Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity

Humans take more than their geological share of water, but they do not benefit from it equally. This imbalance has created an era of intense water scarcity that affects the security of individuals, states, and the global economy. For many, this brazen water grab and the social inequalities it produces reflect the lack of a coherent philosophy connecting people to the planet. Challenging this view, Jeremy Schmidt shows how water was made a “resource” that linked geology, politics, and culture to American institutions. Understanding the global spread and evolution of this philosophy is now key to addressing inequalities that exist on a geological scale.


Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity, details the remarkable intellectual history of America’s water management philosophy. It shows how this philosophy shaped early twentieth-century conservation in the United States, influenced American international development programs, and ultimately shaped programs of global governance that today connect water resources to the Earth system. Schmidt demonstrates how the ways we think about water reflect specific public and societal values, and illuminates the process by which the American approach to water management came to dominate the global conversation about water.

Debates over how human impacts on the planet are connected to a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—tend to focus on either the social causes of environmental crises or scientific assessments of the Earth system. Schmidt shows how, when it comes to water, the two are one and the same. The very way we think about managing water resources validates putting ever more water to use for some human purposes at the expense of others.

* Available from New York University Press and most online retailers.

**In India: available from Sage Vistaar.


Two podcasts are available, one from the global water news agency, Circle of Blue, and the other from Active History.



• “Humans both consume too much water and fail to benefit from it equitably. Geographer Jeremy Schmidt’s multidisciplinary study shows how historical US approaches to water management have gained global reach, leading to problematic biases.” ~ Nature

• “A bold and remarkable book, it offers a profound reassessment of central tenets within the anthropology of water…” ~ PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review

• I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the nexus between ideas and water, writ large. It is an impressive and incisive look into the minds of those who control a substance that is essential to all forms of life. ~ American Historical Review

• [An] ambitious, deeply researched, and thoughtful work of interdisciplinary scholarship. . .establishes fascinating connections between seeming dead ends in American intellectual history and today’s global socioenvironmental concerns.” ~ Journal of American History

• “In showing how water resources are far from a neutral category, this well researched and enlightening book is an important read for understanding how we perceive water today.” ~ LSE Review of Books

• “Wide-ranging and incisive . . . Drawing on diverse conceptual traditions, including anthropology, geography, geology, environmental history and political philosophy, Schmidt traces the co-evolution of water management and American liberalism. . . . I found Schmidt’s book to be challenging, stimulating and instructive, and I am sure it will quickly become core reading for anyone interested in water and society.” ~ Water Alternatives

• “Water makes a strong and compelling case that we have accepted for far too long the perspective that water can be constructed only, or primarily, as a resource.” ~ Environmental History

• “This is an important book on an important subject.” ~ Catholic Library World

• “Using history and the connection between humanity and geology, this title offers readers a unique viewpoint on and an in-depth understanding of water management.” ~ Choice

• “This sweeping, inter-disciplinary book is brilliant, refreshing and bold. It asks two fundamental questions in which we should all be interested: where have the ideas of water as a `resource’ to be `managed’ for the good of society or the nation come from? And how have they driven world-wide economic development that has not infrequently done more harm than good? The answers might surprise you (spoiler alert: anthropology and philosophy had a lot to do with the formation of this paradigm). This book is perhaps most imaginative in the ways it aims to disrupt a way of thinking that has dominated the anthropocene for far too long.” ~ Steven C. Caton, Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University

• Water is a philosophy of water that intellectually challenges the reader on many levels.  Its core chapters present a fresh history of ideas in the disciplines of geology, anthropology, and others that have shaped modern water thought in the U.S. and beyond, from the late-19th century culture of Washington DC civic scholars WJ McGee and J.W. Powell to the pragmatism of 20th century water management and 21st century global water agendas for the Anthropocene.  It frames and critically challenges that account with perspectives from Wittgenstein and others as a liberal philosophy of water that has become so widespread as to become what Schmidt calls “normal water.”  His searching critique is not just about the philosophy of water, it contributes to that philosophy in its ideas and methods. ~James L. Wescoat, Jr., Aga Khan Professor, MIT

Full Text of Published Book Reviews

LSE Review of Books: Review by Kathleen Chiappetta

Water Alternatives: Review by Joseph Williams >> [PDF]

American Historical Review: Review by Daniel McCool >> [PDF]

Journal of American History: Review by Ashley Carse >> [PDF] 

Environmental History: Review by Eric Perramond >> [PDF]

Transforming Anthropology. Review by Elizabeth Eklund >> [PDF]

PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review. Review by Colin Hoag >> [PDF]

Nature. Review by Mary Craig.

Current Science. Review by Sudhirendar Sharma >> [PDF]

Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. Review by Victoria Machado >> [PDF]

Taiwanese Journal for Studies of Science, Technology and Medicine. Review by Yu-Kai Liao >> [PDF]

Current Research Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities. Review by Vipul Singh >> [PDF]



  1. David Garen says:

    I am a relative newcomer to the field of environmental and water ethics, but I find these topics highly interesting and relevant. I just finished reading “Water Ethics”, and I hope to continue reading in the field. I have been a scientific hydrologist for my entire 30+ year career, so I have always focused on technical matters. Now, however, with worldwide environmental crises all around, I think the most pressing issues facing humanity are primarily ethical rather than technical.
    I have some involvement with the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (http://www.iahs.info), who is now searching for a theme for the next decade’s emphasis area. I have suggested to them that they consider water ethics as one element in guiding how hydrologists should set goals and priorities for their work. We’ll see whether this idea resonates with anyone.
    But at any rate, I am very interested in thinking about how the philosophical ideas such as yours can fit into how science is conducted. I think this kind of crossover is essential, but I suspect many scientists will either feel uncomfortable with it or not really know how to integrate values and ethics into what has always been considered a value-free, objective pursuit of knowledge.
    My son is beginning a masters degree in Science and Technology Studies at UBC, and he also is interested in such questions. I am looking forward to seeing where these studies take him, and I am sure I will learn a lot of good stuff from him as he and I discuss what he is studying.
    Best wishes to you in your continued work. I look forward to this book that you are writing. I hope the ideas of ethics can find traction among scientists, decision makers, and, I guess, people in general.
    David Garen
    Portland, Oregon

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