December 14, 2021
EP. 135 — How Water Shaped Humanity with Giulio Boccaletti
As humans, we like to believe that we shape the natural world. But in reality, its laws and patterns have deeply structured our own society. To tell the story of how water has shaped humanity, on the show this week is Giulio Boccaletti, author of Water: A Biography. Check it out at http://factuallypod.com/books
135 — How Water Shaped Humanity with Giulio Boccaletti
Speaker 1 [00:00:22] Hello, welcome to Factually. I’m Adam Conover, thank you so much for joining me on the show again. As always, it’s a delight to have you here and it’s a delight to be able to speak with you. It’s a delight to be able to speak with the amazing expert that I’m going to have on the show today. Before we get started, I want to send a shout out to our producer, Sam Roudman, who recently broke his foot (very painfully, it looked like) and Sam, hope you’re feeling better and rest up. Get well soon. Now let’s talk about the show this week. We generally tend to think of ourselves as this big, tough species. That we can terraform the planet however we want, that we create our own environment. We create our own reality. But whatever we need, we can rest out of the grasping hands of nature. Right? But you don’t have to live on Earth very long before you realize that’s a somewhat optimistic way of looking at ourselves. In reality, we are still at the planet’s mercy. Take water, for example. We need water to live. We’re mostly made of water. If we don’t get water very often, we die. There are now a lot of us, so our needs for water are very great. Now here in L.A., where I live, there was a huge need for water in the first half of the 20th century. There were a lot of people and not enough water for the city to keep growing. And so the city underwent a massive civic engineering project to bring water hundreds of miles away via an aqueduct (stealing it, in effect, from the place it originally was) and bringing it to Los Angeles so that Los Angeles could drink water. So you’d think, ‘OK, great. Humans are incredible. Oh my gosh, we can terraform the Earth, move water around willy nilly.’ Right? Well, unfortunately, now, close to a century later, we find ourselves with not enough water again. We are currently in the middle of a historic drought, which is taking place just a year or two after our previous historic drought. This is not a drought that can be alleviated through us moving water from one place to another. The problem is that not enough water is falling on the area to begin with. Now, some of that is due to human impacts: due to climate change caused by our emissions. But we have no easy way to control where and how much the rain falls. The natural systems of geography, meteorology and physics that cause water to be distributed in some places but not in others on Earth are too big for us to control in a real way. We are still subservient to Mother Nature at the end of the day, and that means that Mother Nature has had an incredible power to shape our civilization itself; to determine where we live, what our cities look like, which nations rise and fall. Once again, nowhere is that clearer than with water. The history of water is actually the history of human civilization, and here on the show to reveal just how fascinating that history is is Giulio Boccaletti. He’s a scientist, the former chief strategy officer of the Nature Conservancy and the author of, ‘Water: A History,’ a book about all the incredible ways in which water has shaped human civilization. Please welcome Giulio Boccaletti. Giulio, thank you so much for being on the show.
Speaker 2 [00:03:37] My pleasure. Great to be with you.
Speaker 1 [00:03:39] So you’ve written a book called, ‘Water: A History.’ What is this book about?
Speaker 2 [00:03:43] Well, it’s about water (obviously) and it’s about the relationship between water and society. You know, I’ve spent the last two decades working on water around the world. Those two decades produced an enormous number of questions in my mind about why society dealt with water in certain ways. And so this was my attempt to answer all those questions, and I ended up writing a history of the relationship between water and society from essentially never to forever, right? It’s the whole history of civilization seen through a lens of water.
Speaker 1 [00:04:19] It strikes me there’s a fair number of nonfiction books that have a a big noun for the title. I remember one that came out years ago called ‘Cod,’ and it was the story of the fish that changed the world. As like, ‘Here’s a story of world history through the lens of a cod.’ There was a little bit of a trend for a while of books like that. But a book about water actually strikes me as having the fairest claim to be able to say that. Because water is clearly so essential to human society, it’s completely reasonable that our societies would be built around it. But surely you must have found some surprising things when you were studying it to make you want to write the book?
Speaker 2 [00:04:56] Yeah, you’re right. On some level, you can say the obvious things, which is we’re made of water, right? I mean, 70 percent of our body is made of water. So in that sense, it’s essential to our life. But what I wanted to do was something that hasn’t really been done before, certainly not in a book for the general public, which is try to reveal how our relationship with the substance has shaped the institutions that we live with. Our government institutions, our legal institutions, our political institutions. One of the things that surprised me the most was when I engaged in what you might call an archeology of ideas. Scratching the surface of what’s around, going back in time and trying to find the origin of some of the foundational institutions of society, from democracy to the legal system. And at the heart of the origin of those institutions, I always found water. You could say I dug for water and I found it. In hindsight, it’s not maybe surprising, but I suppose that as I did discover this, I was quite surprised.
Speaker 1 [00:06:06] Well, yes. So I could imagine that if you’re writing a history of how humans have interacted with their environment or human technology, that water would come up again and again. But for it to be at the core of our politics does sound surprising to me. Why is that? Can you give me some examples of that?
Speaker 2 [00:06:22] Well, yeah. First of all, I should start by saying that we appear (we, Homo sapiens) some 300,000 years ago. For the vast majority of our history on the planet, we were hunter gatherers and nomads for the most part, and we sort of moved around. We were part of the ecosystem, right? So if we run out of water, we should move somewhere else where water is available. We sort of just move along. Then at some point about 10,000 years ago (which is just after the last glacier maximum) something important happens, which is we’ve become sedentary. We decide to stand still and we decide to stand still in a world of moving water. Now, you have to understand that water is essentially the agent of the climate system on the landscape. It’s the way in which the climate system changes the landscape: the floods, the droughts, the storms. These are all ways in which the planet exercise forces on the landscape. So we stand still, and we’re suddenly surrounded by this incredibly powerful force that can change the landscape around us and that can move things around us. We need to move water to us if we’re going to stay put. We’re going to have to protect ourselves from excessive water when there’s too much. Because of the sheer size and force of water phenomena on the planet, it is not a problem that any individual can solve. It requires collective action. That’s the heart of the beginning. The moment you have to exercise collective action, you need to organize, right? You need to find ways of giving yourselves rules of society, as a community, to orchestrate your collective force to confront this other agent on the landscape. That’s really the starting point for all of these institutions and all of these different developments.
Speaker 1 [00:08:09] OK, that’s making sense to me because (for instance) around the beginning of agriculture, if you’re just farming and relying on the rain or relying on the natural stream that you’re near, you can sort of do it by yourself. But once you are trying to expand outwards into an area where there isn’t enough water and you need to dig a channel and irrigate and divide up the amount of water that’s coming in, now you’re talking about labor that involves a lot of people and you’re talking about having to decide who gets which water, which is an immense political issue in California where I live. It’s like, ‘Who should get the very limited amount of water that we have.?”
Speaker 2 [00:08:50] That’s right. That’s right. And in fact, I mean, one of the things that’s interesting about water (and is that one of the main points I make) is that water is not really a technological issue. It’s a political issue, fundamentally. Because it’s about sharing scarce resources, it’s about dealing with destructive forces. So in that sense, the issues that we face today in places like California (or the issues they face in the Mississippi Valley in the times that it floods) are exactly the same that the first Mesopotamian cities in 5,000 B.C. faced. The response is also kind of the same, which is somebody has to decide to mobilize the resources of society. Somebody has to orchestrate labor in order to build embankments or put dams in place, or try and manage the river so that it provides water when you need it and not when you don’t. That’s really what happened with the first city states 5,000 years ago and that’s in a sense what happens still today.
Speaker 1 [00:09:45] Do you have any specific examples of that? Of a particular water challenge resulting in the birth of a state or influencing a political system?
Speaker 2 [00:09:53] Many. The first and most famous is probably the case of Uruk, which was the first large city state. For those of you who know or read ancient literature as it were, there’s a famous epic called, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh.’
Speaker 1 [00:10:08] Yeah, I know Gilgamesh. I’ve never read it, but I’ve heard of Gilgamesh.
Speaker 2 [00:10:13] Yeah, it’s actually a relatively easy read and it’s a fascinating epic. It’s the story of Gilgamesh (obviously), the king of Uruk, the great builder of the walls of Uruk. Uruk is really the first example of a state that has to organize to manage water. It sits on the Euphrates, or close to the Euphrates. Euphrates is a complicated river; it tended to flood at the wrong time for agriculture. In the north, it’s fed by the Taurus mountains and the Tigris Mountains in north Mesopotamia. By the time the meltwater reaches the southern plains of Mesopotamia (where Uruk was), it arrived at the wrong time. It arrived essentially when the seeds had to be sown. So the cities had to organize labor in order to control that water. So you need somebody powerful who can mobilize and coordinate labor and pay people to do that rather than cultivate their own field. So that’s really what happens, more or less, at the time of Gilgamesh in the fourth millennium, B.C.. And so it turns out that the whole of society is organized around water because it’s such a prominent subset of phenomena that can organize the calendar for people. We know this because in ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh,’ in fact, is the first mention of the great myth of the deluge. All of us who are familiar with the Old Testament will have heard the story of Noah and the Great Flood. Now the Old Testament was written in the 7th century BCE, but ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh,’ (which probably dates to at least 1,500 years before that, or maybe even two millennia before that) also has a story of a great deluge: a story of a fellow by the name of Utnapishtim, a great Mesopotamian patriarch. He is spoken to by a god who tells him to build a vessel because a great deluge will come and he should put all his animals on it. The day comes and he floats for days and days and days and nights and nights nights. Eventually he sends out a dove to find land, and eventually he lands on this mount and the floodwaters drain away and life begins. Now this is a central myth of origin for Uruk and for the Sumerian society, and it’s exactly the same.
Speaker 1 [00:12:32] But wait a sec, hold on. When I was learning this in the Bible, when I was at church when I was eight years old, you’re telling me all of this was biting from the civilization of Uruk? That wasn’t from the the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition? They they stole it all. They stole this story?
Speaker 2 [00:12:52] They inherited it, Adam, let’s say they inherited it. The fact is, when I started writing this book, one of the things I wanted to do is to really go and scratch the origin of most human societies and civilizations, wherever we have evidence. One of the things I found is, that almost all societies have some myth that sounds like the story of Utnapishtim or the story of Noah. For example, the Lenape tribe, the original inhabitants of Manhattan. Thought they were the descendants of the survivors of a great flood. Or the the Inca, the (I know all of these names now) Unapaticucho flood is the origin of the Inca tradition. Then if you go over to China; the Chinese tradition, for example the jade emperor, who trapped four dragons in a mountain and they escaped in the form of four rivers, including the Yangtze and the Pearl and the Yellow. This idea that those early societies had to wrestle with water and that struggle is captured in their myths of origin, suggests that water is really central to identity and to everything that comes after.
Speaker 1 [00:14:05] The thing that strikes me is that it’s the most natural thing to have myths about, because it is a fundamental requirement of human life (or animal life of all life, frankly) and for most of our history, we completely at the mercy of it. We don’t control where the water goes, the water simply falls on mountains and the mountain and the watershed determines where the water goes. But then sometimes a whole bunch more water comes then we’re ready for and it causes a big flood. Very clearly, the reason there’d be that many myths is because people got flooded all the dang time. Even today, a flood is one of the most difficult natural disasters for us to protect ourselves against, by far.
Speaker 2 [00:14:56] That’s right. That’s right. We saw this very recently, both in the tragic events in British Columbia as well as when Ida came through New York City. We are actually at the mercy of these forces far more than we like to remember. That was actually one of the reasons I wanted to write this book, is because the vast majority of people don’t really think about water all that much. For most people, the story of water ends at the tap that comes out of the wall. That’s the extent of the experience and they think (presumably they think) that’s possible because somebody else takes care of it. The great achievement of the 20th century, in terms of the lives of most people, is that we somehow emancipated ourselves from having to worry about floods and droughts and the like. But in reality (the recent events in particular show) that’s just an illusion, and it’s increasingly cracking. We have always been susceptible to floods and droughts, and they’ve always hit at the heart of our economy and society, and they still do. In the most technological and most advanced society in history, they still do. We’re still vulnerable to the same forces that shaped Uruk 7,000 years ago.
Speaker 1 [00:16:11] Yeah. On top of just disasters, our own ability to move water from one place to another to where we need it from elsewhere. When I moved to Los Angeles, one of the first things I learned about was William Mulholland and the giant effort to move water from one part of California to feed Los Angeles, Los Angeles was just in this place where there wasn’t enough water. It was a growth constraint on the city. So they built this gigantic aqueduct to move water from an entirely different part of the state, stealing it from that state in the view of some people. It was a marvel of the time and I imagine there were newsreels and whatnot. But today, we are still in a world where every year they’re like, ‘Uh-oh, not enough snow fell in the mountains this year, and we might have a drought’ because at the end of the day, where do we get our water? It’s still snow falling on the mountains. No matter how many aqueducts we build, we are still at the mercy of geography and the climate.
Speaker 2 [00:17:11] Yeah. You know, one of the things I wanted to reveal is the fact that the relationship between us and the landscape and the water landscape is very dialectic. It’s a back and forth, and California is a very good example of that. In 1900, San Diego could have only supported about 10,000 people. In a way, it’s a testament to the engineering prowess of the progressive era and of the new deal era that millions of people were able to move to California. But of course, in moving there and in fulfilling the promise of all that infrastructure and all those investments, they’ve inevitably sowed the seeds of the next problem: which is now there’s too many people and there’s too much stress on the resource base. I should actually correct myself. It’s not that there’s too many people, but the way of life that people imagined is incompatible with the resource base that part of the country has. It’s actually quite a profound moment in water because those of you who live in California may not realize this, but you guys shaped the entire planet.
Speaker 1 [00:18:22] Wow.
Speaker 2 [00:18:23] Because in reality, the model that developed in California (for a variety of historical reasons) became the model for the rest of the world. So the infrastructure that the U.S. developed, particularly in the West between (let’s say) the 1910’s and the 1940’s, became the archetype for how you develop water infrastructure anywhere in the world. Then when Truman became the president, he essentially instituted this policy that was about using American experience as a diplomatic tool. So as a result, as America was expanding, it was expanding its influence on the whole world. It brought with it the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. So if you go around the world, I traveled the world working on water issues and you find traces of the American experience everywhere. That’s why you and I can travel to California or to Japan or to Italy or to London (where I’m calling from) and all these places can look the same from a water perspective because we all adopted this modernist theory of how you deal with water, which was born in the West in the United States.
Speaker 1 [00:19:28] What is that modernist theory? I know the version of the story I’ve heard, but you know a lot more about it than me. What characterizes that modernist approach?
Speaker 2 [00:19:37] Total control. Right? The promise of total control. The climate system is extremely variable and for the vast majority of sedentary human history, first of all, acceptance was a big part of adaptation. You just knew that there were times of plenty and times of drought, and there was a sense in which the human society still had to roll along with what nature provided. Then the progressive era came along, and it was a very socioeconomic promise. It was a promise of prosperity, it was a promise of wealth. This wasn’t just about water, it was about making people’s lives better; making people’s lives better in the context of a consuming and productive economy. So you need people to be able to leave home and not have to wade a river so that they can get to work. Nature simply cannot disrupt the rhythm of a productive economy, and so the answer is total control. If you look at the amount of storage capacity, for example, to catch rain from the sky that was built in those years, it’s astonishing. In 1904, the largest piece of water infrastructure on a river on the planet was lower Aswan Dam, which is a masonry dam that the Brits built on the Nile. That was the biggest piece of reservoir infrastructure. Fast forward to the 1970’s, we catch a fifth of anything that comes down from the sky. We completely re plumbed the planet in order to never experience a drought or a flood. Droughts and floods happened, of course, but they just happened behind the embankments and behind the dams and behind the walls, so we don’t see them. Which is why, then, we are eminently surprised when we’re caught off guard and some catastrophe happens. That’s just nature pushing through the protections of the security infrastructure that we built for ourselves.
Speaker 1 [00:21:31] But so we’ve created this idea that we can perfectly control water, rather than it controlling us. Again, I hate to always bring it back to the place I live, but I happen to have learned a little bit about this. People say that Los Angeles is a desert and it’s not a desert. It was originally wetlands and there was this very variable river that changed its course constantly, because it was a very marshy area and people were constantly getting flooded. You’d build a house and then a couple of years later, the river would change course and it would flood. So they channelized it. They built a channel and we have freeways over it. You almost never see it. A lot of people don’t even know where it is. But in so doing, we completely changed the makeup of the entire vast region, where now it feels like a desert. ‘Oh, it’s so dry. There’s so little plant life. The plants you do see are all desert varieties’ as opposed to the fucking cat tails that used to be all over the place. You know what I mean? It was a marsh, and so that’s what we’ve done globally? Is that what you’re saying?
Speaker 2 [00:22:34] Well, we’ve done it globally and we’ve always done it. It’s always been the case that human society has constructed its ecosystem in order to serve its purposes. We’ve become sedentary, so we have to grow things. Water is not where we need it. It doesn’t come down when we need it. So we just orchestrate and engineer an environment. The Greeks did it, the Romans did it. So that’s not new.
Speaker 1 [00:22:57] That’s one of the things that characterizes human society as opposed to animals, is that we do that.
Speaker 2 [00:23:01] We are a species capable of constructing our own ecosystem. Now, we’ve always done it. One of the things that you realize when you look at that long arc of history, is that it’s a path dependent journey that you can never get off of. So you make a choice; you build an embankment that creates security so people start living under it, then a flood breaks through it. Lots of people die. It’s a new experience of water. You build a bigger embankment, more people move in, a bigger catastrophe happens and so forth and on. We’re on this constant cycle of adaptation, response and action and response. All of that takes us through the ages all the way to North America circa 1910 or 1920. Then what happens is cement, this incredibly powerful state. It never happened before. One of the things that distinguishes the 20th century, is that the size (the economic size) of the state is unprecedented. Today, we don’t think about it, but the fact that the state is 30 to 40 percent of the economy of a country is unusual, in human history. It’s never really happened before. With those incredible resources, we pour cement over the landscape. We transform our home, and in some ways we succeed. Life expectancy improves, number of people improves, education access improves. It was an intervention for economic and social development. It had a very specific purpose. But it also transformed the landscape in a way that, we have never done before. Now, of course, we’ve now taken the next step. So we built all this. We’ve maxed out its capacity and now we are starting to see the cracks appear and so another step is ahead of us, and we don’t yet know what that step looks like. Certainly, it’s the case in California, where the water table is going down and the rivers are disappearing, and it’s obvious that this can’t be projected out for forever into the future.
Speaker 1 [00:25:00] Do you feel that impression of total control is a false one that we give ourselves? For instance, we had on the show a number of years back a wonderful writer named Jenny Odell, one of my favorite interviews that we’ve done. She wrote a book called, ‘How to Do Nothing.’ In that book, she wrote about the experience of going back to the place where she grew up and looking at a map and seeing that there was a stream (or a creek of sorts) on the map. She said, ‘I don’t remember a creek.’ So she went and looked and it was buried underneath. It went through channels and ditches and drainages. But she said, ‘Oh, it was there the whole time.’ She wrote very movingly about the concept of a watershed: where water falls on the Earth and it finds its own path. That path is millennia old and, to some extent, we can’t eradicate it. It’s there no matter what we do. I found that a very moving idea, but you’re also describing how we’ve managed to geo engineer huge portions of the planet. Do you think that idea of control that we’ve promulgated, starting from California, is that a real aspiration that we can live out? Or are we always helpless, to some degree, in the face of water?
Speaker 2 [00:26:15] Well, in a way, that’s a great open question. So we are at an interesting juncture (we the planet, we humanity) because there are currently two different theories playing out. One is the one that’s played out in America: that a hundred years ago America decided that total control was the answer, they built for total control and now has reached a point where there are diminishing returns. In fact, it’s quite expensive and difficult to maintain that total control. Even if you look at the infrastructure bill that was just passed in the United States, you can start detecting the symptoms of a country that’s starting to rethink what the landscape should look like. For example, should we invest in ecosystems and forests as part of the infrastructure for security? So we’re not just modifying things, we’re also working with what we have. So that’s one path that we’re beginning to explore, particularly in countries that have gone through a full cycle of development, have benefited from that infrastructure and now find themselves asking, ‘Well, what does our home look like?’ In the meantime, if you go to China, China has sort of taken the torch from the United States of ‘Plummer in Chief’ or ‘Hydraulic Engineering Chief’ for the world. They’ve embraced the modernist theory that the West and the United States developed in the 20th century and upped the game. You might have heard of Three Gorges Dam, for example. Big Big Dam on the Yangtze. So that is, to the 21st century, what the Hoover Dam was to the 20th. Except that Three Gorges Dam is ten times the size of Hoover Dam.
Speaker 1 [00:27:57] Wow.
Speaker 2 [00:27:59] They are engaging in a similar race for control, because they’re now a significant power and they’re exporting finance and they’re exporting technology and they’re exporting expertise and experience; many developing countries who historically would look to the United States to imagine their future and now looking to China as the model of development. As the Three Gorges Dam has become a bit of an archetype for the 21st century for development. And so you might have heard, Ethiopia has started building the largest dam in Africa on the Nile, on the Blue Nile. That’s a six gigawatts dam, it’s three to four times that of the Hoover Dam. They are proposing that the 21st century will be yet another century of cement and re-engineering of the landscape. We are sitting over here saying, ‘Well, we tried that last century. It worked. We’re all better off now, but it’s starting to crack.’ This question of which theory will govern the 21st century is a very open one.
Speaker 1 [00:29:02] Well, we’re not entirely better off. There are unwanted side effects of this, at the very least, the wars over who gets access to the limited amount of water that we have. We’re all sort of aware that (at least here in the West) we’ve built a system that is not sustainable to an extent, that we made water so attainable that everyone can have a green lawn. Oh, wait, actually, we can’t all have green lawns, but now we’ve told everyone that they can, and we’ve got a big fucking problem, you know?
Speaker 2 [00:29:33] That’s right. That’s right. That’s because it’s this dynamic relationship, right? So it was the right answer for sixty years ago, but it had built in it the problem that we’re now confronting. It was, in a way, so successful that it fooled people into thinking that you could do anything. Then eventually you end up with lawns all over Arizona, Nevada and California and that’s simply not sustainable. It’s incompatible with the amount of resources that we have. So the legacy of the re-engineering of the United States is a really interesting and problematic issue. There’s no really easy judgment that can pass because on the one hand, think of the Tennessee Valley Authority. For some, it’s anathema to others is great example of the New Deal era.
Speaker 1 [00:30:18] Tell us what it is, very briefly, for those who don’t know.
Speaker 2 [00:30:20] The Tennessee Valley was the poorest part of the United States in the 1920’s. Essentially, if you’d gone there, if you read the descriptions of how people lived in rural Tennessee Valley, it sounds like the poorest people in the least developed countries today. There’s malnutrition, silicosis, malaria, heart disease. Life expectancy barely approached 40 and it was a disastrous place. They didn’t have any access to electricity, like many of the poorest people today on the planet. When Roosevelt won the presidency, one of the first acts he passed in the first hundred days was the Tennessee Valley Authority Act; which established (effectively) a federally funded utility and which still exists today. The TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority. But it was much more than a utility. It was essentially a development agency that would use the power of the state to build the infrastructure: flood infrastructure, hydropower, etc. to electrify and develop the Tennessee Valley. On the one hand, it succeeded. It was an incredible intervention in regional development. Life expectancy improved, all outcomes improved remarkably. So much so, actually, that the Tennessee Valley Authority also became a model for the rest of the world. Today we have a Jordan Valley Authority, we have a Helmand Valley Authority in Afghanistan. We have an Awash Valley Authority in Ethiopia, even the Yangtze was considered as a valley authority. So on the one hand, it has a very positive legacy of development. That’s what developing countries look at and say, ‘Well, that worked for you.’ But then at the same time, of course, it re-engineer the landscape. It was seen as a vast overreach of the federal government, creating all sorts of problems between the states and the federal government. Ultimately, it was never repeated on American soil because it was the epitome of the modernist ideal. You get a bunch of engineers, you give them a lot of cement and they’ll redesign the landscape for you. It’s inevitable that some marginalized communities may be displaced without anybody hearing about it. When you change the homeless of people, maybe most people love it. Some people may not. How do you intermediate those political debates? It’s a mixed legacy, but it’s a very important one.
Speaker 1 [00:32:42] I want to ask if there are other ways for us to deal with water that you’ve seen throughout history, but we got to a really quick break. We’ll be right back with more. Giulio Boccaletti. So, Guilio, I want to ask: given the destructive legacy (in many ways) of this modernist idea that got it’s start in America (of total control of the water system) that you’ve examined throughout human civilization and throughout human history; the different ways that humans have interacted with water. Are there other models for dealing with water that are worth considering, from our history that you’ve seen?
Speaker 2 [00:33:32] Well, two things. First of all, yes, is the answer. Adam, I should answer first that yes, there are different models and some of them are actually layered in our own experience. Because if you go back in time, (beyond the modernist hump, if you will, so you skip the 20th century and you start looking back in the 19th, 18th, 17th etc) you start realizing that solutions to water problems are first addressed through legal and political institutions long before we deal with with cement and with transforming the landscape. For example, I come from Bologna, a lovely town in northern Italy where lasagna and tortellini and lots of good things come from. Bologna is in the center of the Po Valley. It’s a hundred kilometers from the sea, so for all intents and purposes it is a landlocked city. And if you go there today and you walk around, it’s surrounded by buildings of cement and you wouldn’t know that water matters. But in fact, under the city, there’s a complex system of water canals that powered the economy of medieval Bologna. Bologna was a great textile center. The only force, other than human force and animal force, that we had until the steam engine was water power. So there were all these mills that essentially powered all these textile industries in Bologna. Now, we’re talking about the 10th to the 14th century. So people depended on water for their economy. Now it so happens that at this same time, a very important document emerged from the depths of history in Bologna, right there and then which was the Justinian code. The Roman law reappeared in medieval Europe in Bologna around the 11th century. And so people started using the law to solve all sorts of water problems. ‘Do I get the water? Do you get the water? Let’s go and see what the codex says.’ ‘If a river floods and leaves behind an island who owns it? Let’s go and find out what Roman jurisprudence says.’ So over time, all through the 12th, 13th, and 14th century, Europe accumulated an enormous amount of jurisprudence having to do with water. In the book, I describe how even very basic ideas of sovereignty (in the Magna Carta itself) have water at the heart of their origin. I would argue, by the way, even the American Constitution. If you want to hear that story, I can go there. But before I do that, let me just close on the ‘are the other ways of dealing with it’ part which is yes there are. All these legal institutions, the political institutions, which we can talk about. But the other thing I realized as I looked back in time, is that there are many human stories that don’t reach the present and that had developed very different ways of dealing with the water landscape. One of the most interesting ones was the way in which the Amazonian forest societies dealt with water before the invasion of the Europeans. This is something that we’ve only discovered very recently. Archeologists have discovered it through remote sensing. For a long time, we thought the Amazon was Virgin Territory. Nobody lived there. Nobody had lived there until we arrived, and it was a sparsely populated place. But it turns out that even in the 14th century (and 15th century, before Columbus came), it was a heavily densely populated place and people had followed a completely different path in dealing with water than we had followed. We had domesticated crops, wheat, sedentary agriculture, build canals, et cetera, et cetera. In the Amazon, it turns out they didn’t domesticate individual species of plants and animals. They domesticated the entire landscape. So instead of having what is typical of our societies, which is a separation between the urban center and the rural landscape, the forest societies of the Amazon had a completely integrated water landscape. The water rushed right through the dwellings and they caught fresh water and caught the fishes of the river. They built mounds to collect the water that rushed through the forest. They then built orchards on these embankments, and so it was a very, very different landscape, one that we can only see now in ecological record. We’ve lost any trace of the institutions and practices that were needed in to support it.
Speaker 1 [00:37:58] Wow. Well, my first question, though, is given everything that we’ve said about disasters, what did they do in times of flood, being so close? If you got a river running right through your home?
Speaker 2 [00:38:14] Yeah, no. Well, this gets back to the point, which is the first and most important instrument in dealing with water is culture, right? It’s ‘How do we interpret our life vis-a-vis the variability of the landscape?’ If you believe that the variability of nature and flood events are (in the pantheistic sense) just the manifestation of a divine will, for example, then you’re much more likely to simply accept it as part of life and adapt them and accommodate it. I am reminded, for example, of the Romans. Monty Python has trained us to think that the Romans built aqueducts all over the place, thus giving this impression that the Romans were great hydraulic engineers, and they were. But the reality is that, for example, in terms of floods, they did relatively little. Most people had water rushing through their homes every so often, and that was just part of life. What we do with water largely depends on what we expect our life to look like.
Speaker 1 [00:39:18] Right. If you have built your society around, ‘Hey, there’s going to be a flood every once in a while. So maybe don’t keep all your precious stuff on the floor, for example, and be ready to pack up and move if you need to.’ If you need to go to higher ground, be a little bit more nomadic. As opposed to, to just bring it back to Los Angeles, early European settlers putting down, ‘Oh shit, my house washed away and I’m penniless now because I really put down roots here.’ It’s your choice of whether you want to create a flood resilient society or culture or not, basically.
Speaker 2 [00:39:59] Yeah, exactly. There’s this lovely short story by Faulkner, who describes the Mississippi as ‘That river that comes through your living room and takes out the piano.’ There’s a sense in which you can imagine a society that is much more accepting of the variability. Now the reality is that we may have to go there, because our infrastructure is built for a stationary world. It’s built for a world in which we know, roughly speaking, when it might rain. We can predict, in a statistical sense, what the future looks like. All of our infrastructure is built to manage the future, but is based on the past, and we are living through a dramatic change. That means that the future is much less predictable. So we don’t actually know whether we’ve built the right infrastructure to deal with the 21st century climate.
Speaker 1 [00:40:45] Yeah, and there is that argument always about, ‘Oh, we need to build more climate resiliency and more adaptation into our infrastructure.’ But of course, that’s also a bit of a cop out; saying you’ll do that instead of making the changes that will result in less disastrous climate outcomes. But yeah, tell me how climate change comes up in your book. It’s certainly part of the history of water.
Speaker 2 [00:41:12] Fore sure. I think that it was one of the motivations of the book. I’m a climate scientist by training. So I ended up working on water issues because, in a way – I started working on this almost 20 years ago now. At the time, if I spoke to people about climate change, most people wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. It was sort of a niche issue and people weren’t really ready to engage. But water is and has always been a very tangible issue for people. And so it’s very easy to talk about climate change and climate, in terms of water. As I said earlier, water is simply the agent of the climate system: floods, the droughts, storms, those are just the ways in which the climate system expresses itself. And so part of me wanted to write this book to say, ‘Well, we’re about to go through a very significant shift in the way in which this agent operates on the landscape. Let’s look back in time and think through how changes in the past affected the way in which we evolved. As it turns out, most of the institutions of society emerge out of some response to a slight shift in climate. From the Abrahamic tradition which has within it the seeds of a society that has to deal with scarcity in the Levant, to the Roman law system that we inherited and that is the basis of all ecosystems today, to democracy. I make a strong case for democracy having a strong relationship with the water in the Mediterranean. Then you fast forward to today, we’re about to live through a very significant shift in the climate system. Based on 10,000 years of history, it would be mistake to believe that we can simply give engineers the following problem: ‘just let us live exactly like we have done over the last 30, 40 years or so’ and expect them to solve it. I don’t think that is an available option. I think that what’s going to happen, is that all aspects of our living together will be engaged. There will be engineering, but we’ll have to think about the politics. I’m always struck by how relevant and salient environmental issues are today to people and yet the American constitution doesn’t mention the environment. There’s no environmental provision. There’s no mechanism to deal with these fundamental tradeoffs between what do we do with the landscape and what do we do with individual liberty? That’s at the heart of the problems that are ahead of us, I think.
Speaker 1 [00:43:39] Yeah. What are the changes that you think we will see? First of all, in terms of our relationship with water over the next few decades, or centuries?
Speaker 2 [00:43:48] Well, we’ve already started to see them. So the problem is that we bucket them into the category of ‘unexpected catastrophe’ all the time. New York gets flooded and the subway gets filled with water and then British Columbia gets mudslides. Then you have these persistent droughts in California and the mental category that’s currently being applied to all of this is, ‘Oh my goodness, how unexpected. Isn’t it extraordinary? This is a tail event.’ It’s sort of exceeds the boundaries of our common experience, and the reality is that these are not rare events. These are the new normal.
Speaker 1 [00:44:30] The New York City subway has flooded in that way twice in the last 10 years. I don’t know that it ever happened before that, certainly not in my lifetime and I don’t think in many other people’s. They literally just got done fixing the subway from last time it flooded and then it flooded again.
Speaker 2 [00:44:50] That’s right. So you can imagine, Adam, that if this keeps happening, what ends up happening is that you have to exit a catastrophe (or an emergency regime) and start dealing with these issues as part of the politics of living together. Which means in practical terms, how much money do you allocate to dealing with recurrent flooding or recurrent scarcity? How much do we, for example, force individual landowners to change their practices for the common good? How much do we intervene on the forestry regimes of private timber companies in order to manage potential fire hazards? It poses this question of, ‘What are the limits of collective action here? What do we ask ourselves, collectively, to do? And how far do we go in changing the way in which any individual has to live?’ We’ve gotten used to being just a collection of individuals because we’ve engineered anything that connects us out of our life. But water moves, right? I do something over there and then it trickles down to you and suddenly it’s both of our problem. That’s what you see in the West, when people have to share scarce resources. At the Colorado River, if a scarcity event gets called then you shut off supply from the upper riparian states. As such Nevada and Arizona to make choices: which farmers, who gets to feel the pain and how much should it be individualized on one person versus collectively born? These are political questions that require mediation and they require political debate and institutions to help. I’m not saying there aren’t institutions that saying it’s just going to be a much, much more central part of our daily life.
Speaker 1 [00:46:35] Well, it’s a political problem that our political infrastructure (to say nothing of our water infrastructure) is not especially well equipped to handle. As you say, we’ve engineered things so that it feels individual. ‘No one can tell me what kind of lawn to have, because it’s my water. It comes out of my tap and I pay for it. I don’t even pay that much for it. If I water my lawn a couple of times, I pay an extra five bucks a month. Who cares?’ But the farmers who are relying on that same water source to grow almonds in the Central Valley in California also feel the same way. ‘Hey, this is my water, why don’t I get it?’ But then we’ve built a system that treats that as our individual birthright. We have no cognizance of the fact that this is a collective resource and a collective project that we need to figure out how to divvy up. Instead people just go, ‘No, I got to have mine, give me my piece.’
Speaker 2 [00:47:35] Yeah, that’s right. But I should say, the good news in a way (and I wouldn’t say I’m an optimist by design, because what else can you be?) But I do think that –
Speaker 1 [00:47:45] A lot of people are pessimists, Giulio.
Speaker 2 [00:47:48] But what’s the point of that? It’s interesting, as you can tell, I’m not American. I sound English, in fact, I’m Italian. But I have a kind of admiration for the long arc of the American project, in some ways. One of the things that’s interesting is, that people forget that this individualistic approach to the landscape is actually a relatively recent phenomenon in American history. Because in truth, the story of American conquest of nature that happened: the literal conquest, people got displaced. But the expansion towards the western frontier, the movement of people, the colonizers that were behind that movement, the establishment of a constitutional architecture, the new deal. All of these were acts of sovereignty, in truth. They were underwritten by the state, paid for in many ways by the state. In the institutions and in the history (and even in the legal system of America), there is the muscle memory of collective action problems. And so I think the question is, how do you excavate it and get people using it again. This is not some socialist overlay that one has to worry about. In reality, it’s all there in the DNA of the country. The American constitution is born out of Washington’s need to coordinate states for fluvial trade around the Potomac. Even at the heart of the constitutional compact of the United States, is this problem of managing water together. So I think the DNA is there. The question is, you need politicians to recognize it and you need the citizens to see this not as a consumer issue, but as a citizenship issue. We all have to have a stake in what our home looks like, and we all have to accept that we have to create a collective picture of what that home looks like, because we all live in the same place.
Speaker 1 [00:49:51] That’ll be a wonderful note to end on, but I have to ask you more about the Constitution and Washington that you just said. First of all, you said ‘fluvial trade.’ What is fluvial fluvial trade? Tell me more about how that influenced the formation of the Constitution.
Speaker 2 [00:50:08] ‘Fluvial trade’ is a fancy way of saying that people had to put goods on boats and transport them along rivers.
Speaker 1 [00:50:13] That was my guess. OK, good.
Speaker 2 [00:50:15] That’s right. So the story is actually fascinating and goes more or less like this. So Washington was a rather clever speculator. He acquires a whole bunch of land in what was then called the ‘Ohio Valley,’ just on the other side of the Appalachians. And of course, we’re talking about the end of the 18th century and the Spanish owned/controlled much of the Mississippi commerce and, particularly, owned New Orleans. So moving goods, naturally, down the Mississippi waterway was not an option. In order to make that land productive, Washington needed to get the goods over the Appalachians into the eastern seaboard, where he could then send them off to Europe. Now, the problem was that the Potomac was the natural choice for this but the Potomac went through multiple states. It had to go through Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. And the problem is that these states had recently become independent, as you well know as an American. In fact, they were tied together by the Articles of Confederation. Now, the Articles of Confederation were a supremely libertarian document. There was no infrastructure to manage trade offs between different states. So the problem Washington had, was that if he had invested in a canal company (which he needed to in order to build the locks and dams that would allow transport on the Potomac), he would then have been taxed in each of the states that he had gone through which would make the project non-economic. So he needed some arrangement to ensure that he wouldn’t be double taxed. This, incidentally, was a problem that had already happened in Europe several times and is at the heart of one of the treaties of Asphalia (a different story that we probably don’t have time to get into, but water matters there, too). So Washington decides to convene a meeting at his Mount Vernon estate, of these four states. What emerges out of that, is this thing called the Mount Vernon Compact, which is essentially an international treaty between these four states on how to manage tariffs and trade along the river. Now, it turns out that Madison was looking at this with great interest and wondered whether this particular compact, this way of dealing with commerce, was a good excuse to try and bring the 13 states together in some form of treaty that would supersede the the Articles of Confederation. So he convenes another convention in Annapolis. Some people show up, some people don’t. The convention was a bit of a failure. But what it did is, it then provokes the famous Philadelphia convention, which is where ultimately the states debate the Constitution. If you go and read the debates that happened during the constitutional convention, you realize that people are referring back to this commerce on the river and the Mt. Vernon conflict over and over and over again because it’s the first model of interstate collaboration that suggests that there ought to be a federal architecture above the states. So at the heart of the constitutional project of the United States is coordination on a river. That’s why I’m optimistic that you guys can figure out a way of doing it again.
Speaker 1 [00:53:35] Well, it was a very different country back then, and the problems to be solved were a lot different. I think that it’s a lot easier to team up to do a big common waterworks project when it’s a frontier, and you’re trying to to scrabble a life out of an unforgiving wasteland. Not wasteland. It wasn’t a wasteland, but you know what I mean. Out of a wilderness.
Speaker 2 [00:54:01] And when a few men have to make all the decisions, right? I mean, so there are a number types of complexities here.
Speaker 1 [00:54:06] Yup, yup. And when you can trample over any of the indigenous groups that were there, and et cetera. But you are blowing my mind with this because, I mean, you’re absolutely right. Also, one of the the most important federal powers in the Constitution is to regulate interstate commerce: more than half of the things that the federal government does, stem from that passage in the Constitution. That literal provision dates back to needing to control what is happening on the nation’s rivers. It really does all come back to water. You’re blowing my mind!
Speaker 2 [00:54:45] For the first hundred years of the country, it was rivers that were the primary transport infrastructure across states. The Erie Canal is the reason why New York is as big a city as it is today.
Speaker 1 [00:54:58] My god, the more I think about this, the more strange stories I’ve heard about America that I’ve encountered in my life, revolve around water. I stayed years ago with a friend in Amherst, Massachusetts, and nearby there are – Do you know this story? There are three towns, entire towns, that were flooded and now exist at the bottom of reservoir. They evicted everybody from the towns and the houses that these people lived in are the bottom of the reservoir and the reservoir was built to feed Boston (I believe). I know that’s a story that’s been repeated many times across the globe, but it was such a mysterious and bewitching thing to me; to hear that story. We walked around the reservoir and looked at some of the few remaining ruins when I was in my early 20′. Things like that are just part of the history of our civilization in this deep way.
Speaker 2 [00:56:01] There’s a similar very similar story with the Catskills in New York. So the Catskills are this beautiful, forested landscape that essentially provides the water supply to New York City. New York City can avoid having to filter the water because it’s so clean, coming out of this forested and protected landscape. In fact, it has a thing called an avoiders filtration determination, which is the same thing that Boston has because of those reservoirs. You have this bit of nature that looks like nature that protects the watershed, and therefore the water comes so clean that you only have to disinfect it, you don’t have to filter it; offsetting an enormous amount of expenditure because of that. In the Catskills, the same in reality, under the reservoirs, there are some villages people were moved out of the way in order to make room for this. It was the time of Moses, not biblical Moses, but Robert Moses; the guy that build the railroad around Manhattan.
Speaker 1 [00:56:58] Yeah, the famous urban planner.
Speaker 2 [00:57:00] Yeah, that’s right. There’s so much packed in those stories: it was an exercise of sovereignty. It’s the state that comes in and buys up the land and moves people out of the way in order to solve the problem (to solve a problem for rich people living in cities, by the way). So it was also the rural vs urban dichotomy. It was a difficult choice at the time. But today you celebrate the Catskills. We celebrate the landscapes around Boston. There’s a similar story in Seattle and in Hetch Hetchy in San Francisco, where we celebrate these forested landscapes for the water they provide. In a way, it’s a good little example of the story of my book, which is always about choices that we made at some point in the past (for different reasons) that ended up creating situations of the present, but then produce the next step in this constant journey. This constant, dialectical relationship.
Speaker 1 [00:57:56] Well, I always like to bring a personal place to end the show, do you have any (I don’t know) thoughts to share with the listeners for the next time they turn on the tap? How should they think a little bit differently about the water that flows out, in a way that might help us solve some of these problems?
Speaker 2 [00:58:14] Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, I’d love it if they read my book. I would also say that the intent of the book is to try and link in people’s minds some of the stories that are familiar to them with this fundamental resource that’s so central to their life. They spend a lot of time with it every day, and yet they don’t see it as connected to their life as citizens or to their life as political beings. If there’s one thought, one belief I have it is that if we’re going to solve water problems, if we’re going to figure out how we are going to live together in a changing climate, we cannot delegate choices to scientists and engineers. We have to be able to author our own life. We have to be able to understand that these choices are ultimately about what our home looks like and what are the rules that we give each other to live together in these complicated landscapes. That’s really the intent of the book, and I hope the message I can send to people, which is: this is fascinating and can be also complicated, but it’s essential that you understand it because it’s about where you live.
Speaker 1 [00:59:19] Yeah, that is an incredibly fascinating and important message. I can’t thank you enough for coming on the show to share it with us. Giulio, thank you so much. The book is called, ‘Water: A History.’ You can pick it up at our special bookshop at factuallypod.com/books (if you want), or go down to your local bookshop and buy a copy. Or any particular place you’d like to plug people to pick it up?
Speaker 2 [00:59:39] Thank you, Adam. It was a pleasure.
Speaker 1 [00:59:42] Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Speaker 2 [00:59:43] Thank you.
Speaker 1 [00:59:49] Well, thank you once again to Giulio Boccaletti for coming on the show. If you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did, once again, check out his book, ‘Water: A History’ at factuallypod.com/books. I want to thank our producers Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Our engineer, Ryan Connor. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest, for building the incredible custom gaming PC that I am speaking to you on. You can find me online at adamconover.net or @AdamConover wherever you get your social media. Once again, thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next week on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books