The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization
by Steven Solomon
$27.99 List Price
A noun followed by a colon and a claim to greatness—whether Coal: A Human History or Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, it's a formula with proven publishing legs. As these smartly packaged microhistories train their writers' full powers of research and analysis on undervalued or overlooked topics, they can, in skilled hands, elevate humble subjects to glorious heights—and argue convincingly for their importance on the world stage. However, as deployed in Steven Solomon's exhaustive new Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, the strategy of the close read runs afoul of one simple problem: Has water's primacy in civilization's pyramid of needs ever been in dispute?
Water, writes Solomon, is earth's "indispensable resource," and how societies manage it is "one of the central motive forces of history." That's hardly a controversial claim, and it leaves Solomon opting for the macro over the micro lens to make his case. The scope of his investigation encompasses everything from transoceanic shipping to irrigation. To articulate water's place at the fulcrum of human history, he traces the ancient, medieval, and modern histories of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow rivers. He dips his oar into the history of agriculture, depicting the invention of large-scale, irrigated farming as the moment that set civilization on its course. He charts the history of Greco-Roman naval warfare, Portuguese seafaring, and the trade routes of the Levant. He laments the "meager freshwater patrimony" of Islamic society. He assesses the importance