Why do we treasure that which is rare and take for granted that which is plentiful? Humans are creatures blessed with sufficient powers of reasoning to comprehend that, so long as a resource is finite, its value should be determined by its utility, not its scarcity. A limited supply is just that, a limited supply. If millions of years are required to make more of what we use, then we best not spend all that we have unless we wish to go without. This is fairly simple logic, and yet we continue to save our fondest regard for that which is rarest and squander that which is not, obsessed by the notion of possessing the last sliver of the available pie while paying no mind to the unavoidable truth that, in some way, we require all of Earth's finite resources to sustain ourselves. This is Mr. Fagan's eminently sensible argument in this, his sweeping study of the history of water.
For billions of years, it has flowed across the surface of our world, chasing gravity while participating in an environmental cycle essential for our existence. It has carved out rivers and streams, created spectacular lakes and valleys. It has born on its breast the building blocks of life, implanting them on distant shores. It has made possible all that we hold dear. It is water. And, today, it is everywhere, so ubiquitous that most of us in the developed world give not a moment's thought to wasting it. However, it was not always thus.
Before the advent of modern technology, before public works projects built dams and tapped underground reservoirs, our ancestors, from Africa to Mesopotamia, from China to Mexico, depended upon the weather to grant them water for their survival. This precious resource was so scarce at times that temples were erected to gods who might have some sway over temperamental climates that brought droughts as often as deluges. Water was considered sacred, a worthy commodity for the swearing of oaths.
But then man discovered agriculture. He learned how to find water and spread it across his fields to grow yet more food, allowing the population to expand, allowing for the advancement of science, allowing for the discovery of yet more ways of cultivating the land and harnessing the watery discharge of glaciers and lakes, springs and aquifers. With these advancements came yet more people, with more ideas, moments of insight that would ignite civilization. Water taps replaced the fallen temples and yet another resource became a means to our end.
From the utility of Mesopotamian wadis to the grandeur of Roman aqueducts, from religion to imperialism, Elixir is a history of water and its cultivation. Mr. Fagan reaches back into the dark depths of our history in order to describe the dozens of ingenious methods our ancestors used to capture and store this most vital of life's lubricants. In doing so, he pulls back the curtain on a dozen dead civilizations, restoring them temporarily to life, commemorating them for their ingenuity. Each effort, each invention, becomes a brick in the wall of progress that culminates in a modern day world that, thanks to the pleasures of excess, has forgotten the preservational lessons of earlier eras, squandering that which we cannot make again.
In this, Mr. Fagan's history becomes a rather pointed critique of the cavalier attitude we have adopted towards water, a resource vanishing at increasingly rapid rates thanks to the explosive expansion of the human population. What will we do when the very stuff of life, becomes too scarce to be handed round? Will thirsty societies simply close up shop and quietly go into the night without so much as a whimper? Or will they fight for their survival, deploying all the destructive tools necessary to secure their continued existences? In light of our warlike history, the latter is all but a certainty. What sort of world, what manner of civilization, will be left behind by the water wars of the near future?
This is a most thorough history of a most underappreciated resource. Diamonds and gold will not sustain us. They cannot quench our thirst or water our crops. Life is filled with baubles, trinkets, in which we invest so much pride. All this while the water that sustained us is used to carry away our waste. Elixir is as revelatory as it is complete, as enlightening as it is frightening. Ours is an uncertain future. (4/5 Stars)