energy, food, and climate change.
The book is filled with factual information, but the facts are presented in a strong narrative manner rather than in a technical manner. Solomon depends more upon historians than geologists as the sources of information and insight. Read more. . . . Twisting Flow of Water