Dessication and Civilization
Rain is necessary; for water is the medium of life, more important even than the light of the sun; the unintelligible whim of the elements may condemn to dessication regions which once flourished with empire and industry, like Nineveh or Babylon, or may help to swift strength and wealth cities apparently off the main line of transport and communication, like those of Great Britain or Puget Sound. – Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage
Years ago, when I was still an engineering undergraduate, my Hydrology professor predicted that World War III would be fought not over oil or ideology but over fresh water. That was back in the 1990’s and global warming was only an academic theory, barely mentioned in the mainstream media. Usable water, though, was already running out. Throughout the 20th century technology had allowed exponential population growth in many of the most arid regions of the world, such as North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the American Southwest.
Now accelerating climate change, along with an additional two decades of population growth, is making the situation much worse. The other day I read an article in the Irish Times that reported on the current drought in the Southwestern region of the the US–the worst in a thousand years. The issue affects me deeply and personally since I live in Southern California. I have only to drive up Interstate 5 so see miles and miles of dry wasteland in an area once famous for its groves of nut trees. I will not attempt to explain the Byzantine world of California water politics. Suffice it to say that without enough water to go around, most of it has been allocated to Los Angeles and other municipalities. Farmers have been forced to cut down groves of trees that took years to establish.
I spent my last few days off tearing out the dead brown grass of our front yard and replacing it with stones, a project many of our neighbors have already completed. I capped off most of my sprinklers, leaving only a couple of heads to drip water on small beds of desert plants at the corners. As watering restrictions become more Draconian, I may not even be allowed to run those.
Drought is a major problem. Like most problems, however, it is far from new. In fact, cycles of climate change and dessication have always played a critical role in the history of civilization. As students of history and the Great Books, we have the advantage of being able to apply historical perspective to contemporary issues.
Historian Arnold Toynbee, in his Study of History, wrote that dessication was probably the primary factor in the development of civilization. Having survived the ice age, our species encountered a period of mild climate and spread prolifically until climate started to change again. As some regions became drier different cultures responded to the challenge in different ways. Some migrated away from the dry areas and continued their primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Others became nomads, adopting very specialized and complex culture complexes which allowed them to live in regions which were uninhabitable by generalized hunter gatherers. Nomad cultures develop high levels of technology that allow them to survive in harsh environments, along with strict and complex systems of taboo and custom designed to reinforce survival behaviors and prevent individuals from endangering the group. But on the road to civilization, nomadism is a blind alley. Nomads live so close to the edge that they have no time or energy to be anything but nomads. The same taboos that help them survive discourage or forbid experimentation with new lifestyles or social organization. The size of the tribe must be limited to avoid exhausting water or graze. The rule of the family patriarch, a leader who is expert in survival skills, must be absolute.
The third group of people chose to remain where they were and develop a different set of technologies to survive. These were the cultures who learned to dig aqueducts and cisterns and wells to access water and bring it where they needed it, to build solid structures of brick and stone to protect themselves from the environment, and to practice intensive agriculture in their newly irrigated fields. These endeavors require far more organization and manpower than a hunter-gatherer band or nomad clan could ever muster. In fact, they require civilization.
Echoes of this decision read us in the Book of Genesis, which describes mans expulsion from Eden. Man couldn’t go back to Eden because it no longer existed. It dried out and became Mesopotamia. Adam’s sons Cain and Able each had to choose which survival strategy they would follow. Abel chose to become a nomadic shepherd while Cain became a sedentary farmer. There was trouble between them almost immediately, culminating in the Bible’s first homicide.
Conflict between civilization and nomadism is one of the major recurring themes in history, mainly because nomads can use land which is too dry for farmers. A minor shift in climate allows the forces of civilization to take land away from the nomads and plant it. This happened in the US in the late 19th century during the years when “the rain followed the plow”. Civilized farmers, with their superior population and production base, conquered the Great Plains, killing off the Plains Indians or forcing them onto particularly arid, undesirable land.
When climate shifts the other way, however, nomads come back into their own. Throughout my lifetime the Sahara desert has been growing steadily. Land that was once productive for farming is now useful only to Bedouins. Similarly, the land at the periphery of China has changed hands many times between nomads and farmers as conditions changed.
In many ways California and the rest of the Southwest have more in common with the first Mesopotamian civilizations than with any society since. Both exist in arid country that becomes extremely fertile only with constant irrigation. In Los Angeles, as in Ur or Babylon, imported water allows a high population density and enough surplus to support a high culture and a prolific artistic class.
But the water is running out. The desert is getting closer.
No, I don’t necessarily believe that Southern California will be over run by nomads, even though that would be entirely consistent with history (and Mad Max movies). But it’s hard to believe that the current society will be sustainable for more than a couple more decades. To survive, we will need to consider the same three options as neolithic Mesopotamians. We can try to move somewhere else and continue the same lifestyle. We can adopt a highly specialized lifestyle adapted to the arid conditions. Or we can try to become even more organized and civilized and use the power of civilization to leverage generalized technologies–possibly by moving into arcologies or dome cities or something of that sort.
It would be nice to have a fourth choice, but in the last 10,000 years no one has come up with one.