Book Review: Scientist offers positive vision to avoid dystopian future in “The Three Ages of Water”

Book Review: Scientist offers positive vision to avoid dystopian future in “The Three Ages of Water”
July 14, 2023 Gary Wilson, Great Lakes Now

We are at a choice point when it comes to our relationship with water, says noted water expert Peter Gleick.

We can continue on our current path, which has evolved over centuries and includes unsustainable water use and ecological destruction. Both further worsened as we grapple with the effects of climate change. Those effects could lead to a dystopian future, according to Gleick.

Or we can choose “a positive vision of the future of water,” a future that’s worth wanting, Gleick says. Gleick’s message is that we have a choice and the time to make it is now.

That we have a choice is the essence of Gleick’s recently released book, The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future. (Public Affairs, 2023)

When California-based Gleick talks about water, it’s worth listening. He co-founded the Pacific Institute, a non-governmental organization focused on global sustainability, is the author and editor of various scientific papers on the topic and wrote Bought and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.

The three ages

The book – as the title suggests – is tidily organized into three ages, starting 4.5 billion years ago with the dawn of our solar system and a presentation of three theories of the origin of water on Earth.

The water origin story is fascinating and Gleick, a scientist, describes it in accessible language that provides just enough detail. The theories involve solar nebula, asteroids and comets and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which, if any, resonates.

What follows is the evolution of humans and how we began to interact with water 12,000 years ago and especially our growing ability to control this essential element.

That includes great advances like water sanitation for many, but not all. It also includes significant downsides like a plethora of dams –  92,000 in the U.S. alone – that can “kill free-flowing rivers.”

The present age

If the first age was about survival, the second age – which is now drawing to a close – is about “the flowering of science, art, technology and knowledge.”  Here, he focuses on the science of safe water, building water systems, water poverty and the commercializing and privatizing water.

This section includes Gleick’s scathing rebuke of the bottled water industry and

the companies that “acquire cheap public water and transform it into a profitable commodity, and intensive, often misleading advertising and marketing.” These companies are selling the illusion of convenience and health. “It’s largely a con,” he writes.

In the Great Lakes region, the bottled water issue has especially been a thorn in the side of Michigan’s grassroots water advocates who have battled Nestle for 20 years over its water-taking. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the state regulatory agency with responsibility for water withdrawals has supported Nestle’s position.

The Great Lakes Compact – designed to prevent diversions of water outside the basin – hasn’t done much better in protecting the region from bottled water companies. That’s because the compact contains an exception for water in containers less than 5.7 gallons, essentially bottled water. The compact is administered by the eight Great Lakes governors and Canada’s provinces of Ontario and Quebec have complementary agreements.

Water pollution is a significant part of our legacy in the second age and Gleick put a spotlight on the industrial pollution that led to Cleveland’s infamous Cuyahoga River and Michigan’s Rouge River to catch on fire.

Gleick reports that the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969 received little media coverage at the time, even in local newspapers. But then Mayor Carl Stokes held a press conference stating “this is a longstanding condition that must be brought to an end.” Eventually the event received broader coverage and is generally seen as the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

Depleting aquifers, wetland loss

The environmental degradation of our water resources isn’t limited to highly visible rivers. Gleick devotes significant space to the unsustainable depletion of aquifers and the loss of critical wetlands.

In Illinois for example, the aquifer that supplies water to the city of Joliet outside the Great Lakes basin will no longer be able to meet the city’s needs by 2030. Joliet recently entered into a 100 year agreement to purchase Lake Michigan water via a pipeline from Chicago

Wetlands are often referred to as Earth’s kidneys for their ability to filter pollutants from the water that passes through them. But in the Great Lakes region, we have lost about half our coastal wetlands since the arrival of European settlers and as much as 90 percent in some areas.

While there is much to admire about Gleick’s insights in this book, he casually dismisses the likelihood that water could be shipped from the lakes to arid regions. He argues it’s too expensive and not politically feasible.

But in 1998, a Canadian group received a permit to ship Lake Superior water to Asia. That set off alarm bells that 10 years later, led to the signing of the Great Lakes Compact into law by President George W. Bush. It’s doubtful that Great Lakes intelligentsia would have sprung into action if they didn’t believe the threat of diversion was real. If not in the near term, perhaps in Gleick’s potentially dystopian future.


Gleick concludes the book with a look back from the year 2099 when we have dealt with our water failings of the past. It’s not a perfect world as Gleick includes the obligatory there’s more work to do, but we’re by leaps and bounds in a better place in 2099 than during the water precipice we currently face.

No spoiler here, I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to peruse Gleick’s futuristic vision and see if you agree with his optimism. I’m hopeful, but skeptical – we in the U.S. have yet to tackle climate change full on. And the nascent progress we’re making now could be quickly reversed or diluted based on the results of the next election or an adverse court decision.

My issue with Gleick’s take on the Great Lakes Compact aside, there’s little in Three Ages to criticize. Sharing quibbles would distract from the gravitas of the book’s message.

The Three Ages of Water is a significant work on the critical topic of water. It’s historically rich and a scientifically accessible account of the water-human nexus over millennia, with a look at the future.

You don’t have to be a water science geek or water policy wonk to comfortably absorb the substance and spirit of Gleick’s writing. He makes it approachable and we’ll benefit from his work.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now:

Environmental justice, climate resilience are top priorities for new Great Lakes executive

Landmark Great Lakes coastal wetland program continues restoration drive that began in 2010

Featured image: The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future.


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