Rivers of Power

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From The Wall Street Journal:

It’s hard to imagine a world without rivers. The continents would be higher, colder and more rugged, and we humans might still be hugging the coastlines. Our iconic cities, situated along rivers, would not have been built. Global trade and travel might never have developed. Even so, rivers’ crucial role in shaping civilization is “grandly underappreciated,” according to Laurence C. Smith, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University. In his important new book “Rivers of Power,” he surveys mankind’s long, shifting relationship with our rivers, ranging from prehistory to the present and embracing nearly every region of the world.

Rain started falling on Earth at least 4 billion years ago. Merging into streams and then rivers, the water launched its eternal assault on the continents, grinding them down and carrying them grain by grain toward the sea. The rivers, over their tortuous course, occasionally slowed and dropped some of their silt, forming tangled deltas and wide valley plains. Perhaps as recently as 12,000 years ago, nomadic peoples in the Mideast and Asia settled these valleys and began to plant crops such as wheat, barley and rice.

The valley soil was fertile, and early farmers learned to divert river water for irrigation, increasing their harvests and producing surpluses of grain. Starting about 4,000 B.C., they built the world’s first great cities, in present-day Iraq, Egypt, India, Pakistan and China. As these societies grew wealthier and more populous, they also became more complex, supporting a ruling class, traders, philosophers and engineers. In fact, these civilizations (the Egyptian, Sumerian, Harappan and Chinese) were so utterly dependent on their rivers (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra, and Yangtze and Yellow) that they have been dubbed “hydraulic societies.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

4 thoughts on “Rivers of Power”

    • Back in the day, a lot of good things came down the Hudson to New York, Harald.

      I might have chosen the Mississippi, the Danube or the Volga, however.

      • Well, I guess I’m partial to NYC and the Hudson for personal reasons: having swum around Manhattan and written about the early beginnings of river and the city it flows through.

        ***BTW PG: would love to be able to include an image here that would enliven this thread. Any way to do that???

  1. It’s hard to imagine a world without rivers

    Trying to do this threw me out of the OP. Short of a strange change in gravity leaving all the rain water sitting on the continents, or of geology making all continental crust super permeable, I ended up imagining a world like Mars.

    I’m also puzzled by professor Laurence C. Smith’s view that rivers’ crucial role in shaping civilization is “grandly underappreciated,”. Maybe what kids learn has changed drastically in the many years since I was at school, but the history I was taught started with the Tigris, Euphrates and the Nile, so it definitely appreciated rivers (though those in China, India and America didn’t exist in those days).

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