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Holy Water

Why the secularization of water is responsible for our current environmental crisis.

By Peter C. Baker


Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind. (Photo: Bloomsbury Press)

Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind
Brian Fagan
Bloomsbury Press

“If I were called in / To construct a religion,” mused British poet Philip Larkin, “I should make use of water.” Anthropologist Brian Fagan would likely concur. In Elixir, his 2011 global history of water usage, Fagan finds much to admire in the long era, comprising most of human existence, in which water was an “unreliable, often scarce, and always valuable resource, so precious that it was sacred in almost every human society.”

Surveying the archaeological literature, Elixir evokes in fascinating detail the systems — not just canals, furrows, and terraces, but also dynamic social compacts — that kept ancient communities hydrated without help from drills, dams, or powerful centralized water authorities. Along the way, it also provides a survey of the gods, rituals, and belief systems these communities used to remind themselves of water’s importance and caprice.

In modern times, Fagan argues, water has become not just commodified, but also secularized. Instead of venerating water, we assume it can — and should — be available anywhere, on demand, no matter the natural conditions. As a result, crisis is upon us. “There will be shortfalls,” he writes, obviously nodding to the American West, but also to the Middle East. “People will go thirsty and die.” And yet, Elixir ends on a not entirely pessimistic note. As archaeologists know best, sketches of a different relationship with our most vital resource lie all around us, literally carved into the surface of the planet we are now called upon to save.