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John Muir (1837-1914) was an American naturalist, explorer, and writer who founded the Sierra Club and was instrumental in building support for our system of national parks. He became a popular and respected figure, but his views about nature were considered far too radical. His last big battle with established society, which he lost, was his fight to protect Yosemite National Park.
The city of San Francisco wanted to dam one of the park’s two major rivers and convey the water nearly 300kms to the city for municipal water supply. Muir argued that the beautiful Hetch-Hetchy Valley should be considered sacred and too valuable to destroy for a reservoir, and furthermore, that national parks needed to be protected for posterity.
His logic was that nature has an inherent right to exist and that we humans need to accommodate to Nature, rather than the other way around. For details, see this very readable biography of John Muir written 25 years ago by Frederick Turner, or this more recent biography by Donald Worster.
Who’s crazy? In the battle to save the Hetch-Hetchy Valley from inundation, Muir’s conservationist allies, including his own Sierra Club partners, accepted the view that economic expediency (lots of money pushing for the reservoir) would prevail. Muir was left as the sole voice fighting against society’s interests. When you’re the only one making the argument, you get labeled as “crazy”.
But Muir also happened to be right. San Francisco had lots of other options for its water supply, and the Hetch-Hetchy Valley really was a unique natural heritage. More than 100 years later, the battle lines are still there. San Francisco’s water utility asserts with smug assurance that the reservoir is central to the region’s water security, with no allusion to the century-old controversy. Meanwhile the organization, Restore Hetch Hetchy, is trying to honor Muir’s legacy.
What’s in a name? “Earth Day” on April 22 is a uniquely American invention, created by the US environmental movement in 1970. “International Mother Earth Day” gained UN recognition in 2009 through the efforts of Bolivian President Evo Morales, and is reaffirmed in Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Mother Earth Day Message for 2014.
There are two good reasons for recognizing “Earth” as “Mother”. First of all, it’s scientifically true. We humans have evolved out of the earth just as surely as each of us was born from a biological mother. We tend to forget that the Indigenous concept of viewing animals, water, rocks and trees as “all our relations” is more than a figure of speech.
The second reason for recognizing earth as our mother is that we might behave a little better towards her. When earth is just “earth” we see ecosystem services as a category of resource. We talk about “balancing” the needs of the environment with the need for economic growth. When earth is our “Mother” we are more likely to feel a moral and ethical responsibility for her well-being.
We don’t “balance” our Mother’s needs with the need for global economic growth. We make sure our Mother is happy and healthy as a unique priority not contingent on anything else. When we act this way, our own needs get met as well. The economy we are so worried about actually does better when our Mother is healthy.
It’s not a very complicated concept, but sometimes we get distracted with our own concerns and forget to honor our Mother. Not to worry; she’ll be sure to remind us!
Rio Grande in southern Colorado
I’ve been giving a lot of talks on “water ethics” over the past few months to drum up interest in the topic and in my new book. The problem is that the complex message that is so nicely laid out in the book is not easily condensed into a short, or even a long. talk. How to make it simple without being simplistic? Personalize the message; use people, even pretend people, to represent the conflicting moral propositions that make the topic of water ethics so interesting.
There are four characters in the story of Water Ethics, well actually five, but we’ll come back to him. The four, in rough chronological order of appearance, are the Animist, the Economist, the Socialist, and the Anthropologist. Each of these characters holds very strong views that can easily come into conflict or can work together to find creative solutions.
Take the case of a dam — almost any dam will do, but let’s consider the Xayaburi Dam which the government of Laos is building on the Mekong River. This is the first of dam on the lower Mekong, and will have dramatic impacts on the fish populations, with hugely important economic and nutritional, not to mention environmental consequences. On the other hand, the electricity generated by the dam is seen by Laos as the foundation for the country’s future growth. Is the dam a good idea?
The Animist, who views the Mekong River and its fish as living beings, gives first priority to the natural ecosystem. The river and the fish have similar rights to people, and should be treated with the same sensibility.
The Economist will weigh the costs and benefits, as he defines them, but since very few economists are animists, his calculations will be based on the quantifiables: the value of fish production lost vs. the value of the electricity gained, tempered by a risk factor that the dam will not necessarily work as planned.
The Socialist will consider the welfare of the people and the equitable sharing of benefits. The electricity produced is less important than the jobs created with that electricity, and the loss of the fish is important from a health and livelihoods perspective.
The Anthropologist is concerned with the dam’s impacts on the traditional cultures that have co-evolved with the river and the fish. It is not only the fishing villages and their inhabitants but their whole pattern of knowing and being — their culture — which is at stake.
The “correct” answer to the question of “Should the dam be built” will emerge through a negotiated process where these four characters come to an agreement that won’t satisfy any one of them completely but also doesn’t violate the deeply felt principles of anyone. If that process were carried out, the dam probably would not get built because too many fundamental values would argue against it.
But then there’s the fifth character. Who is that? The Capitalist, who is happy to finance the dam if there is money to be made. It is the Capitalist who arranges a side deal with the government, while the other four characters are still negotiating. The Xayaburi Dam is under construction.
How will we transform our relationship to water from one-sided exploitation (We exploit the water “resource”) to shared experience and co-existence? That’s the promise of Water 3.0, when healthy people and healthy rivers become an inter-twined goal.
Last week I was in Vancouver, Canada, and got an inkling of that potential. I was attending a workshop on Water and Innovation at the University of British Columbia’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. A presentation by Carolyn Drugge from the City of Vancouver’s “water, sewer and energy” section, outlined three stages of urban water management starting with pristine nature (Water 1.0) to conventional water capture and treatment for urban consumers (Water 2.0) and the application of new approaches to managing storm water and restoring urban streams (Water 2.5). Water 3.0 is the approach of the future (we hope!). It’s not just about us; it’s also about nature, and reconceptualizing our relationship to the whole water ecosystem. Now that’s innovative!
Wreck Beach in Vancouver, an innovative “clothing optional” beach pictured here on a cold January morning.
How do we get to Water 3.0? I was there to talk about “water ethics” suggesting that ethics is the starting point for change, but I realized from listening to the other presenters that there can be many different starting points. A crisis might change people’s values about what’s important, or values can change first, and that’s how we realize that there’s a crisis (as in the value shift inspired by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring). Or regulations can be imposed from the top (as was the case with British Columbia’s carbon tax) and people’s values then adjust to the new reality.
Technologies can help us implement ethical goals such the human right to water (e.g., by using remote sensing to locate new groundwater supplies) but those same technologies can also abate the crisis and allow old and ultimately unsustainable value systems to continue a little bit longer. Technologies, like water itself, need to be managed with ethics in mind.
To install the Water 3.0 upgrade successfully, we will need an ethical approach not only to water, but to the very idea of innovation.
A new report this week from Carbon Tracker shows the financial folly of investing in oil exploration when the oil companies doing the exploring already own far more oil than can be used in the foreseeable future. Click for the BBC article or download the full report.
Some 60% to 80% of fossil fuel reserves (oil, gas and coal) already owned by listed firms cannot be burned without pushing planetary temperatures far beyond the 2C limit already agreed to, or even a 3C limit which might become the fall-back position.
What this means to the investors of those firms is that a very large amount of their money is being utterly wasted. According to the report, about $600b was spent in exploring new fossil fuel sources last year, a rate of $6 trillion over a decade. Assuming that even dysfunctional global governance systems can eventually get their act together to save the planet from cooking, the fossil fuels being discovered will never be used. That $6 trillion of investor’s money, in other words, will be wasted.
One lesson I take from this is that investing $6 trillion in renewable energy technologies instead of useless exploration, might be a better idea. Another lesson is that we are doing something rather similar in the water sector.
In the name of “water security” we are investing in expensive dams, pipelines and groundwater projects which could destroy already over-burdened water ecosystems just as surely as the fossil fuel industry’s plans would destroy our planet’s already warming climate.
While there are certainly many places where new water infrastructure remains a sensible and even urgent priority for drinking water access and food security, we need to factor in the ecological cost of adding more stress to already depleted water ecosystems. The rush to build new pipelines as a way of ensuring future water security, will result in a lot of financial waste along with environmental destruction.
A 2012 report from the Natural Resources Development Council, “Pipe Dreams” documents this phenomenon in the United States. Within the Colorado River Basin alone (which last week was designated the Most Endangered River in America) there are active plans to divert 691,000 acre feet (0.85 km3), and this from a river so overused it no longer reaches its once lush delta.
Just as it is perfectly legal for oil companies to waste money looking for oil that can never be used without destroying the climate, it is perfectly legal to expend $billions of public funds to divert water from rivers that have none to give without utterly destroying them. It makes no moral or financial sense, yet it is happening on Earth Day 2013.
What to do? Get involved in the Water Ethics Network and help instill some moral intelligence into water policy decisions!
Water infrastructure that makes sense: Curb cuts in a New Mexico parking lot (above);
Pedestrian-friendly river banks along the Seine in Paris (below)
Stylish men’s restroom (with low-flow toilets) in Cologne, Germany (below)
The New York Times has an article today about the “Disinvest from Oil” campaign that Bill McKibben has been pushing in his “Do the Math” tour during the past month. The logic is that unless we can force the hand of the fossil fuel industry, they will happily keep releasing gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, ensuring that all our descendents die a very hot death. The only way to stop this mass suicide is to pull the financial rug out from under the industry by disinvesting the $$ billions that shareholders have put into those companies. For details, see Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone.
Who better to be swayed by this logic than universities, those bastions of rational science who cannot fail to take the side of the 99% of scientists who say we have to act right now, and not be distracted by the clearly biased position of the fossil fuel industry who say there’s nothing to worry about?
What is so fascinating about the universities’ reaction, as made clear in the New York Times article, is that they don’t see their investments in the fossil fuel industry as an ethical problem. “Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels,” said a university spokesman quoted in the article. Yes, the planet will die unless we cut our carbon emissions, and yes we (the wealthy universities like Harvard with a $31bil endowment) are shareholders in the very companies that are emitting that carbon, but no, we don’t feel a need to do anything differently.
This is the outcome of rational science devoid of ethics, and it offers a humbling lesson for the challenges of applying ethics to other arenas, like water policies. When Harvard University, a symbol of Western intellectualism, cannot see a reason to disinvest from the oil and coal companies they are financially supporting, can we really expect the US Army Corps of Engineers to question their historic traditions of converting healthy rivers into concrete floodways?
The problem is not that Harvard’s administration or the Army Corps of Engineers lack personal ethics about what’s right and wrong. The problem is that they don’t regard the issue of owning a share of an oil company, or replacing a stream channel with a concrete pipe, as a moral issue. Their focus is on the outcomes of high returns to investment, or smoothing over a stream for a building site.
We who work on the issue of “water ethics” are trying to reframe water management choices from being seen as purely technical or economic decisions to having inherent moral and ethical dimensions. We expect the Army Corps to “get” this concept, but the challenge seems more daunting if even Harvard doesn’t “get” it! How can we even imagine more sustainable alternatives unless we first learn to see the moral content of existing policies?
Once upon a time, it made perfect moral sense to invest in oil companies because they provided the energy we needed for our economic systems to flourish. It also made perfect moral sense to employ poor children as workers. Today employing children in factories is not acceptable no matter how much they are paid because our society recognizes the over-riding importance of those children spending their time getting educated. Companies that would like the benefits of cheap child labor are out of luck.
When the oil and coal companies are shown — by the world’s best scientists — to be undermining the health and livelihoods of our children and most certainly our grandchildren, shouldn’t we, as a society, tell them, “No!”? We don’t even need to change our ethics. We only need to recognize the basic ethics that we already hold.
With investments, as with river management, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t invest in industries that are killing us and pretend it’s not a moral choice. And the Army Corps can no longer “rectify” rivers that have pesky meanders and call it good management. In fact, the Army Corps no longer does that; they have adopted more ecological guidelines for their management decisions. Harvard University should be as enlightened!
Today is the biggest shopping day of the year for Americans when stores offer special today-only sales to tempt shoppers. After
celebrating the Thursday festival of “Thanksgiving” yesterday, when we
pause briefly to give thanks for our American way of life, we spend the
following day expressing the values underlying that way of life:
shopping! Many items are priced below their actual cost to lure customers into the store and get them into a buying mood. This year the sales started on Thanksgiving Day itself in a blending of celebrations: Give thanks for great deals on the latest electronics.
Why limit Black Friday sales to stores? Urban water utilities might consider reduced water rates on this day to encourage longer showers and extra toilet flushes, and maybe some winter irrigation of the lawn. Let’s lower prices and increase demand! Let’s get our consumptive economy moving!
Providing cheap water, below the “real” cost, and stoking consumer demand for that water, is the basis of American water policies. The advertising hype about Black Friday sales also conveys an important message for the environmental education of America’s water users: Open the taps wide and use as much as you can, and don’t worry. We’ll find new ways to satisfy your incessant demand.
Just as Walmart has constructed a virtual pipeline delivering cheap goods from China to the US, our water engineers have built a network of pipelines (sometimes in the form of canals, or “rectifying” natural rivers to work like canals) to give us cheap water, effectively boosting total demand to use more and more. Just as we didn’t know we needed a 60″ (1.5m) widescreen TV until the culture of Black Friday shopping convinced us, we didn’t realize how important it is to have green lawns in Phoenix, Arizona (or irrigated cotton fields nearby) until the federal government built canals from the Colorado River to make those lawns and cotton fields possible through the Central Arizona Project. Who cares if the river no longer reaches its delta in Mexico? Who cares about the working conditions in the Chinese factories producing those cheap TVs, or the labor contracts of the Walmart employees in US stores who don’t get to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families?
Shoppers standing in line waiting for the Black Friday sales are not thinking about Chinese workers any more than Phoenix homeowners are thinking about the dried up Colorado River Delta. In the rush to consume, there’s no time time to worry about consequences!
Did you feel something was missing from the presidential debate on Tuesday? We don’t even expect to hear about the big issues facing our planet — climate change, land and water degradation, entrenched poverty, or environmental, social, or cultural justice. Somehow the debate is framed around small business, entrepreneurs, and tax cuts. How did our universe become so small and one-dimensional?
Then I had one of those “aaha!” experiences. I get the same feeling of something missing when the latest global water report is issued. The framing of water policy is, thankfully, a bit broader than the Obama-Romney debates. No self-respecting water think-tank will fail to mention the environment, and especially climate change. Even gender and social justice is often included. But the real focus of recent water reports — the inner framework — revolves around a set of issues almost as narrow as we heard from our candidates. “The Green Economy” has become the point of reference, along with specific policies of water pricing, pollution standards, and water governance. But what about Nature?
The unease that I’m feeling is not that small businesses, or green economies, are bad in some way. It’s just the opposite; they are desirable things but they are single dimensions of far broader issues. A river is more than a “stream” of economic benefits, or even ecosystem services. Rivers provide homes for trillions of organisms of all sizes, shapes and economic value (I’m including bacteria and macro invertebrates to get the numbers up). Indeed, most of those trillions of creatures have no known economic value, but they depend on the same river that gives measurable economic benefits to farms, businesses and cities.
Bobby Kennedy famously quipped that GDP measures everything except what’s really important. The same might be said of how economic accounting is being applied to water ecosystems. There are lots of great reasons to value rivers that don’t have a price tag. Stephen Kellert has just written a great book about this, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. His hopeful message is that our broken connections with nature can be repaired through ‘biophilic design” (click here for 2 min. video clip about this). It’s a very similar message to that of the Water Ethics Network, which explores a sort of “aquaphilic” water management, challenging water policy makers to consider the ethics of their choices.
As part of their preparation for the next debate, President Obama and Gov. Romney might do well to take a long walk in Nature, preferably along a river, and get in touch with a larger reality!
“Culture” in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Another view of Albuquerque, New Mexico: the Rio Grande
The ethics of building dams, or polluting streams, or other conspicuous acts that damage rivers or people or both, are at least easy to point to and argue about. The ethics of not acting, however, the “ethics of omission” are like a hidden cancer, silently festering inside the unsuspecting body. Slowly growing, the cancer erupts suddenly, as happened last week in Kenya when 52 women and children were hacked to death or burned in their homes in a dispute between local herders and local farmers.
The tragedy, according to an editorial in the on-line Kenya newspaper, the Star, can be traced to water supply policy. The Orma pastoralists need water sources for their cattle other than relying on the Tana River, since the cattle will inevitably trample the fields of the Pokomo farmers along the river’s edge. The issue has been around for some time, and is discussed in a 2005 background paper on water and land management in the Tana River basin.
We often hear about corruption, in the sense of bribes, but what about corruption in the sense of not doing what could, and “should” be done? This kind of corruption is a lot murkier; no laws are broken, and sometimes people even get into trouble for trying too hard to do the right thing. I don’t want to accuse or excuse, but just want to suggest that analyzing the ethics underlying water inaction, as well as water actions, can help identify opportunities that are otherwise hidden from view until it’s too late.
The Water Ethics Network (www.waterethics.org) is set up to promote the analysis of water ethics as a way of guiding water management decisions (as well as indecisions!). You can view and subscribe to the monthly e-newsletter, or join the Facebook, Twitter, and Linked-in groups through the Get Involved page.
Rainbows need water too!