OK, I admit the title of this post is possibly a bit extreme but I could not resist the symmetry. Here, I refer to both ends of civilization, the start and the finish.

I’d like to talk about a recent review published in Science, titled “Systems integration for global sustainability” written by my colleague Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute together with Jiangou Liu, Harold Mooney, Vanessa Hull, Steven Davis, Joane Gaskell, Thomas Hertel, Jane Lubchenco, Karent Seto, Claire Kremen and Shuxin Li. But I want to put this paper in a broader perspective, dipping into my training as an archaeologist. But first a relevant digression.

The so called “Hydraulic Hypothesis” is an idea first fully characterized by the historian Karl Wittfogel. His original idea was part of a larger model for the origin of civilization that we see today as having several problematic aspects, but the key idea is still valid. If agriculture is the basis for a society, and it is carried out in a semi-arid region, then the management of water through various forms of irrigation and the centralized control of the agricultural cycle lends itself to centralized despotic leadership. or at least, some kid of cultural and social change allowing for organized effort to predominate over individual self interest. (In fact irrigation based systems have emerged without despotic leadership, and complex society has emerged absent a hydraulic beginning, so this is an oversimplification, just so you know.) But in its simplest form we can correctly say that the emergence of stratified, hierarchic, complexly organized societies was often linked in no small part to the emergence of organizational (and technological) solutions to growing food where there is not enough rain at the right time of year. There is a great advantage to growing food in this manner. The crops become, in essence, invasive species, because human activity provides the crops with a leg up on all the other plants in the region. A plant that in wild form is found primarily in limited microhabitats, out competed everywhere else by more arid-adapted plants, suddenly has a free ride across a vast landscape. Despite the fact that the Hydraulic Hypothesis is an oversimplification, we can appreciate the fact that the beginnings of human “civilization” (as a social and economic system, which we retain today by and large) is linked partially but importantly to managing water to grow food.

At present the news story that never fails to occupy the front page is ISIS, the Islamic State, making a nuisance of itself in Syria and Iraq. It is generally thought that ISIS emerged in large part because of the quasi-failure of Syria. Syria transited from being a run of the mill Middle Eastern Kingdom with some powerful connections to a quasi-failed state for a number of reasons, but one of the big factors turns out to be water. Or, really, lack thereof. In a recently published paper (not the one in Science mentioned above), Peter Gleick made this point:

The Syrian conflict that began in 2012 has many roots, including long-standing political, religious, and social ideological disputes; economic dislocations from both global and regional factors; and worsening environmental conditions. … key environmental factors include both direct and indirect consequences of water shortages, ineffective watershed management, and the impacts of climate variability and change on regional hydrology. Severe multiyear drought beginning in the mid-2000s, combined with inefficient and often unmodernized irrigation systems and water abstractions by other parties in the eastern Mediterranean, including especially Syria, contributed to the displacement of large populations from rural to urban centers, food insecurity for more than a million people, and increased unemployment—with subsequent effects on political stability. There is some evidence that the recent drought is an early indicator of the climatic changes that are expected for the region, including higher temperature, decreased basin rainfall and runoff, and increased water scarcity. Absent any efforts to address population growth rates, these water-related factors are likely to produce even greater risks of local and regional political instability, unless other mechanisms for reducing water insecurity can be identified and implemented.

Two key graphics from Gleick’s paper demonstrate the role of climate change. First, the drop in available water due to decreased rainfall and, probably, increased evaporation:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 8.22.09 AM

Second, the decrease in annual average discharge of a key river in the region:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 8.23.28 AM

Adaptation to an arid environment allowed the development of agriculture, and required the development of complex states, thousands of years ago, in this region. Subsequent increases and decreases in aridity and other natural climate factors have been recognized as creating local collapses around the Mediterranean during subsequent millennia. But now, climate change (together with the other factors Gleick mentions) has pushed the system over the edge. Thousands of years of technological adaptation and cultural evolution to address the problem of growing grains and orchards in dry country together with modern technology to the extent it has been applied have been insufficient to allow the system to continue in some localities, and everything we know about climate change strongly suggests that this is going to get worse, eventually encompassing the entire region. Expect most of the Middle East to become a client region for global agricultural production over the next decade or two. The term Arab Spring is deeply ironic; the spring is running dry.

So this is how the Hydraulic Hypothesis bookends civilization. Cultural technological management of limited or badly timed natural water were adaptations to semi-arid climate conditions and contributed to the development of what we call civilization. As climate conditions shift to the point where these adaptations become unreliable, the system fails. And, the failure is in part because of prior success. As a highly integrated but organic system it is unable to manage deep and causative change. If Vulcans ran the Earth, the Syrian farmers would have been, logically, put on some sort of dole and eventually retasked, and there would not have been a civil war. But since we rely so much on organic system evolution (which includes in part the much vaunted “free market”) that is not what happened.

The review in Science addresses the large scale system dynamics. From the paper:

Global sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed. Systems integration—holistic approaches to integrating various components of coupled human and natural systems—is critical to understand socioeconomic and environmental interconnections and to create sustainability solutions. Recent advances include the development and quantification of integrated frameworks that incorporate ecosystem services, environmental footprints, planetary boundaries, human-nature nexuses, and telecoupling. Although systems integration has led to fundamental discoveries and practical applications, further efforts are needed to incorporate more human and natural components simultaneously, quantify spillover systems and feedbacks, integrate multiple spatial and temporal scales, develop new tools, and translate findings into policy and practice. Such efforts can help address important knowledge gaps, link seemingly unconnected challenges, and inform policy and management decisions.

The study focuses on biofuels and “virtual water” to illustrate the broader concepts. Since we’re talking about Hydraulic adaptation at the beginning and end (maybe) of human civilization, let’s look more closely at the virtual water.

What is virtual water, you ask? Let’s say you and I are the farmers (there are no other farmers) and together we produce all of the food. We live in different places and the food gets traded back and forth. You may be surprised to hear that for every liter of water the people who live in our hypothetical two-farm world drink as refreshment, we farmers require something like 100 liters of water to match that in food (that is a very rough estimate). But the water requirement varies tremendously by the kind of food. Let’s say I grow wheat and you grow eggs. That means that every person-year of food (in terms of calories) that I grow requires a very small fraction of the water that you need to grow one person-year of calories. Plants generally require a fraction of the water that animal products require. Even among plants the differences are rather large.

So, if we trade wheat and eggs (I give you wheat and you give me eggs) evenly by calorie, than we are simultaneously trading water, but very unevenly. When I give you 1000 calories of wheat, I’m giving you something like 1000 liters of water, virtually. When you give me 1000 calories of eggs, you are giving me perhaps a million liters of water, virtually. If you are farming in a water rich region and I’m farming in a water poor region, that makes sense and it may even be the reason I grow wheat and you grow egg chickens. Or, if we started out with plentiful water relative to production in both regions, but your farms experience increasing aridity, there is now a pressure for us to change our virtual water trading practices. You should be growing some wheat and I should be growing some chickens.

Alternatively we could eat less animal product. Or, if you like you can experience a regional civil war in your part of the world and create a religious state that everybody hates. Whatever.

In real life, virtual water is quite complex. From the review:

The main virtual water exporters (sending systems) are water-rich regions in North and South America and Australia, whereas Mexico, Japan, China, and water-poor regions in Europe are the main importers (receiving systems)… Asia recently switched its virtual water imports from North America to South America. On the other hand, North America has engaged in an increased diversification of intraregional water trade while trading with distant countries in Asia. China has undergone a dramatic increase in virtual water imports since 2000, via products such as soybeans from Brazil (nearly doubling from 2001 to 2007 and amounting to 13% of the total global world water trade). The spatial shift in the use of soybean products in Brazil from domestic to international has led to water savings in other countries, but at the cost of deforestation in Brazilian Amazon. Within-country virtual water transfer is also common. For example, virtual water flow through grain trade from North China to South China goes in the opposite direction of real water transfer through large projects, such as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, that aim to alleviate water shortages in North China.

Or, in the form of a picture, from the review:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 8.51.07 AM

To me one of the key issues raised when taking a system level look, and this refers back directly to the Hydraulic Hypothesis, is the role of regulatory process and government. After all, we created these governments (as part of civilization) for the exact reason of managing the emerging complex system of agriculture (oversimplified again … and there were other reasons of course). So I asked Peter Gleick what he thought about the relationship between free market economics, regulation, and government (or higher level) involvement. He told me, “Free markets are both a solution and a problem. There is growing evidence that for a number of critical global challenges, government oversight and regulatory institutions are critically important to correct the failure of free markets. We encourage trade in goods and services worldwide, which has led to a remarkable trade in “virtual water” — the water required to make those goods and services. This is a good thing, in my opinion, because it permits countries that could never possibly be self sufficient in food because of insufficient water (most of the Middle East and North Africa) to use their limited water for higher valued economic activities and then buy food on the market. But the market failure here is that natural ecosystems do not compete or play a role in such “markets” — permitting the complete extinction of endemic fish from the Aral Sea to grow cotton in the Central Asian republics for export. I could give other examples of gross free market failures with global consequences (ozone hole, climate change). So, yes, balance markets with strong government regulatory oversight to protect public goods.”

This makes sense because of one of the things people almost always forget when it comes to market forces. The free market model assumes that the system is made up of “ideal free actors.” Ideal free does not mean free of ideals! (Maybe there should be a comma there.) The actors in the market are “ideal” in that they are identical in their access to information and ability to act on it, and they are free in the sense that there are no external constraints on those actions. So, ideal actors regulated (not free) do not make up a free market (that is the point usually made by Libertarians) but more often than not, the actors are not “ideal.” It is a major failure of integration of economics theory and social theory to place the non-ideal parts in the category of “external costs” and ignore them. One actor’s external costs is another actor’s non-idealness.

I also asked Gleick to elaborate on the relationship between regional collapse and the global system, as a means of integrating the two studies I cover above. He responded, “… can regional collapses influence or perturb global systems, rather than the other way around? I would argue for example that perturbed global systems are influencing regional collapses (for example, climate, drought, and Syria). A functioning global systems approach would have to be able to handle regional perturbations. Could you argue that the political collapse in the US Congress is a major barrier to a global systems approach to cut greenhouse gas emissions? Yes. But that US government failure can be bypassed by other mechanisms, as we’re seeing now with California’s cap/trade system; collaborative state efforts; federal efforts that bypass congressional constraints using other mechanisms.”

Peter Gleick has written up his own comments on the Science review, on his blog, here.


Citation: Liu, J. H. Mooney, V. Hull, S.J. Davis, J. Gaskell, T.Hertel, J. Lubchenco, K.C. Seto, P.H. Gleick, C. Kremen, S. Li. 2015. Systems Integration for Global Sustainability. Science, Vol. 347, No. 6225. 27 February 2015. DOI: 10.1126/science.1258832


Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.


  1. #1 Douglas C Alder
    March 2, 2015

    The concept of virtual water transfer is fascinating – thanks for posting this. Question is though as the Middle East continues to dry up and suffer economic (never mind civil) turmoil how are they, in a capitalist world, going to be able to afford to buy their food/virtual water?

    As real water rationing gets increasingly strict in those regions, the countries with the better supply of real water will be inundated first with refugees then by militaries/rebels/terrorists from the less advantageous countries. The international community will be limited by armed conflict in how much help they can give.

    The future bodes very poorly for that area.

  2. […] Greg Laden’s Blog: […]

  3. #3 Russell
    March 4, 2015

    The IPCC has been derelict in failing to warn the world of how severely dry mediterranean winters could degrade the quality of both Sobranie and Yenidje tobacco.

    Now wonder tempers are frayed in the Levant !

  4. #4 G
    March 4, 2015

    Virtual water: most interesting, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for more on this subject.

    What you also illustrate is that economics as presently taught and practiced, is like physics based on the Four Elements or medicine based on the Four Humors. It’s disconnected from empirical reality, thus it’s essentially quackery. The cures for which are to require a thorough grounding in the sciences as a prerequisite to any degree in economics, and to start hiring physical scientists into economic policy roles in government.

    But in the end, all this tinkering around the edges, with markets this and regulatory that, isn’t sufficient. The bottom line is the necessity for _steady-state economics_, and the sooner we start addressing that, the better.

  5. […] The Hydraulic Hypothesis and the End of Civilization (Greg Laden, Science Blogs): The so called “Hydraulic Hypothesis” is an idea first fully characterized by the historian Karl Wittfogel….If agriculture is the basis for a society, and it is carried out in a semi-arid region, then the management of water through various forms of irrigation and the centralized control of the agricultural cycle lends itself to centralized despotic leadership. or at least, some kid of cultural and social change allowing for organized effort to predominate over individual self interest. […]

  6. […] The Hydraulic Hypothesis and the End of Civilization (Greg Laden, Science Blogs): The so called “Hydraulic Hypothesis” is an idea first fully characterized by the historian Karl Wittfogel….If agriculture is the basis for a society, and it is carried out in a semi-arid region, then the management of water through various forms of irrigation and the centralized control of the agricultural cycle lends itself to centralized despotic leadership. or at least, some kid of cultural and social change allowing for organized effort to predominate over individual self interest. […]

  7. […] See: The Hydraulic Hypothesis and the End of Civilization […]

  8. […] See: The Hydraulic Hypothesis and the End of Civilization […]