Evan Soltas
Jun 18, 2012

Steven Solomon's 'Water'

The sea erodes the land to match the flow of tides and currents. Rivers form deltas, marshes, and arable land in their passage. Shoreline provides harbors, fisheries, and straits. In all respects, water is omnipresent, omnipotent. So goes the thesis of Stephen Solomon's "Water," an ambitious chronicle of the role water has played in civilization and its history.

Suffice it to say that I was deeply disappointed by the book. "Water" could have been another "Big History" masterpiece akin to Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel." Instead, I found it tiresomely detailed in some respects, woefully insufficient in others, and on the whole unconvincing and unoriginal.

First, tiresome. In his narrative of world history, Solomon fails to exercise proper editorial judgment of what details do or do not pertain to water. The book consequently entertains a lengthy and frequently overgeneralizing summary of the history of civilization from prehistory to the present.

Second, insufficient. When Solomon's narrative does dip into water, it almost always fails to engage the topic in appropriate depth. The book's examination of technology as it pertains to water, for instance, is strikingly unserious -- it appears that Solomon does not know enough about engineering, or has failed to sufficiently consult experts who do, to tell the reader anything a reasonably well-informed layperson would not already know about canals, aqueducts, shipbuilding, sewage or irrigation systems, or the like.

Third, unconvincing. Solomon has a penchant for sweeping statements and faulty deductive reasoning. For example, he claims at one point -- I have lost the page -- that cities have been always a productive and advancing force. This would be true but for the long history of extractive regimes which transferred wealth from agricultural areas into cities, in fact the normal arrangement until the Industrial Revolution. After only a few of the 86 times Solomon uses the word every, the 34 he uses always, or the 23 he uses everywhere, the reader knows to wince.

Fourth, unoriginal. A reporter and as such not a water expert, Solomon has little to offer us in the way of new information or insight. When he quotes his sources directly -- such as Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History,  Karl Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism, or Frederick Jackson Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" -- the reader ends up taking note as to what he should have read. Furthermore, in his discussion of current challenges with water, Solomon does little but digest the "limits-to-growth" environmentalist position. He does not discuss with any substance either the validity of that view relative to Julian Simon's "ultimate resource" thesis, nor the appropriate policies and technologies to resolve what Solomon sees as a looming environmental crisis.

I elect not to close this review with a bad invocation of a watery idiom. Other reviews of this book can be found here; I agree in particular with the comments by The Economist.