'Water' by Steven Solomon: Going With the Flow

03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Steven Solomon's 1995 book, "The Confidence Game," still offers the best explanation of the 2008 global fiscal crisis. Unfortunately, it was ahead of its time and out of print by 2008. For his new book, "Water," the timing is better, which is not good news for the world. The water crisis is upon us, and unlike in a fiscal crisis, the scarce item cannot be manufactured out of thin air by central bankers. Plus water, unlike oil, has no substitute.

I love grand explanations. When I stumbled across Maxwell's Equations as a college freshman, I was dumbfounded. Electricity and magnetism, tied together by four equations that explain light itself. Not as iconic as E=mc2, but way more useful. As I recall, Herman Melville once tried to explain everything in terms of whales. He overreached, but water could, in fact, be the unifying theory of everything, at least in terms of human affairs. As I read through "Water," I found myself paraphrasing the 1992 Clinton campaign mantra: "It's the water, stupid."

The first half of the book is a quick tour through the history of civilization, making the case that the availability and use of water has shaped all societies, starting, obviously, with the "hydraulic civilizations" of the Nile, Mesopotamia, Indus, and Yellow River valleys. Irrigation of those arid lands with giant rivers started the path we are on today, and irrigation remains the single greatest use of fresh water by humans. On a parallel path, which we are also on, the early Mediterranean sea-faring states used salt water as a highway and a battlefield: Phoenicia, Greece, Carthage, and, eventually, Rome. As decentralized trading cultures, open to early forms of democracy and entrepreneurship, they formed an alternative to the highly centralized hydraulic states. The tension between those two prototypes was carried forward to the Cold War and the two-party systems of modern democracies. How big and powerful should a government be?

Northern Europe had neither a Nile nor a warm inland sea, but it had small rivers, lots of rain, and seacoasts with good harbors. Once the technology allowed it, a decentralized civilization developed around rain-fed agriculture on cleared forest land, waterwheel industry on small, steep streams, and barge trade on navigable rivers and eventually pound-locked canals. The steel and steam of the industrial revolution are also water dependent. Much of Europe's technology came originally from China and the Islamic world, but China's perpetually all-powerful central government chose to shun the outside world, and it stagnated. Islam was water-limited. When Europe, especially England, mastered deep ocean navigation, the world was its oyster.

These themes will be familiar to History Channel buffs, but Solomon's book shows the advantage of the printed page over video. The information density is much higher. Sometimes a thousand words ARE worth more than a picture. The richness of his detail brings this global tale into sharp focus. Believe it or not, the book is a page turner.

For today's world, there is good news and bad news. The rich industrial West, with its stable population, has plenty of water, even in arid places like Arizona. Wasteful water uses are not necessary and can be abandoned. Pollution can be controlled. China may have a chance. India is iffy. But the Middle East, with its exploding population, is already maxed out, water-wise. You have to be pretty optimistic to see any hope for the Cradle of Civilization. The big rivers are still there, but badly managed and shrinking. The demographic pressures, i.e., too many children per family, are relentless.

Oh, yea. Spoiler alert! The Six-Day War of 1967 was a water war. It started as a dispute between Israel and Syria over the headwaters of the tiny Jordan River. For details, read the book.

Late in his career, Solomon's economics mentor, Robert Heilbroner, told one of his graduate students that the best thing to do about the coming crisis is to find a good seat to watch it from. Readers of this book probably have a good seat, but they will need a playbill to follow the action. People who want to actually do something constructive will need this book even more.