The Anthropocene primate faces a new water challenge.

improbable primate

In 2014 the anthropologist Clive Finlayson published a delightful little, but intellectually-rich book entitled The Improbable Primate: How Water Shaped Human Evolution (Oxford University Press). For months since I’ve been unable to get the book and its message out of my mind. With apologies to Mr. Finlayson (never allow a physical scientist to summarize your anthropological work!), here are a few quotes (all from page xii) which capture the essence:

“… water was a key ingredient in shaping our evolution…

…the patchy distribution of water across the landscape in arid and semi-arid areas was critical to the origin and evolution of humans capable of traversing large tracts of land efficiently and speedily…

…In addition to this, the problem-solving, information storage and retrieval abilities of good brains were particularly favoured in situations where choices of where and when to go for water determined whether individuals lived or died.”

What he goes on to say, for some 200 pages, with a lot of climatological and biological data to support his argument, is that at a certain stage in our evolution, as we left the forest (and as climate changed and forests gave way to savannah and other habitat), we found the water we needed for daily survival less plentiful. The game we hunted was also searching for water. Because rainfall was patchy and river- and lake reservoirs were widely dispersed and seasonal, natural selection favored two changes. (1) longer-legged, slimmer, fleeter physiques worked better for chasing water than the squat, thick forms more useful for self-defense; we traded increased vulnerability for speed. (2) “Brainier” helped in reading the skies (clouds of that type mean it’s raining over there) and sorting out the water-implications of geography and seasons. Everyone benefited by thinking more – and by thinking more like meteorologists.

Fast forward to today – the Anthropocene. It’s not hard to imagine that we face a water-related challenge similar to that described by Mr. Finlayson – water shortages that seem new when compared with historical experience. As our numbers have increased, and as we’ve increasingly used water not just for our physiological needs and to grow the crops and raise the livestock on which we depend, but also for all manner of energy production and industrial processes, water-resource margins have precipitously declined. We’re depleting surface and geological water reservoirs unsustainably.

Adapting in two ways might help. However, physiological adaptation of the type studied by Mr. Finlayson and his colleagues won’t do the trick. The water challenge is upon us now. We need social change, in two respects. Interestingly, they are similar to those earlier adaptations from a million years ago.

Let’s take the second one first:

Brainier. When population and water-use per capita were small and margins ample, we could pretty much take climatological norms for granted. Assuming stationarity was good enough. By contrast, today we’re increasingly in the business of creating and tapping new reservoirs for water. We’re in full learning mode, adding to our store of knowledge about the Earth’s water – not just its distribution and amount – but how it works: How and why does water move, change form from solid to liquid to vapor? And we are advancing from clouds of that type mean it’s raining over there to more highly-diagnostic monitoring and prediction of water on every scale and over every time horizon. We’re asking what will water do next: What’s the flash flood hazard here over the next hour? What are the prospects the regional drought will be lifted over the coming season? What will be the pace of polar ice melt and sea level rise over the course of the century?  But here’s the concern: we’re finding even as we extend the time horizons for our forecasts we’re either barely keeping pace or falling behind the time horizons needed for major decisions: do we evacuate this neighborhood in the face of the flood threat now? If we plant this crop will it enjoy adequate rainfall over the coming three months? If we build this reservoir, will there be enough precipitation to fill it once we’re done? If we build this ocean retaining wall will it meet the requirements future sea-level rise and storm surge will place on it? Fact is, we’re making most of these decisions with less than-adequate information. In some locations and for some applications we’re winning the race to improve our forecasts at the speed required to meet growing user needs. In others, our forecast improvements are barely keeping pace. But in some instances we’re increasingly flying blind. We need to be brainier – as individuals and as a society.

Which brings us to:

More cooperative. Mr. Finlayson’s primitive hominids needed speed and brains. But there’s no question that such adaptation on the individual level was also accompanied by societal change. The same is true in today’s Anthropocene. Today we need adaptation still, but it’s less physical and more social, even spiritual. In particular, as we examine and learn more about our individual inner nature, our families, our communities, our governments, and our world, we see that at every level our failure to be more cooperative is breathtakingly costly. Resources that could be used to eliminate poverty; to educate and train; to eradicate disease; and to address energy and world hunger and indeed world thirst are being diverted to finger-pointing and blame; dispute and contention; abuse and domination; and ultimately, murder, terrorism and war.

Become more cooperative, and we’ll likely discover we can achieve the United Nations’ sustainable development goals — and in particular, master the water challenge — as a collateral benefit. Attempt to reach those goals while still bickering with each other, and we’ll likely fail at the whole lot.

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One Response to The Anthropocene primate faces a new water challenge.

  1. Melissa Fernau says:

    This morning on the train I was reading “Rain” by Cynthia Barnett, so your post on water seemed coincidentally aligned. I have not finished the book, but recommend it to any interested in the way our society (mostly the USA) has interacted with water and weather in the past.

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