Review: Water–The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

5 Star, Capitalism (Good & Bad), Change & Innovation, Complexity & Catastrophe, Complexity & Resilience, Culture, Research, Economics, Environment (Problems), Environment (Solutions), Future, History, Peace, Poverty, & Middle Class, Power (Pathologies & Utilization), Survival & Sustainment, Water, Energy, Oil, Scarcity
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5.0 out of 5 stars In a class by itself, more to be done

August 29, 2010

Steven Solomon

This book is in a class by itself, and for the US audience, I would recommend The Atlas of Water, Second Edition: Mapping the World’s Most Critical Resource, this book, and Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping And The Fate Of America’s Fresh Waters or the more recent Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It as well as When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century and The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink.

For the international audience, this book is a very fine complement–despite lacking visualization and a more interesting lay-out on both water technologies over time and the environmental challenges they generated (with what time lags)–to the top world view books. If you buy only one, Marq de Villier Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource is still the very best single book, followed by Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water now also a DVD Blue Gold: World Water Wars, and the original short book Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit. There are others, you can find my reviews of all water books I have touched at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog, under Reviews/Water (middle column far down). All my reviews there lead back to the Amazon page of the respective book.

Over-all this is a very intelligent book, and unlike most of the other books that focus on the water cycle and its problems, this book focuses on water in relation to the larger civilization. It does not, however, do what books like 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which is to catalog indigenous knowledge about water management that is starkly relevant today.

The strategic points the author emphasizes are:

01 Water innovation now leads to environmental problems later. No one has ever thought through the overall context of water use in relation to everything from poverty and disease to family and society.

02 Water, not oil, is the bell ringer on the 21st Century demand that humanity finally recognize its limits and its responsibilities, and get serious about holistic behavior.

03 New forms of governance, not just new technologies, will be critical innovation factors. I like this but neither Water Footprint nor True Cost nor Environmental Economics are in the index and I do not see any analytic model within this book–see the Strategic Analytic Model and especially the Holistic Analysis–Water Central Graphic at Phi Beta Iota (active links in my review there).

I almost dropped this book to a four because it lacks the two things I really hoped for in a book of this particular nature:

01 Single page reviews of specific water technologies and their relevance today (e.g. barges on the Erie Canal true cost per ton compared to rail and truck)

02 A specific program of innovative investment. The author says that 180 billion dollars a year must be invested in infrstructure, but I have to struggle to put the pieces together (all the while thinking about our 3 trillion elective war on Iraq, and our 12 trillion criminal-treason bail-out of Wall Street millionaires who are also pathological liars to the public and the government).

However, this is a master work, the author clearly met his own goals of a historical review, and I cannot do better. I give him high marks for getting the percentage of water that is fresh and clean right: 1%. Most water books use 2.5% which I believe is wrong.

I grew increasingly frustrated as I went through the book, but was rewarded with some quotes at the end that I reproduce here. The author is clear on how the four paths societies take when confronted with scarcity range from complacency to efficiency to waste more water without regard to the future. I respect what I take to be the core point: that every society struggles with scarcity of one sort or another, and how they innovate around that scarcity will define them into the future. The author avoids taking a position, or deeply examining, the range of options from public to private, or hybrids therein–see the other books for that.

QUOTE (466): “Look, if one of those [New York water] tunnels goes, this city will be completely shut down,” said James Ryan, a veteran tunnel worker. “In some placed there won’t be water for anything…It would make September 11 look like nothing.”

QUOTE (469): Alone, five gian global food and beverage corporations–Nestle, Danone, Unilever, Anheuser-Busch, and Coca Cola–consume enough water to meet the daily domestic needs of every person on the planet.

QUOTE (486): Countries with scarcity are likely to veer toward famine; countries already in water famine face greater human catastrophes and political upheavals. Overtaxed water ecosystems are likely to grow more and more depleted and less and less capable of sustaining their societies. As the gulf between those with sufficient water [Iceland, Quebec, and Scotland] and those without deepens as a source of grievance, inequity and conflict, the politics of scarcity in mankind’s most indispensable resource is becoming an increasingly [the] pivotal fulcrum in shaping the history and environmental destiny of the twenty-first century.

QUOTE (495): With extreme water scarcity showing through as a root cause of many of the world’s famines, genocides, diseases, and failing states, I am inclined to believe that if there can be a meaningful human right to any material thing, surely it starts with access to minimum clean freshwater. At the end of the day, how each member of the world community ultimately act in response to the global freshmater crisis is not just a matter of economic and political history, but a judgment on our own humanity–and the ultimate fate of human civilization.

I have two more books, both on water governance, law, and politics, that will complete this “set” of reading, it will be easiest to find them all together at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog. I will end by pointing to Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century as well as their more recent Revolutionary Wealth. This book strives to make water central, but water is NOT central–thinking holistically, rooted in reality, deeply ethical, is what is central. No government and no corporation and no international or non-governmental organization gets this yet although the Nordics and the Netherlands see it on the horizon–most are still in industrial era “marketshare” mode where information is something to be hoarded not shared. That is why I believe that public intelligence in the public interest–connecting all humans with all information in all languages all the time–is the core challenge. Water, while critical, is one of twelve policies that must be harmonized in order to eradicate the ten high-level threats to humanity. We are the enemy. We have to deal with We first.

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