Unlike other authors of books about water, Brian Fagan in Elixir gives much more attention to the culture, as one might expect of an anthropologist. In most of the cultures he discusses in his book, water is closely associated with ritual, often considered sacred. Fagan’s interested in the human relationship with water goes beyond ritual and religion and includes politics and technology.
Fagan describes three phases of the human relationship with water. In the first stage, water is an unreliable, often scarce, and highly valued resource. This value is reflected in the careful management, ritual, and even sacred reverence of water. In the second stage, from the Industrial Revolution to our own day, water is a commodity, little considered and treated as if it were superabundant. In the emerging stage, water is a finite resource we need to conserve.
Most of the book is covers the first stage. He discusses the historic relationship and management of water from around the world. Some of these were famous for their extensive management of water, sometimes with equally extensive infrastructure, such as the Egyptian and Romans. Others are lesser known, like the highly ritualistic and religious Balinese system that is still operating. Some we know relatively little about in spite of their antiquity, such as the pre-Columbian Mayan and Andean cultures.
Because of this approach, Elixir is also a work of cultural and physical geography. The reader can, in imagination, travel the world and see how civilizations are shaped by the sometimes harsh realities of the environment and how humans shape their environment.
The commodity stage is covered much more briefly. To be fair, it is only a few hundred years old. It is our age, when technology has allowed us to reach ever more difficult and remote sources of water. Even in the industrial era, not everyplace has had truly abundant water. Fagan points to arid and semiarid regions of Africa and Asia as locations poised on exhausting their water. This is an issue in the United States, too, especially in the southwest, where politics and unrealistic optimism have trumped wisdom and reality for more than a century.
For the stage we are entering, the issue becomes conservation and sustainability. Acknowledging that we are using our fresh water supply faster than it is regenerated, especially in some parts of the world, and making changes to our practices an technology, will require another cultural shift if we are to have sustainable water supplies.
When it comes to sustainability, I was surprised how much faith Fagan expressed in technology and human ingenuity. Even so, he implies that we should look to our past.
In the early stage of our relationship with water, we valued it, even reverenced it, immensely. It is time to place a high value on water again, even without religious aspects. Also, in the past water management was a very local affair, and surprisingly democratic. Though few of the governments Fagan discusses were democracies, they had mechanisms for hearing and considering the needs of everyone in the community. Even in empires with powerful central governments that built and managed extensive waterworks, community-based water management operated alongside, and often it was the food surpluses of these local, village-managed operations that made empire-building possible.
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