Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bushmen and Sumerians

By Bill Hinchberger

Bushmen and Sumerians. The First People and the first civilization akin to anything we might remotely recognize today. Their stories demonstrate how human beings have coped, and failed to cope, with localized water scarcity. As our planet enters “the coming age of permanent drought,” as author James G. Workman puts it in the subtitle of his book about the Bushmen, their experiences offer clues about how we might address our impending global water crisis. Not, as we shall see, that this will make it any easier for democratic politicians.


In her book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map, Cleo Paskal examines sundry ways that geopolitics may be affected by climate change and resource scarcity. Nowhere is her book more poignant than where it compares our water problems today with those of the people who inhabited what is now southeastern Iraq, between the Tigres and Euphrates rivers, starting around the mid-fourth millennium B.C.

Calling them “exceptional hydraulic engineers,” Paskal describes how the Sumerians controlled floods and embarked on irrigation, ensuring food surpluses that freed up people for specialization that led to advances in pottery wheels, writing and legal systems. By the second millennium B.C., their farms and city-states extended from Morocco to Kazakhstan. With extra food and improved sanitation, the population grew and things “became a bit crowded.” Specialization continued to encompass weaving, metalwork, masonry and leatherwork – not to mention fighting. Professional soldiers began do battle over water resources. (The word “rival” comes from the Latin for “on the same river,” Paskal informs us.)

“Some of the farming techniques turned huge areas sterile, and with temperamental rains, the water supply situation could become desperate,” Paskal writes. “The core of the problem was too many people, too little food and water, and too few places to secure more supplies. This relative over-population led to cycles of inflation, over-taxation, unemployment, famine, revolts, war, anarchy, and disease.” Following a few “millennia of dramatic ups and downs, the whole system collapsed and the population crashed.” In 800 A.D., the population of what is now Iraq was 30 million; at the beginning of the 20thcentury, before the current boom, it stood at just five billion.

Paskal draws a parallel to the 21stcentury: “In many places, as happened with the Sumerians, we are already pushing the environmental limits through relative over-population and ill-advised development models. When erratic precipitation and extreme events are added, areas that are barely holding on may find themselves slipping over the brink.” In her final chapter, Paskal notes: “Ever since the days of the Sumerians there has been an assumption that great powers could buy their way out of problems by shoring up domestic deficiencies with imported supplies and political alliances.”


Workman’s Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Droughtrecounts the contemporary saga of the natives of Africa’s Kalahari Desert who “according to geneticists, linguists, and ecological scientists… constituted the remnants of the world’s oldest and most successful civilization.” In the style of Moby Dick, alternating the exposition of facts with the tragic narrative of tribal matriarch Qoroxloo and her cohorts, Heart of Darkness tells the story of how the Bushmen relied on traditional knowledge and practices to survive severe water-scarcity and resist the government of Botswana’s efforts to relocate them “for their own good.” Officials could destroy their borehole but not their spirit.

Workman’s book is a tribute to old-school independent journalism in an era increasingly dominated by Fox vs. HuffPo advocacy reporting. With evidence and without malice, Workman goes beyond the usual targets (diamond miners) to diss everyone from the “visionary” president of Botswana to conservationists and ecotourism advocates (“water for elephants only”). Self-appointed international do-gooders get their comeuppance as well: “Liberals were demanding that governments like Botswana must protect people like Qoroxloo from privatization contracts, but at that precise moment Qoroxloo’s band sought a privatization contract to protect themselves from Botswana’s government.” Such a book would never find backing from a foundation looking to push its particular version of the truth.

Despite outing all those bad guys and a tragic story, Workman is an optimist. He concludes that we can learn from the Bushmen’s behavior to adapt to a world of water scarcity. The best summary of that point of view might be the seven-step program to Climate-Proof Your Business that he published in Business Week magazine.

I would love to join Workman in his optimism, but I am afraid that he left out one thing – or, rather, he mentioned it in passing and then forgot about it. In his description of Botswana’s efforts to force the Bushmen into camps designed to help them assimilate into modern society, Workman notes, “Ironically, the government’s clean and brutal forced departure had brought one unintended silver lining: It relieved ecological pressure on those who remained.” The Bushmen’s traditional practices would not have worked if all those people had stayed in the desert after soldiers destroyed their borehole.

Politicians and Population

My concern isn’t so much that Workman abandoned the population issue: it is that such forgetfulness predominates global thinking. Paskal is more explicit about the role of over-population in the decline and fall of the Sumerians, but she ignores population control in her chapter of policy recommendations. At international conferences, boosters from India tout their country’s population growth as a “demographic dividend” while the country’s groundwater is depleted at alarming rates. Further north, Russia seemed to have solved the problem without really trying – for 15 years the country experienced a natural decline in population. Instead of rejoicing, leaders encouraged people to have more children. Posters depicted a young woman with three babies with the caption, “Love for your nation starts with love for family.” In 2009 the downward trend was reversed. Many countries, including the United States with its chronic overconsumption, offer tax write-offs for children.

Democratic politicians know where their votes come from, so maybe we’re all doomed. But just in case somebody should send them copies of Paskal and Workman’s books.

Bill Hinchberger is a freelance writer and the principal of Hinchberger Consulting, with offices in France and Brazil. He is also the founding editor of, an online travel guide about South America’s largest country, and the host of BrazilMax Radio, an online radio program. Previously he worked as a foreign correspondent for The Financial Times and Business Week, as a contributing editor for Institutional Investor, and as director of communications and external relations for the World Water Council. He served four years as president of the São Paulo Foreign Correspondents Association and has contributed to a broad range of publications, including ARTnews, Architectural Record, Metropolis, National Wildlife, Science, The Lancet and The Nation. Hinchberger Consulting offers services to meet the communications and editorial needs of international organizations, NGOs and companies. These include conference reporting, production of case studies of success, media strategy development and training. Since 2009 assignments have taken Hinchberger beyond Brazil and France to Argentina, Belgium, Dubai, India, Kenya, Morocco, Qatar, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in Latin American Studies, both from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a participant in National Geographic’s Destination Stewardship Survey and a member of the editorial board of Mercado Ético (Ethical Markets), a multimedia project about sustainable development in Brazil.

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