Book Review: ‘Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization’ by Steven Solomon

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and CivilizationWater: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Any book that takes a mere thirty pages to mention Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ probably has a strong economic angle. I wasn’t surprised to see that Solomon writes for economy/business publications: this book is very centered around economic gain and exploitation. It’s not an unexpected view, but if you were looking for something entirely around the use of water in an engineering, ecological, social, or other scientific context this isn’t the book for you.

It’s hard to argue with the central thesis that water is essential to the expansion of civilization. I completely agree there: transportation, irrigation, disease, protection—all important things that contributed to population growth. Less moderate people will be less sanguine about his final argument, but more on that later.

Overall, I think the entire section on the ancients should have been condensed to scattered paragraphs offering perspective in the later chapters about their modern counterpart states. While the long view is nice to have, the historiography there is lacking (and it stands out more because I read Al-Khalili right before this). There are a bunch of statements that have been either debunked within the past 15+ years (or where the literature has always maintained one tradition and the archeology contradicts it; I have no idea how you find these things out, I learned them in class) or that aren’t precisely conveyed.

Past the ancient section, the historiography does seem to get better. I’m not as well informed on English history so I could be missing inaccuracies, but the second he gets to the Industrial Revolution, Solomon comes to life. Even the sections on the rise of mercantilism and the Age of Navigation aren’t as lively on this part; it’s clear what Solomon is interested in, and I would rather have a shorter (and, yes, easier) read than have those sections holding the narrative back.

Erin Brockovich this ain’t.

The interesting thing about Solmon’s perspective in describing each era is that he sticks to the view the people of those time held. When he got into the building of Boulder (later Hoover) dam and the dams across California, I was like ‘where is the environmental impact?!’ It’s later, in the bit when people realized that was a major issue. So you get the chance to be excited about technology the way contemporaries of these projects were, although of course I wasn’t because I knew what was ahead anyway.

His final perspective on solving water problems is, not astonishingly, based around using the free market (economic incentives to save). He’s not convinced capitalism alone will fix everything, but he’s also not in favor of total governmental control. I liked the middle of the road approach he takes, although I’ve seen plenty of arguments against either side of it and it does need fine-tuning.

As a whole, this book is a good read on key movements in the use of water, again with a very economic focus. Don’t consider the opening representative of the work as a whole.

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