Friday, August 24, 2012

Summer Reading: Elixir--a history of humankind and water

Last summer reading for the year.

To start, the title is horrible. This is a book about how mankind, over the past 5000 years has harnessed water for civilization's purpose. It's not about sweetened, alcoholic medicines. Just call it Water. You don't write a book about water and title it "cough syrup".

After cover, the book got better. It's a global survey of human waterworks. How people have harnessed  water for irrigation, sanitation, flood control, even war. Africa, Australia, Peru, China, Greece, Britain, Mexico. It's an amazing cross-section of history. It draws on Fagan's knowledge of archaeology and climate well.

Why read it?

The reviewers were impressed, but you could tell they weren't sure. It's not prescriptive for future society. But it's a rich toolbox from which to draw. To learn about qanats is to appreciate the constraints on Persian society and the great lengths people went to irrigate. It's also clear how much work it was to maintain these systems and why they would have been a key to the organization of civilization. And how incredibly complex and well-organized societies were thousands of years ago.

You also learn a bit better how droughts and floods would have crushed societies, but also how societies buffered themselves against them, too.

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