Q&A: Vernon Scarborough Discusses His Book The Flow of Power

The Flow of Power

by Vernon Scarborough, professor of anthropology, was nominated for the Society of American Archaeology book award. In the interview that follows the author provides insight into his “labor of love” and the career that led to it.

Q:

One reviewer said you were able to achieve "the specialist's dream, introducing an important new theory in a way that will be compelling to the non-specialist." Explain your thesis in a "non-specialist" way.

A:

My point is that all organic life is extremely dependent on this unusual substance. Because it is required and consumed daily for life itself, it is the most precious of all controllable resources. Now imagine a resource so primary, and then what happens when there is less of it?

Q:

What inspired you to do the book?

A:

It was a labor of love. The inspiration was my love of ideas and the complicated interaction between social and natural systems.

Q:

Why is water management particularly important today?

A:

Water is life itself. We can take it for granted in the Midwest. Because it’s a scarce resource in much of the developing world and severely polluted in others, there’s a global problem. The absence of such a critical resource may mean starvation and war in one theatre and may strain our own resources by attempting to quell such unrest. For example, Turkey has constructed several dams along the Euphrates, but water flows to Syria and Iraq are then curtailed.

Q:

You've been interested in this topic for much of your career. Why?

A:

Happy accident. I’m from the Oregon coast, one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. It set a marvelous stage for my imagination. Logging, agriculture, and the fishing industry helped me understand the pace at which an environment can be altered. I tried my hand at all those professions early and found that mentally engaging them was profoundly more satisfying than manually doing so.

Q:

Do any of the places you’ve visited have special memories for you?

A:

Bali is a marvel, from its dizzying stair-steps of meandering rice paddies to its everyday human theatre staged in the fruit and vegetable markets and ritualized pilgrimages to the temples. But it all has been grand. I think of the two grade school teachers in Sudan who lived in a dirt-floor compound and honored me by slaughtering a goat and offering me the warm raw organs as their greatest material gift. Or the graduate student in Pakistan that gave me a handcrafted fountain pen that was actually a James Bond-like handgun, a gift of thoughtfulness in a land of turmoil.

Q:

What was your response when your permission was asked to include illustrations and photographs from the book in an episode of the History Channel's Modern Marvels series?

A:

It’s rewarding that a producer or editor views your work as relevant to queries about the world in which we live. Further, I think social science is where the real answers to the world’s problems rest, and we need challenging but popular forums.

Q:

Given your years of hard work, do you ever think of retiring to someplace like Bali and letting someone else worry about water management?

A:

I love what I do. Retirement has little appeal except that I may reach a stage in my career when I‘m keeping a young scholar from making a meaningful contribution. I hope I can identify my day of reduced productivity in advance of whispers in the corridor. That said, I will surely return to Santa Fe and the great vista of the West before riding even further into the sunset.

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