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Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind Hardcover – June 7, 2011

3.8 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Five thousand years of rising and falling civilizations flow through Fagan's sweeping survey of man's ability to harness water. From the stirrings of agricultural settlements in the Euphrates Valley to the canny manipulation that sent the Owens River's flow to a tiny California town called Los Angeles at the start of the 20th century, Fagan (The Great Warming), an archeologist, digs down into our relationship to water sources, pointing out that "water is capricious and powerful, far more masterful than the humans and animals that depend on it." However, this survey veers unevenly, offering vivid descriptions of the hazards of channeling water in prehistoric northern Iraq, of water distribution in traditional Balinese governance structures, of Middle Eastern irrigation engineering that becomes mired in measurements and dimensions. Fagan prompts an appreciation of water's centrality to civilization and of human ingenuity, but his topic is so broad and his treatment so dry that his conclusion—a call for a profound realignment of an increasingly urban world with its dwindling water supplies—lacks the impact it deserves. (June)
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“As always with Mr. Fagan's work, the range is dazzling, the focus sharp and the pictures vivid...The author holds us with his glittering eye, as he conjures a vision of a world with water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” ―Wall Street Journal

“Juxtaposes ancient and contemporary cultures' veneration of water with the current commodification of it …Fagan is a passionate and lively writer.” ―Los Angeles Times

“… examines societies' relationships with water since ancient times, and describes how the advance of technology has led to unsustainable management and depletion of our most valuable resource.” ―Chronicle of Higher Education

“It is hard to imagine industrial societies regaining some sense of water as sacred. The best we might hope for in the near term is a new-found respect for water. Reading Fagan's book is an enjoyable way of gaining that respect, by taking a tour through the hard-won lessons of the past.” ―Nature Climate Change

“Eye-opening….making sense of water and its place in the development of civilization....[Fagan] understands how the ancients struggled with changing climate and that what matters has always been the fluctuating availability of water, rather than shifting temperatures. That is an important lesson for us now.” ―Washington Post

“Supplying intriguing historical background, Fagan well informs those pondering freshwater's role in contemporary environmental problems.” ―Booklist

“Important and, from a New York Times best-selling author, accessible to all.” ―Library Journal

“Fagan prompts an appreciation of water's centrality to civilization and of human ingenuity.” ―Publishers Weekly

“A rewarding survey of water's role in history and contemporary politics alike.” ―Kirkus

“Not just a fascinating book, but also an important one… [a] marvelous history… Don't take water or Elixir for granted. Give this important book a read--and then maybe send a copy to your local representative or senator.” ―Mother Nature Network

“At a time of increasing threats of regional ‘water wars,' Elixir provides crucial temporal depth and worldwide scope to an emerging water scarcity crisis that we can no longer ignore. Fagan's detailed examination of past use and abuse of water--highlighted by personal experience--makes his book not only a major source on the subject but, as usual, enjoyable reading.” ―R. Gwinn Vivian, curator emeritus of archaeology, Arizona State Museum, author of The Chaco Handbook

“[Fagan] is a beguiling writer and his lessons from global experience are both refreshing and sobering.” ―Daily Express (UK)

“A comprehensive look at the history of water control… there are places on the earth today where our water control systems are breaking down, and most of us don't yet recognize how devastating the effects of that will be. Elixir helps that realization… This book is one of the best pop science books I've read in a long time…there is much to reread and contemplate.” ―About.com


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press; 1St Edition edition (June 14, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 160819003X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608190034
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.4 x 10.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,102,075 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Brian Fagan has triumphed once again with his tracking of water use and practices over a long period of mankind. In Elixir, he has used his storytelling genius to tie the development of civilizations and empires far and wide to their water-use management, all in an enjoyable, interesting, and intellectual manner. For me, it will also serve as a reliable reference book for my paleohydrologic research on ancient peoples. It is a presentation of important aspects of world history using water as a common thread.

Fagan weaves together the three broad themes of gravity flow, the relationship of ritual use of water and water management, and the role of technology versus sustainability. Fagan's message about living within one's hydrological means is an important one.
Fagan's success as a great storyteller has been proven with more than two dozen books that combine his detailed knowledge of anthropology with analysis of how and why things happened. He begins Chapter 2 by taking us back some 12,000 years to the Euphrates Valley, with his story of a young girl and her mother discovering the marvel of gravity flow of water, and then goes on to a delicate story of water use near Petra, at Wadi Faynan in southern Jordan.

I learned a lot from Fagan on the ancient Salt River water use in the Phoenix, Arizona area by the Hohokam people and how most of the remnants of their considerable irrigation works there have been lost to a sprawling metropolis.
Reading about the Nile and the Egyptian civilization that relied on this great river was enjoyable. Fagan also describes in detail how groundwater was captured and developed by the use of qanats.
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Format: Hardcover
Brian Fagan is a storyteller and showman, in person. His book, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, does not deliver the same wonder, mystique and humor.* That's perhaps an impossible thing to ask (perhaps the same can be said of my book), but it does give you an idea of the gap that may exist between what we want to read and what we are given to read.

This 350 pp book tells many stories of how people from long-forgotten civilizations managed their water. Nearly all of it takes place before the Industrial Revolution brought powered pumps to the movement of water. What we get, then, are descriptions of how water was managed in "the age of gravity," when water sustainability was a given but human sustainability was not.

Let me drop in this observation at the start: Elixir tells a different story from Solomon's Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. Solomon narrates the development of water, politics and economics across many cultures. Fagan describes how different civilizations managed their water, without spending too much time tracing impacts and trends. In my notes, I wrote that "Solomon traces grandiose projects across large areas" while "Fagan observes the details of small and (usually) sustainable solutions to local problems."

At least, that's my feeling after reading through it, but that feeling may be affected by the "too many notes" problem: I cannot keep track of so many kings, canal dimensions, and geographies without seeing some patterns. Maybe they were there, but they didn't grab me.

But let's get to some detailed comments:

Fagan provides a deep description of why farmers may be conservative.
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Format: Hardcover

"This book is about changing human relationships with [fresh] water over thousands of years. Our story is a complex meld of climate change, gravity, human modifications of the natural environment, and technological innovation, kept in balance by intricate ritual observance and religious belief."

The above comes from this informative book by Brian Fagan. He has authored many books and is especially noted for his works on the interplay of human culture and the natural world. Fagan now is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California (Santa Barbara).

Fagan has written a superb book on the history of humans and water. The history that's presented can be generally thought of in terms of three stages, which overlap with one another:

Stage #1: Goes back to the remote past and even endures in places today. At this time, water was unreliable and often a scarce resource that was so valuable that it was considered sacred in almost every human society.

Stage #2: Begins about 2000 years ago reaching prominence during the Industrial Revolution, when water became a "mere commodity." At this time, water was seen as an infinite resource.

Stage #3: Begins in the early 21ST century. The realization is that water is actually a finite resource and something to be conserved. (This stage is discussed quite well in this book's final chapter.)

As well, this book revolves around three broad themes:

(1) Gravity (or the fact that water flows down slope, from a high to a low point).

(2) The relationship between ritual and water.

(3) Technology versus sustainability.

This book is divided into parts.
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