I read once that when Genghis Khan entered Khwarezm he was deeply offended by the sight of its canals and ordered them all torn up. Rivers, he felt, should always be free.

I could take a few moments to verify this with an Internet search or, even better but more time-consuming, going downstairs and looking through my library–I’m sure I still have that book, since I generally don’t throw books away and I don’t typically borrow books (because then I have to give them back, and I want to keep them on my shelf for those rare but vital occasions when I need them again). But that is irrelevant for the sake of this thought exercise. Let’s assume he did just that and go from there.

The canals of Central Asia are what made this otherwise arid landscape arable, and without them entire cities withered to dust and were reclaimed by the earth from which they had been willed into existence.

A nomadic pastoralist, Genghis was never too keen on urban life to begin with. He was familiar with cities, of course, and didn’t go out of his way to destroy them all. (He did destroy some, that is true, but not simply because they were cities; usually because their populations weren’t showing him enough–or any–respect.) The destruction of the canals of Central Asia, though, threatened the very foundations of civilization.

Not that he saw it this way. The rivers needed to be free. Again, as a nomadic pastoralist, Genghis understood the importance of rivers. His life, and that of everyone around him, depended on the free flow of water. It isn’t hard to see how, from his view, damming and canalizing the rivers–restricting and controlling their flow–could prove disastrous for people downstream and have unforeseeable consequences for the land and its inhabitants, both human and otherwise.

However, his context involved hundreds, perhaps at most thousands, of people living a fairly elemental existence, precariously balanced on the edge of disaster at all times. The large cities of Transoxiana, by contrast, supported millions of people who lived in relative comfort and luxury. These were communities where children spent their days in schools, and a rather impressive portion of the adult population dedicated their days to art and science, their most basic needs entrusted to others who engaged in industrial-scale agriculture.

The nomads of the steppe were not unintelligent by any means, nor were their lives miserable. But culturally and intellectually the cities were engines for human progress.

And that progress depended, ultimately, on those canals. Without them, large-scale farming–the kind that frees people up to devote themselves to poetry, painting, and astronomy, not to mention religious devotion, construction, teaching…basically, all non-food-growing jobs–wasn’t possible.

In the long run Genghis lost out. The canals were rebuilt, either under his rule or shortly thereafter. His grandsons became entirely urbanized, only heading out onto the steppes the same way that I sometimes go camping–good for a few days, but not a whole life.

Today the canals of Central Asia siphon water from the rivers in order to fuel industrial agriculture on such a scale that the Aral Sea has almost completely dried up.

(I still don’t understand why it still appears on modern maps–perhaps we just cannot comprehend that something so big could just go away. Maybe if we keep drawing it will come back. Let me tell you: I’ve flown over the Aral Sea, and it is most definitely gone, and most definitely not coming back. We can stop drawing it now. No matter how much it hurts our feelings.)

The Aral Sea, 2013

The region’s countries are very nervous about the situation of the water. The populations and economies continue to grow, but there simply isn’t enough water to sustain them all, at least not without a very radical rethink. Much of the water is used for cotton, a thirsty (and inedible, obviously) plant that underpins much of the region’s economy while simultaneously destroying everything else. Farmers could stop growing cotton, sure…but nobody’s lining up to be the first one on their block to take that personal economic hit.
So more dams are thrown up, which raises more tensions across borders, as the rivers still try their best to flow where they damn well please.

The problem is usually traced by to Soviet planning, which aimed to boost production of cotton in Central Asia at the expense of the Aral Sea (that’s right, they knew it was going to dry up, it wasn’t an accident; their spreadsheets, though, showed the pros outweighing the cons and everything working out in the end). The Soviet solution didn’t come from thin air, though. There were already too many people in the region, and something had to be done to lift them up from poverty. The damming and canalizing of the rivers boosted the local economy and lifted millions out of near-medieval poverty and catapulted them into the twentieth century. Certainly a fantastic achievement. In a sense.
Of course, you have to wonder how so many people ended up in a region that is basically unfit for human habitation in the first place. And why cotton, of all things?

The answers are all over the place, too complex to go into without doing proper research (which I’ve already explained I am not doing today, because I am sitting in my office listening to music and trying to avoid going downstairs). Cotton, basically, because during the Industrial Revolution cotton became a prime economic driver, and the American Civil War threatened global supplies, encouraging the world’s empires to seek safe places to grow their own cotton. Russia had a huge amount of water in Central Asia and a lot of empty space, so it made sense at the time.

And so many people were already there because, although these deserts are not in and of themselves nice places to live, with just a little effort–you know, dams and canals–you could make it something close to paradise. And indeed, these cities burned bright for thousands of years, one of the great peaks of human civilization.

But they were always doomed, it turns out. Because their success meant they would continue to grow, and demand more water. Eventually something, like the Aral Sea, would have to give.

But what was that tipping point? And could it have been avoided? Genghis tore up the canals. He drew the line at large-scale agriculture–a pretty radical place to draw that line.

I’ve spent time on the Mongolian steppes. They haven’t changed much since Genghis’s time. They are astonishingly beautiful. The culture is extremely lovable. The people are among the best I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of people. And there is something magical about living so close to the land, producing so much of your own necessities.

You are also aware, though, that you are always one bad storm away from disaster. The margin of error out there is thin. And being that close to the land is very time-consuming. (I wasn’t even all that close to the land–I lived in a real town and had a supermarket nearby. Still, free time and intellectual stimulation was at something of a premium. And the elemental life was unquestionably made more beautiful by the fact that I would leave someday and go back to Brooklyn, which is not at all elemental or pastoral.)

Perversely, part of the reason I was out on those steppes was to help as many people as possible get out.

But going back to Genghis. Can we reject the idea that rivers can be controlled without accepting the probability that someday those rivers would dry up? Because barring plague or war, our population can only grow. The more we succeed at living, the better we become at succeeding. We expect to live longer. We expect that our children will not die, except if by accident. As far as I can tell my grandparents’ generation just expected to lose a third of their children in infancy. Today parents can’t even bear the idea of children having crooked teeth.

So like everyone else I worry about the environment and climate change and promise to do everything in my power to make sure that I am part of the solution and not part of the problem.

But, at least as a purely intellectual exercise, I do have to wonder…when exactly did we go wrong?

One thought on “Where exactly did it all go wrong?

  1. Perhaps we did not as much as go wrong, as in went off tangient.
    Genghis might have a point. Rivers should be free. Where rivers flow though multiple countries such as the Mekong, Jordan rivers, conflicts can arise. Which country’s people deserve the life giving resource more?


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