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.