Molly Ivins

Water Tablets


Okay, now for two fabulous books about — water! I promise, no matter what your politics, your stand on the environment or even your lack of interest in the subject (that’s for all you folks devoting your lives to avant-garde French film), these books are fascinating. You may think reading about water is as interesting as drinking it, but you also know that nothing on earth tastes better than a glass of water when you are really thirsty. And that’s what these books are like.

For those of you with a stake in water — beach-lovers, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, coastal dwellers, Weather Channel watchers, hurricane followers, anyone in government, journalists, taxpayers, and humanity in general — these books are must-reads. Come to think of it, I’ve always disliked the phrase “must-read” — let’s say, “books you are dying to read even if you don’t know it yet.”

Against the Tide: the Battle for America’s Beaches by Cornelia Dean is a jewel. A whole book about beaches? Yo — for anyone who has ever walked along a beach in that Zen-like state that only beach walks provide, do not miss this book. Especially if you’re a taxpayer.

I think one reason this is such a fun book to read is that it’s one of those deals we all secretly relish: All the experts are wrong, the government is once again doing really dumb things and any of us could have told them it wouldn’t work.

Ever since the Bible was written, we have known not to build our houses on sand. You’d think we’d have got it by now. Dean investigates the myriad ways that we have tried to circumvent this self-evident proposition: sea walls, groins, dredging, stilts, jetties, cuts, dams, etc. My favorite is the daffy concept of “beach replenishment,” which leads to such grave questions as, “Who owns this sand?”

Every now and then, the discussion becomes a little too esoteric — she lost me during a section on the effects of “edge waves” — but mostly, this is surprisingly fascinating stuff.

Dean’s discussion of “The Big One” — the monster hurricane that could crash into Florida, wipe out the Gulf Coast and drown New Orleans — is one of those “Holy gamoley!” deals. It’s also sobering to reflect that it’s not a “Oh-it’ll-never-happen” so much as an “Amazing-it-hasn’t-happened-yet.”

Whenever I write a column about the folly of the federal flood insurance program, I get lots of mail from angry readers. From now on, I’m going to insist that they read this book before I enter a dialogue about the merits and demerits of the program.

Dean is not a prescriptive journalist; she’s not advocating anything — she’s just describing what happens. Nevertheless, there’s no missing the implication of her evidence: “The glaring flaw in the insurance program [is that] it is betting the federal treasury against a sure thing: coastal flooding.”

I honestly think this could be one of those rare books that changes government policy — at local, state and federal levels. I defy you to read it and not conclude that there must be a better way.

Sandra Postel’s Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? has a global focus that makes it in one way less immediate — we always care more about what’s closer to home. But it also gives her a perspective that is almost breathtaking.

All you Julian L. Simon fans will want to read at least her first chapter, “New Light on an Old Debate,” in which she does not so much demolish Simon as demonstrate what the problem is.

“Today, the difference between the Malthusian pessimists and the cornucopian optimists comes down to little more than an assumption about grain land productivity over the next several decades — specifically, whether yields will grow at closer to the 1 percent rate of the 1990s or the 2 percent rate of the previous four decades. This difference may seem small, but it gets magnified over time. At an annual growth rate of 2 percent, food production would double in thirty-five years. Growing at 1 percent, however, it would take twice as long — seventy years — to double.”

Postel is firmly in the optimists’ camp, but one must admit that her fairly brief recap of the history of civilization as the story of water is not encouraging. The ruined statue of Ozymandias, Shelley’s king of kings, is her central metaphor: “Round the decay / of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” It’s a case of “First, you got to get the mule’s attention.”

The mule — mankind in this case — really does require the proverbial two-by-four upside the head. And it seems to me we’re getting it, with summers getting hotter, hurricanes getting worse and the effects of melting polar ice caps becoming more clear.

Count me with the optimists, but before you can solve a problem, first you have to think about it. And to that end, neither smug denial nor ideological rigidity is going to help. One of the silliest statements imaginable is, “I don’t believe in global warming.” You may not believe in it, but that’s not going to change it.

Get a grip, and help by starting to think. And you can’t find two better books to help you get started than these.

Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected].