Mythical water beings play an outsize role in the human imagination and culture. In Aboriginal Australia, the Rainbow Serpent is both a giver of life and its destroyer. In China, dragons shape cloud, storm and rain. Among the Maya, the Water Lily Serpent links the aquatic realm to the sacred underworld.
There is good reason for the prominence of such entities across time and around the world. While the ancient Greek philosopher Thales was not strictly correct when he said water is the principle of all things, to a first approximation water is life.
Yet for all our wisdom and lore, humanity today is flirting with disaster in the ways we manage water, both on land and at sea. Fresh water is being extracted and contaminated at unsustainable rates in many parts of the world. The oceans are polluted and overfished as never before.
Across the planet, man-made climate change is leading to dramatic changes in the hydrological cycle that is impacting rainfall patterns, and leading to devastating floods and severe droughts on land as well as heatwaves at sea that increase storm intensity and radically alter the food web.
What is to be done? Three new books seek in different ways to help recalibrate our relationship to the water that sustains us. In The Three Ages of Water, the environmental scientist Peter Gleick offers an optimistic vision and manifesto for freshwater. With Blue Machine, the physicist Helen Czerski aims to greatly expand and even revolutionise the reader’s understanding of what is going on in seven tenths of the planet that is not covered in land. And The Bathysphere Book, the first work of nonfiction by the novelist Brad Fox, holds up a mirror to a pioneering explorer of the deep seas.
For Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, the “first age” of water was prehistory, in which humanity simply made direct use of what was to hand or fell out of the sky. In the “second age”, societies learned to manage and exploit water with infrastructure such as aqueducts, dams and sewerage systems. The benefits included irrigation for agriculture, hydropower, industrial services, and improved human health but, Gleick argues, with a global population of more than 8bn, and limited quantities of fresh water, we are coming up against the edge of what these kinds of projects can deliver.
A “third age”, for Gleick, will be either one of “ecological collapse, starvation, disease and political instability,” or “energy and water policies that can reduce emissions of climate-altering gases while making our water systems more resilient to those climate impacts we can no longer avoid”.
The Three Ages of Water outlines a future in which people increasingly recognise that the “hard” engineering of the second age is often not enough, and that we need to follow a “soft” path that centres more on a human right to water and on meeting needs rather than simply supplying the liquid in quantity.
To achieve this, Gleick suggests, we must recognise water’s “true value”. Traditional economists, he writes, have been “very good at assigning dollar values to a big dam or the goods and services produced by stripping water out of natural ecosystems, but they have long ignored the comparable values of maintaining ecological health and biodiversity, avoiding conflict over water, or reducing poverty”. We must do more to protect and restore ecosystems, he argues, and “[maximise] social and individual well-being from every drop of water used”.
There are points at which The Three Ages of Water reads like a checklist for policy wonks, but it is, perhaps, no less helpful for this. Many of its recommendations are also found in Turning the Tide, a report by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water that was published this spring. That report concludes that the costs of inaction greatly outweigh the costs of action for both global north and south. The task, it says “is to properly define, value, and govern water as a global common good, based on a better understanding of the links between water, economic development, climate change and biodiversity loss”.
Water on and in the land represents just 2.5 per cent of the total on Earth. The rest is in the oceans, and the future of water on land is tied to this much larger system. The great majority of rainfall over land, for instance, originates as evaporation from the ocean, and this is one of several reasons why it has never been more important to better understand its nature and how it is changing. Czerski’s Blue Machine is a good place to start — a complement to Gleick’s work in its grasp of the much larger part of the puzzle.
Czerski is a physicist who specialises in bubbles generated by breaking ocean waves — a seemingly narrow area of research but one that informs weather and climate science. She is also an accomplished TV presenter and a popular science writer, and Blue Machine exhibits her full skill set as both scientist and communicator. The book is like a magical pair of spectacles for the mind’s eye, revealing planetary scale processes and astonishments of the deep.
According to the author, the word “machine” in her title should be taken literally. “An engine is something that converts other forms of energy (usually heat) into movement,” and this is precisely what is happening in the seas all the time, with the dominant pattern being the overall shunting of energy from equator to poles. The ocean “takes sunlight and converts it into giant underwater currents and waterfalls, hauling around the ingredients for life: nutrients, oxygen and trace metals like potassium and iron, shaping our coasts and transporting heat”.
Czerski vividly describes the various parts of the system. There is, for example, the Coriolis effect, which sends vast circuits of water spinning across ocean basins. There is the layering of the ocean engine, with sheets of water sliding over each other on a huge scale. There are places where waters rise and mix, powering abundance of life, and giant underwater waterfalls with flows a thousand times those of Niagara.
Woven into almost every part of this enormous system are living forms that take advantage of light, chemical and temperature gradients, and upwellings and mixings of nutrients. Much remains unknown, but Czerski rebuts the much-repeated claim that we know less about the deep ocean than we do about the surface of the Moon. Rather, she writes, we know a vast amount about the deep ocean, but because it is so rich, dynamic and huge “we have only scratched the surface of what there is to know”.
And, she argues, knowledge alone is not enough. No less vital is a sense of connection, and a willingness to act. This is forcefully expressed in anecdotes of science and adventure scattered throughout the book. In one of these she is a member of the crew of six in an ocean-going canoe paddling across the ʻAlenuihāhā (“great billows smashing”) channel between the Big Island of Hawai’i and Maui. “My paddle and the other five are holding the canoe and the ocean together,” she writes, indicating that, without them, the craft would be tossed hither and thither by the waves. “The reward for creating that connection is a flood of raw exhilaration and absolute joy in the beautiful things that nature and humans can do together.”
The daring, imagination and resourcefulness shown by ocean explorers and scientists over the generations is a vital thread in Blue Machine. Few have demonstrated it more dramatically — or with more peculiarities — than William Beebe, the wealthy Depression-era adventurer who undertook the first deep ocean dives in a minuscule spherical craft called a bathysphere. Beebe himself was an accomplished writer, emphasising the vulnerability that he and the engineer Otis Barton felt as they “dangled in a hollow pea on a swaying cobweb a quarter of a mile below the deck of a ship rolling in mid-ocean.” The image is almost mythic, and in The Bathysphere Book, Fox unspools a quirky, digressive series of meditations on Beebe, his times and ours.
Across dozens of short sections and micro chapters, expedition logs are presented like found poetry alongside letters, and exhibits from natural history sit beside thumbnail sketches on social and political context. All are interleaved with diagrams, photographs, and paintings by Beebe’s contemporaries and earlier pioneers. So, for example, a few pages after “A Siphonophore Manifesto”, in which Fox rhapsodises on encountering these luminous multi-bodied creatures for the first time, we are reminded that the deepest bathysphere dive, in 1934, took place as the Dust Bowl raged across the Great Plains and as Stalin began his Great Purge. But Fox always returns to both the astonishments of the deep and Beebe as witness to “a black so black it called his very existence into question”.
If it’s true, Fox concludes, that “as many sea creatures as we know about, from blue whales to diatoms and flagellates,” there are “an equal number we have never encountered, [and] many will go extinct without us ever knowing they existed, arising and passing away without trace”.
The Three Ages of Water, Blue Machine and The Bathysphere Book are timely additions to a large number of works of advocacy, explanation and imagination on the manifold interactions and accelerating crises in humanity’s relation to water. There is, inevitably, much that they do not cover. Blue Machine, for example, does not refer to a treaty to manage and protect the high seas that was finally agreed this spring at the UN after more than 20 years of talks, and which may, for all its flaws, be among signs of hope. But Czerski’s book gets a fundamental point right, and the point applies to fresh water just as much as it does to salt.
In the end, she writes, there is a simple choice. “We have to choose how and how much to connect with the blue machine, because the one thing we can’t do is ignore it. The ocean can embrace us, and the ocean can break us. We can work with it, or against it.”
The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present and a Hope for the Future by Peter Gleick Public Affairs £31.99, 368 pages
Blue Machine: How the Ocean Shapes Our World by Helen Czerski Torva £20, 464 pages
The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths by Brad Fox Pushkin Press £22, 384 pages
‘A Book of Noises’ by Caspar Henderson will be published by Granta (UK) and University of Chicago Press (US) in October
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