“Songs are like cold rivers: each follows its own course, yet all flow to the sea, from which everything came.”
Mythical water beings play an outsize role in human imagination and culture. In Aboriginal Australia, the Rainbow Serpent is both a giver of life and its destroyer.
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.
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blue Machine: How the Ocean Shapes Our World by Helen Czerski Torva £20, 464 pagesThe Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths by Brad Fox Pushkin Press £22, 384 pages