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The Complex And Surprising History Of Humanity And Water


What is the one thing that has shaped the course of human civilization more than any other? Well, according to the author Giulio Boccaletti, the answer is water. The title of his new book is "Water: A Biography." It travels over centuries, across continents to show how humans have built their lives around this fickle, precious resource.

Giulio Boccaletti, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GIULIO BOCCALETTI: Thank you - great to be here.

SHAPIRO: This is one of the most ambitious books that I've read in a long time. It is both deep and broad. You've spent your life researching water, working at universities, consulting firms, NGOs. What made you think that this history of human civilization through the lens of water was the book that needed to be written right now?

BOCCALETTI: Well, I thought so. I hope so. One of the pathologies of water debates is that they tend to be very sort of technological. You end up having discussions about desalination, about, you know, whether dams are a good idea or not. But really, what matters in water is the ideas that we have about it, and ideas have histories. And I started wondering where those ideas came from. Why did we think that we could manage the water in the way we do? And so I sort of started getting into the history of water. And as I did that more and more, I realized that the only way we're going to find a path forward through the crisis we're going through right now is if we look back and we understand how we went through the previous ones.

SHAPIRO: So it's a book about history that is really about the present.

BOCCALETTI: Yeah, it's a book about history that really informs our understanding of the present. That's right.

SHAPIRO: And what do you learn when you look at human history through that lens? When you kind of impose that frame on civilization, what do you see?

BOCCALETTI: Well, you see a dialectical relationship, to use sort of some fancy words here. But, you know, to me, what's interesting is that over 10,000 years - and the book does, you know, cover an enormous amount of ground. But over 10,000 years, we've been sort of in this dance with the landscape of water, you know? And to every action that we take responds a reaction of the water world. And we've been locked into this kind of Faustian bargain with water for millennia.

And so in a way, the predicament we find ourselves right now - you know, we are talking as the Colorado River is essentially drying. You know, we just had over the summer significant floods in Germany and in China. And if you look at the history of water, you discover these events have happened over and over and over again. And they've always entailed some adaptation, some adjustment on the part of societies. And those adjustments end up becoming the DNA of institutions that then persist over time.

SHAPIRO: Adjustments meaning, like, dams and...


SHAPIRO: ...Sewage systems and aqueducts and...

BOCCALETTI: That in parts but also just changes in behavior, right? So imagine - think of the American West, right? We - John Wesley Powell shows up there and looks around, and nobody's essentially yet sedentary there. And then people start moving, and dams get built, and levees get built. That's the technological part of the story. But then, of course, people live in the shadow of those levees and, you know, live in the shadow of those dams. And cities grow, and cultures develop, and they habituate to that security provided by the infrastructure.

SHAPIRO: This book does cover so much ground. I mean, we go from China to Egypt to the Americas. Can you tell us about one place, one moment in which water and human civilization were really inextricably linked?

BOCCALETTI: You know, it's interesting. One of the most surprising stories I discovered - and I only touched on it in the book - is the story of the populations that lived in the Amazon just before the arrival of the Spanish. And it turns out there's a fair amount of archaeological evidence from the last 20, 30 years that shows that, whereas, you know, people in the Levant or people in Europe ended up domesticating species of plants or animals, those populations in forests - in the tropical forests actually domesticated the landscape itself. And what that means is that they redesigned the entire landscape so that they could live in it, right?

The story of urbanization in the western world or the story of urbanization in Mesopotamia is a story of separation between nature and people, right? Well, in the Amazon, that never happened. They integrated within the forest. And so they had, you know, mounds to collect water - floodwater so that they could capture fish before the waters receded. They then grew fruit trees on those mounds. And so you would have seen a kind of completely integrated human and forest landscape that supported quite a dense population.

SHAPIRO: So different from, like, trying to tame the Mississippi River, in contrast.

BOCCALETTI: Completely different. Exactly - completely different. And, you know, it offers a counterpoint. Is it better? Is it worse? Not for me to judge. But I think it's interesting that the diversity of solutions to living in the water landscape is far greater than what we see today on the planet.

SHAPIRO: So I hear you saying that what we are seeing today in the crises around water and climate change are not completely new, not entirely dissimilar from the history of human civilization. Does that make you more optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to confront and adapt to these challenges?

BOCCALETTI: Well, it makes me optimistic in the sense that our history is a history of continuous adaptation. So in that sense, you know, the solutions that we need are certainly accessible to us. I'm not pessimistic, but I'm worried because - and that's why, in part, I wrote this book - because I see discussions about water reduced to discussions about technology and about environmental policy. And I think one of the big learnings for me in researching this book was that, really, our relationship with water is a big political issue with a big P, right? It's sort of a foundational issue. It's almost a constitutional issue. It's about the fundamental contracts by which we all live together in the landscape.

And I fear that sometimes we treat water as a kind of white coats business, right? Somebody in some room is worrying about it, and technocrats will take care of it. And I think in fact, it's possibly the most important political and environmental issue that we face, and it needs to be at the heart of the political discourse. Until that happens, I will be worried.

SHAPIRO: I was wondering as I was reading this book - I mean, you are in London. I'm in Washington, D.C. These are both cities where you can pretty reliably turn on the tap and get drinkable water. I wondered whether a book like this would have been written differently or would be read differently in a slum of Mumbai or Nairobi or someplace in the developing world where the water outlook is very different today.

BOCCALETTI: Oh, for sure. I mean, I think that, you know, we, living in New York or in London, live under this, you know, illusion of complete control where, you know, water is simply part of our background. But that's not true for most of the world. And, in fact, one of the things that's interesting, I think, is that as the geopolitics of the world is changing, as, you know, China, India, you know, countries in the G20 and the G77 become more prominent, water is rising in the totem pole of international discussions because they have a much more present sense of the risks that come from the mismanagement or the poor management of water.

So I don't know if the book would have been written differently, but I think it certainly speaks differently to different people. Whereas somebody living in London might read it and discover that water matters in ways that they didn't expect, somebody living in the slums of Mumbai or Nairobi will probably see their reality reflected and realize that, you know, in the last 10,000 years, for most people, nothing much has changed.

SHAPIRO: Giulio Boccaletti's new book is "Water: A Biography."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

BOCCALETTI: Thank you very much.


Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.