Gleick, P. 2023. The three ages of water: Prehistoric past, imperiled present, and a hope for the future. Public Affairs. ISBN 9781541702271 (Hardback $30.00).
Maurits W. Ertsen
Water Management, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands
To cite this review: Ertsen, M.W. 2023. Review of "The three ages of water: Prehistoric past, imperiled present, and a hope for the future", Public Affairs, 2023, by Peter Gleick, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/349-3ages
Water is important, there is no reason to suggest anything else. Whether “water is life” remains to be seen, however, especially when water can apparently exist in environments (specifically other planets) without showing (other) signs of life. And yet, this watery life may perhaps be discovered by some human researcher in a future – a discovery which may change ideas on life, the university and water. The reader of this review may forgive this slightly odd start of a review on Gleick’s new book The Three Ages of Water once I explain my reasons for doing so. A rather prosaic first reason is that I read Gleick’s book just before Bewilderment, the 2021 novel written by Richard Powers (Powers, 2021), in which environmental degradation and astrobiology are important features. Several possible planets – all modelled by the book’s narrator – feature in the book. Interestingly enough, the way planets – and reality as such – are discussed in Bewilderment is much more ambivalent compared to how Gleick approaches the issue of planetary life – and water issues as such. In Gleick’s universe, there may be some scientific questions that still need to be solved, but solved they will be by science. It is this trust in science that allows Gleick to write a book that does discuss many environmental and political challenges related to water in an optimistic tone. Great may the challenges be, but solved they will be as well. I do like optimism, I am perfectly willing to agree that scientific work will play its role in creating a future that makes more sense than the current era, but I am not sure that the way Gleick defends his position in The Three Ages of Water is convincing. I would have liked to see some more bewilderment in the text.
The text of The Three Ages of Water is (obviously) arranged in three parts. First, we read about prehistory when we dive in water in the universe, plough through the rise of agriculture and engage with the development of larger-scale societies. Second, we move into a time frame that is dominated by scientific and technological progress – although the text on the same age makes it very clear that progress is rather arbitrary given all the problems that water resources management has (created). Third, we view the future of water, in which (the same) science will (have to) bring solutions to create a water-safe planet. In this distinction in three ages, a rather standard positivistic view on human progress can be detected – a view that is also rather problematic. Take the three ages: Age One ends when Greeks and Romans appear. Age Two is supposed to build on what Romans and Greeks did, but 99% of the text on the second age is on the last 300 years. The time in between – the European (!) Middle Ages – is described as one of stagnation and even decay. Next to ignoring that many recent historical studies have rather convincingly suggested that this time period is actually far from stagnating in Europe, Gleick’s standard view of historical phases ignores the many non-European histories. Let me specify this a little bit further as Gleick does acknowledge that non-Europeans did work on water studies. In Gleick’s view on history, this did mainly mean that post-medieval Europe benefitted from what had been preserved of – not further developed on! – the Classics in those other societies. As such, any non-western achievement is immediately incorporated in a narrowing, European-centric and positivistic discussion of science after 1700.
I could write a book on the many remarks I have on the text, but that would be unpractical in a review. Let me therefore focus on two concepts that return throughout the text: science and government. Let’s start with science. It is very unlikely that one needs to adopt an overly relativistic position on science to accept that the idea of “science as progress” is a little simplistic. Science as we know it today may have a different organizational model compared to earlier ways of arranging knowledge creation, but that does not support labelling predecessors as “ignorant” or even “superstitious” – terms that Gleick uses. The same ancient Greeks and Romans that (hardly) feature in Gleick’s book, were very much aware that a different breed of creatures once inhabited their lands. They encountered the fossilized bones of these and developed concepts to explain the fossil evidence (Mayor 2000). Many concepts may have been expressed in mythological stories, but like their modern counterparts, petrified remains were collected, measured, displayed, and used to reconstruct the appearance of the creatures and to explain their extinction. Modern scientists, including Gleick, may see those earlier ways of reasoning about reality as less convincing compared to current scientific efforts, but that does not imply classic ignorance. Imagine what future scientists may think about current ideas on reality!
To guarantee that there will be a world to live in for future scientists to consider current societies being ignorant, we do need an active government – at least according to Gleick. Science has already created the ways forward, now action is needed – which is actually ironic, as one could also argue that that same science has created current problems. Interestingly enough, on this issue Gleick actually uses a word similar to what he uses to describe pre-scientific thought: the problems of today are “unintentional” – which might be a sign of ignorance? Nevertheless, Gleick’s makes it very clear throughout the book that government is to take action based on what science has to say. Water cannot be left to private initiatives, which apparently is shown by history. Well, even when we agree that bottled water has its issues – which has its own western biases one should acknowledge though – it is safe to say that history does not support an anti-private position (see for example Melosi, 2011). The way(s) actual arrangements are made is more important than the specific type of institutions performing them. Gleick will most likely agree, but strongly suggests that government’s failure to pick up scientific innovations has created the mess we are in. This fits very well with his observation that governments are flawed, because of their competing priorities. Indeed, any serious historical analysis will show this has been the case through historical time and space – which to me suggests that expecting the government to become more unified because a group in society proposes certain ways to develop is naïve at best.
My remarks may be seen by some as minor observations on how a non-specialist uses history to support a more general – and probably much more relevant – claim on improving human wellbeing. My answer to that position would be that history might not provide answers to current problems, but unrealistic views on historical processes will for sure obscure how wellbeing can be improved. Obviously, the different potential avenues to engage with water in a more useful way deserve to be discussed – including who needs to be responsible for water distribution, how desalinization can be applied, and how water pollution needs to be prevented. I would not even disagree with Gleick that the academic community has ideas that might be useful to mobilize. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent further climatic changes makes sense, increasing water-use efficiency and productivity – partially through technologies as mundane as washing machines and toilets and partially through wastewater re-use – is interesting. I am not so sure how these topics that are prominent in the solution-oriented third part of the book relate to the “soft path for water” that Gleick proposes, but what he considers as part of the softness includes recognizing concepts like the human right to water and protecting ecosystems – ideas many people would probably support in general.
It is with this “in general” that my concerns are raised, as how to translate such great ideas into practice is not that straightforward. For Gleick the way forward may be clear and follow from the science, but historical work shows that the term “improvement” is contested, that the category of “we” is problematic and typically used to make a (often western-centric) political point, that the relations between public and private are very complicated, and that science is not a neutral societal activity producing useful solutions that just need to be taken up by society. I do realize that what I just wrote down is ambivalent in itself, as I suggest that “proper research” has shown certain things, whereas I defend a position of uncertainty towards that same research as well. I suppose this will remain an intrinsic contradiction within academia. My approach does allow me to suggest that Gleick’s ideas on what to do to face the many water-related challenges may deserve to be discussed, but are not supported by his historical analysis. Gleick’s version of history is based on a very simplistic idea of historical progress from medieval ignorance to modern knowledge, with some unfortunate side effects that need to be restored. Nowhere in his book does Gleick even hint at history as a contested concept, with historical research both showing that ideas have been debated throughout history and are under continuous debate by historical scholars themselves. It would seem that Gleick does not actually need history to make his point. Reading the book, I could not help thinking that Gleick wrote the last age first, after which he composed the other two ages in a way that fitted with his own political ideas. Next to him already knowing what his historical analysis needed to show before writing it, Gleick may even have fallen in a self-created “trap of contradictions”: the historical claims that The Three Ages of Water builds on may not allow for change.
Mayor, A. 2000. The first fossil hunters: dinosaurs, mammoths, and myth in Greek and Roman times. Princeton University Press.
Melosi, M. 2011. Precious commodity: Providing water for America's cities. University of Pittsburgh Press.
Powers, R. 2021. Bewilderment. W. W. Norton & Company.