Are We Approaching a Global ‘Cadillac Desert’?
by Evaggelos Vallianatos
Water for the Greeks was the immortal natural world. The supreme Greek god, Zeus, sent rains; Poseidon, brother of Zeus, was the god of the oceans and seas; Metis, daughter of the Ocean River god and first wife of Zeus, was goddess of intelligence and mother of Athena, goddess of the arts of civilization.
Homer said the god of metallurgy, Hephaistos, sculpted the great Ocean River surrounding the Earth on the outermost rim of Achilleus’ shield. Achilleus, son of a water nymph, was the Greeks’ greatest hero during the Trojan War.
And the first Greek natural philosopher, Thales, proposed in the seventh century BCE that water was the stuff of life and the cosmos.
But water for the Greeks was also useful. It quenched their thirst and made their lives easier. Eupalinos of Megara built the water aqueduct of Samos sometimes before 530 BCE.
In early third century BCE, the Greek engineer Ktesibios developed a water clock in Alexandria, Egypt, then the chief scientific center of the Greek world. Ktesibios also invented the first water organ, keyboard instrument.
In early first century BCE, the Greeks invented and used watermills for grinding their grains.
Water remained life giving, useful, and sacred for millennia not merely among the Greeks but all ancient people. Rivers, streams and lakes represented divinities, religion, and civilization.
Things changed, however, when Christianity and Islam replaced polytheism in the fourth and seventh centuries respectively. Water slowly lost its sacred nature.
But the situation took a tragic turn with “modern” times, starting in the late nineteenth century with the industrialization of agriculture. Water simply became an appendix to a global business machine cannibalizing forests, minerals, land, animals and plants – for profit.
The United States has been a pioneer in the development and spread of industrialized business, which inevitably destroys traditional societies.
Native Americans took the brunt of America’s missionary zeal in remaking America to serve corporations. They lost their land and freedom. They witnessed the diversion and damming of their rivers. They even saw whites cultivating the desert, bringing water from far away and mining the groundwater, all with the intent of controlling nature itself.
This was disastrous, wrote Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert (Penguin Books, 1987).
Cadillac Desert is an extraordinary book. It summarizes how the federal government, doing the bidding of large farmers, manipulated water: capturing it and bringing it through concrete rivers, sometimes hundreds of miles long, to where it would irrigate the desert and make it bloom.
“Were it not for a century and a half of messianic effort toward that end, the [American] West as we know it would not exist,” Reisner said.
Taming Native Americans was genocidal. Taming nature was just as destructive. The missionaries of the government and industrialized agriculture, Reisner said, played god with our water. They imposed “a civilization in a semidesert with a desert heart.”
The American “conquest” of nature became a textbook for the rest of the world. Corporate missionaries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, funded largely by the World Bank and large business played god with rivers and lakes and groundwater. The result is as bleak as in the American West. Water is in decline.
The Canadian water activist Maude Barlow examined the fate of the world’s water and found a calamity. Her book, Blue Future (The New Press, 2014), is full of stories of environmental crimes and deceit: how the World Bank imposed the “corporate commodification” of water all over the tropics. The result is that poor people go without clean water. But bottled water, for example, fetches more than $ 100 billion a year.
The 2004 privatization of water in Egypt, Barlow says, doubled the price of water. This punished the majority of Egyptians who resorted to drinking polluted water from the Nile – and to rebellion, boosting the Arab Spring. Barlow also sees a direct line between the abuses of water in Syria (allowing large farmers unlimited drilling rights with the resulting five-year drought and hunger) and the civil war tearing the country apart.
Like in the American West, industrialized agriculture elsewhere takes 70 to 90 percent of the drinking water. Most of this irreplaceable water becomes “virtual” water exported in meat and other crops. “The global trade in food,” Barlow says, “is really about the trade in water.”
Seeing the world’s water “disappear,” Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays, Credit Suisse and other large multinational companies buy aquifers and water rights.
“Blue Future,” however, is not merely a critique of land and water grabs and corruption. Barlow is an idealist who is convinced water is so important it has the ability to improve the human condition.
She cheers because, in 2010, the UN recognized access to water as a human right. Yet UN did not prohibit the scourge of selling water for money.
“Water,” she says, “is not like land; it can neither be described nor divided as if it were a pie… if we want to sustain ecosystems… we will need to think more like watersheds and less like states and nations.”
This insight brings us back to the Greeks and other ancient and modern traditional people worshiping the natural world. That’s why Blue Future is exceptional, timely, and inspiring: it sheds light on those destroying water while it gives us wisdom to protect both water and our future.
“Water,” she says, “can be nature’s gift to humanity in ways we have yet to understand.”
Evaggelos Vallianatos has a doctorate in Greek history from the University of Wisconsin, postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard, and 27 years of experience on Capitol Hill and the U.S. EPA. He has authored 5 books and more than 160 articles. His book about the workings and failure of EPA, Poison Spring, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press.