Monday, March 10, 2008

Water Empires: Part One

Show of hands, how many of you are familiar with the term 'Hydraulic Empire,' sometimes referred to as hydraulic despotism or as a 'Water Monopoly Empire?'


A hydraulic empire is a power structure which maintains absolute political power over the population through access to water. The term was coined by historian Karl Wittfogel, in his work Oriental Despotism, a comparative study of total power (1957), which was primarily a study on the difference between western and eastern power structures (need a cure for insomnia? Try a Wittfogel, just saying). Despite the title of his paper, Wittfogel wasn't just talking about oriental governments, and he coined the term 'hydraulic empire' in reference to early and ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and the Incas (to name a few) where absolute political power depended on the government's total control over irrigation and the water supply through a specialized bureaucracy.

In those ancient civilizations, water was power. Water was in fact the basis for the entire civilization, everything depended on it. Transportation, agriculture, industry, government, everything. As with any power structure, there are advantages and disadvantages to a water monopoly empire. A major advantage is stability, if the empire can reduce or eliminate outside threats then it is likely to last a long, long time - which is exactly what China was doing with that whole Great Wall concept. However, that same advantage becomes a massive weakness should an outside entity gain control over the water supply (this does not apply strictly to human threats either, a number of water empires have crumpled due to changing environments and failing water supplies).

Water empires, should they last, inevitably lead to stagnation and despotism. When the government controls very foundation of the civilization, then sooner or later those in power are going to realize that they can do whatever they like and there's not a hell of a lot the population can do about it. Innovation, especially innovation that could change the power structure, is strongly discouraged. As long as the water supply is plentiful, the population will usually remain unconcerned about the burden their government places on them, because the advantages of their civilization outweigh the disadvantages. However, should the water supply begin to decline, either because the growing population exceeds the supply or because the supply become diminished for whatever reason - the government has no choice but to increase the burden in order to maintain power and control. If the situation becomes critical, the power structure often becomes increasingly violent and insane in an attempt to hold onto power. Eventually this situation reaches a point of no return, and the civilization collapses, sometimes violently, sometimes it just disintegrates piece by piece over a period of time.

Collapse and chaos are not inevitable. Unfortunately, by the time the final crises comes, the government and the population are often so hidebound and blinkered to innovation that they are completely unable to respond effectively. In fact, by this point, change and innovation are seen as a threat to the existing power structure and are often stamped out, violently. By time the collapse is obvious to the population at large, the civilization often lacks the resources to stop it, even if they desire to do so. It's that point, the point where the available resources are no longer sufficient to overcome the crises, no matter how applied, that is the point of no return. After that, no matter what happens, the civilization is in decline and will eventually collapse. Remnants may survive, but the society itself is doomed. The final crises may come gradually as with Rome, or it may come suddenly and without warning as it did to the Incas, or it may be a combination of both as with the Soviet Union.

There's plenty of examples throughout history, go look up a few for yourself, start with the Soviet Union and work backward to Rome and Dynastic China and on back to Babylon. For fun, take a look at some of the range wars fought over water rights in the old American west.

Today, the term 'water empire' has been expanded to include any power structure maintained by exclusive control over the basic resources needed by the population to live. Because, ultimately what we're talking about here is not water, but power, or more specifically, energy. In the ancient agricultural civilizations (and many modern ones), water was energy. Today, it's oil. Other fossil fuels play a role as well, but it's oil that moves the wheels, and tills the corn, and pumps the water.

Which brings us to the United States and the fact that oil is even now hitting a record $107 dollars a barrel (I wonder if in a year I'll look back on this post and marvel at how cheap $107 seems). U.S. average retail gasoline prices have reached a new high of almost $3.20 per gallon and will likely jump another 20 to 30 cents in the next month, worsening the pain of consumers struggling to make ends meet in an economic downturn.

Oil is the working fluid of our water empire - and somebody else controls it.

The warning signs, like the rumbling of a volcano or the chest pains before a heart attack, are growing more frequent and more intense. The United State has faced crisis before, in fact it has faced this crisis before - in the 70's. And we learned nothing, we changed nothing, and when the OPEC embargo passed we went back to building bigger cars, oil fired power plants, and giant super tankers. What we didn't do was build diversity into our energy supply, if anything we've become even more dependent on a single resource that is controlled by somebody else. Somebody hostile to us and our future.

We have not yet passed the point of no return. We still command enormous resources. We do not have to suffer the fate of those lost empires. Sooner or later we are going to face a choice. And that choice is threefold. 1) We can fiddle while Rome burns - i.e. take the traditional course of action and do nothing. We can close our eyes and wring our hands and hope that those in the energy industry and government figure out a solution. Yeah, see how well that has worked in the past? 2) We can seize the assets we need. Also a popular choice for declining empires. Anybody remember why Japan attempted to conquer China and the Pacific Basin the last time around? Or the Nazis attempted to conquer Europe? Living space Hitler called it, but it was really about assets. So, we can go to war in the Middle East, South America, and maybe even Siberia and take the oil for ourselves. Hell, despite history maybe we'll even win. One problem, we need unfettered access to oil to run the war machine. It's a catch-22, and speaking of that, take a look at what happens to Japan and Germany when their oil supplies were cut early in WWII. And finally, there's option 3) We can innovate, now, while we still have the resources. We can diversify the energy basis of our society. We can stimulate our economy, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, alter our fate - and at the same time remove a very large source of global war and conflict - by ending our dependency on oil. And it can be done, right now, today. The solutions are many and varied.

Tomorrow, in the second half of this post, I'll talk about those solutions. Sane, sustainable, practical solutions - and what a sane, sustainable, and practical national energy policy should look like.


  1. First, the snark. I live in Michigan, so when the water empire begins -- I'll be your freshwater king. You may begin sending tithes and offerings now.

    Secondly, you beat me to the blog post by a short margin. Mine was (and might still) focus largely on what your part 2 will be.

    The coolest news I've heard in the recent past? That Tata motors will possibly be shipping to the US next year! Will it happen? Who knows, but you can bet that's where my greenbacks will be going. I'm milking along our current minivan, just waiting for something smarter to come into play.

    I'm looking forward to your next post. :)

  2. I know an engineer who was working on the concept of a water distribution network similar to the one that handles electricity and natural gas. The governor of Michigan was approached about pipelines to the Lake.

    His response was "the only way Lake Michigan water is leaving this state is in beer cans".

    I'll be very interested in your post Jim, because as far as I can see, no alternative source can account for enough power to make even a 5% contribution to the total energy budget. None except for Nu-cu-lar, and the NIMBYs have blocked that one but good.

    It's time to give the Sierra Club a uranium enema.

  3. You left out the fourth option, Jim: if we take all of the bowls you've made (you may need to recover some of them, possibly having an exciting car chase and a meeting with a sinister and mysterious man in an alley or library along the way), assemble them in the proper sequence, and decode the symbols, we can discover the greys' method for extracting usable energy from the zero-point vacuum. That's why they've been planting these symbols in your brain, Jim, so that you can show us how to end the human species' dependence on all fuels. Which will lead to an end to war and a formal invitation to join the Galactic Nexus.

    Sorry. How could I resist? The more serious response is that we are likely to go through the three alternatives you mention in order, like someone going through an abbreviated version of Kubler-Ross' stages of death acceptance. We'll remain in denial, fight a few wars, and stumble into some kind of solution out of necessity and accident (possibly while going through step two, since war frequently provokes innovation--and no, that's not the "good" thing about war).

    Sorry. I think I'm still jet-lagged from the time change and my cynicism is dialed to "11." I look forward to seeing what you have to offer, Jim.

  4. Shawn, I should be good, right? Right?

    Please note that the jam has not yet left my custody...

  5. ...and a meeting with a sinister and mysterious man in an alley or library along the way

    And obviously this alley should be somewhere in Manhattan. :D

    Funnily enough I've been thinking about the same problem, albeit on a smaller scale. That is, my scale. Is there a way for me as a consumer to cut my dependence on oil? Can I figure out alternate means of transportation that don't require so much of it, yet still gets me where I need to go as quickly and conveniently? I know people who go everywhere on bike, but that's highly unlikely to be a realistic option for me. I've been pondering whether to trade in my car for a Prius - that would at least get me in the right direction. I also know people who have solar panels and find them so effective for their own uses that they have energy left over to send to the power company, who gives them monetary credits.

    Like with Shawn, there's been a blog post brewing in the back of my mind about all this, though it wasn't going to bubble up to the surface as soon. Basically the key concept is something I learned in Starcraft: If you can't break through the front door, go around back. If we're in a lose-lose situation with regards to continuing to use oil, it's time to stop and do something else.

    Looking forward to Part II.

  6. Janiece, you can have Lake Ontario. It's inconveniently far away. I'll give you a personal supply from Superior, the cleanest and coldest of the 5 Great Lakes. :)

  7. Hey, I'm good. I don't know what the rest of you plebes are going to do...

    Seriously, though, I've been slowly adopting "save the planet" type activities over the years. We use CFL's, I use cloth grocery sacks, I telecommute 100% of the time...

    Those are what come to mind immediately.

  8. Well option three is our best bet. And shouldn't we be working on bringing the fusion genie out of the bottle?

  9. OK, not to rain on the party, but speaking of water empires, I though your post was going somewhere else initially, and that's the fact that the fresh water supply may become a problem before oil and alternate energy sources.

    I'm spoiled, because Morgantown gets its water from a river, and we live in a rain shadow, so water has never been an issue here, even when the rest of the state was in drought.

    But water is a serious problem elsewhere. At one point (maybe still current) Frederick county Maryland had a building restriction because they were building more homes than the water supply could handle (thank you Washington DC).

    But this isn't a localized problem. Atlanta is draining the aquifer from which it gets it's water. Much of the west is dependent upon the Colorado river, and the water right there are constantly argued over. Aquifers in the Midwest are becoming poisoned by fertilizer runoff from industrial farms...

    The US is rapidly either running out of water, or poisoning the supply it has.

    And that doesn't even consider changing rain patterns due to climate change.

    Yeah, not being able to drive anywhere is going to be a bitch. But not having water to drink is going to be a hell of a lot worse.

    And FWIW I try to minimize my oil consumption: we have one car, and it's a Toyota Corolla. I try to buy organic products whenever possible (i.e. food not fertilized with oil), I've got reusable grocery bags, I recycle plastic as much as I can, and try to make purchases based upon how recyclable the container is... but it's a drop in the bucket compared to everything else.

    Reducing oil consumption is going to require more than creating fuel efficient cars. It's also going to require that we change our farming practices (one of the books I'm reading talks about how much oil is used to create a bushel of coal and a pound of meat. It's a very large amount.)

    In many ways the American economy needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. And I simply don't see that happening.

    And John, don't forget about coal. They're already leveling the mountains here to provide electricity for parts of the east coast. They push much harder and WV is going to be flat before the end of the century. (/end bitter)

  10. Michelle - coal is limited by current clear air controls. WVA coal is used becuase it's clean. If fluidized bed boilers could be made economical, you might grab some dirtier coal, but as of now, there's not a lot of expansion that can be done with coal.

    Not that I'm advocating realxing the clean air standards, mind you.


  11. John,

    1) "They" keep trying to relax the clean air standard and create loopholes.

    2) If we can't get cheap oil, you wanna bet on what happens to all those clean air regulations?


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.