In an era in which certain political factions seem determined to dismantle the 1977 Clean Water Act, the very law that gave us safe water to drink and kept our rivers from catching on fire, Brian Fagan's "Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind" (Bloomsbury Press, $28) proves to be not just a fascinating book, but also an important one.
As Fagan writes in his introduction, "Of all the resources that we rely on for survival in today's world, water is the least appreciated and most misunderstood." Water has become so commonplace in our lives (at least in Western First World countries) that, Fagan says, "we are indifferent to it and have been for a long time." We have forgotten that clean drinking water is a gift, an amazing feat, and a vital component to our health and well being, not just as individuals but as a society.
And we forget that at our own risk. Fagan's marvelous history shows that water is not to be taken for granted, and that humanity would never have developed if we had not learned how to make access to water a part of our daily lives. In fact, he shows us that the communities and peoples who forgot about the importance of water, or who made the wrong decisions about it, quickly faded away.
Elixir takes the story of water back 5,000 years, covering varied and as far-flung societies such as the ancient Mesopotamians, the Greeks and Romans, the Hohokam of what would become modern Arizona, and many others. Through it, he classifies our history with water into three distinct segments: times in which water was scarce and therefore sacred; eras in which water became an exploitable commodity; and finally, times like now, when water is wasted.
He also breaks the book into three themes: how humans learned to conquer (or work with) gravity to provide access to water, like the Roman aqueducts and still-functioning lead pipes; how rituals developed around water, such as the placement of a shrine where irrigation water enters a farmer's field in Bali; and finally, the link (or lack thereof) between technology and sustainability, as shown by the Hohokam, who built long canals but disappeared when another nearby society sprung up and usurped their water supplies.
The stories come from extensive research as well as the decades of travel that have taken Fagan to almost every corner of the globe. His early work and travels in Africa 40 years ago helped to shape his perception of water as a resource, and eventually to the genesis of this book many years later.
Through it all, Fagan shows how humans followed similar paths around the world to try to tame, subdue and master water, and how it really masters us. We're dependent upon it, and can't survive without it.
The final few pages of the book are not about history but the future, where "cataclysm looms on every side" as we face a finite supply of water but a growing pattern of excessive use. He says there will be shortfalls, and people will die from not having enough access to water, but it will (hopefully) lead once again to a new age of respect, even if we do not regain the spiritual worship of water once help by our forebears.
Don't take water or “Elixir” for granted. Give this important book a read – and then maybe send a copy to your local representative or senator. It can't hurt.