While waiting for the eclipsed moon to brighten up again so I could feel justified in going back to bed, I discovered something profound about the universe. Cosmic events take their own time. They can’t be speeded up; we have to deal with Nature on her own terms.
Rivers share that pesky trait of obeying cosmic directives. We humans can straighten them, dam them and divert them, but only temporarily. Eventually the river will regain its freedom, or another river will take its place. It’s just a matter of time; a lot of time.
The moon in shadow on Dec. 21. (Photograph by Lucas Jackson, Reuters)
Last week the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science featured a series of articles about the water picture in the American Southwest. It doesn’t look good. Reclaiming Freshwater Sustainability in the Cadillac Desert, by John Sabo and 14 other authors, used Marc Reisner’s 1985 book (Cadillac Desert) as a reference point to see how we’re doing. Other than the good news that the region’s major dams are silting more slowly than feared, the trends of population influx, wasteful water use for agriculture and urban lawns, degraded rivers, etc.are only getting worse.
Peter Gleick offers a Roadmap for Sustainable Water Resources. The problem is not just too many people and not enough water; there is an attitudinal component: “Psychologically and socially, it is hard for millions of people who love this region to admit that it is fundamentally dry and that the rules for building, living, and working there must be different from those in the wet regions where most of them were born and raised.” The solutions he proposes, however, don’t address those dysfuntional attitudes, but stay in the realm of technical and policy fixes to reduce per capita demand and increase supply, e.g., by wastewater recycling.
When smart water people talk about what needs to be done, there seem to be lots of feasible ways to get ourselves out of our mess, but it’s equally clear that scenarios of using less water and restoring our rivers to ecological health cannot possibly happen without changing the attitudes that drive the behavior in the first place. Keeping attitudes (ethics) constant, people will be willing to conserve water for economic security, but they won’t be willing to give up their lawns so the rivers can have more of water. We’re trying to negotiate with Nature to keep doing what we’re doing at the cost of dead rivers and steadily depleted aquifers. That strategy can’t work because ulimately our own water security depends on a functioning ecosystems.
That’s the lesson from the moon. The laws of Nature are running independently from our short-term concerns. The lesson for water policy is not to try to change Nature, but to try to change People, at least their attitudes about water. Avoiding the issues of attitudes and ethics and focusing on technologies and legal policies, is not going to bring water security to the American Southwest, or anywhere else. We need to regard Nature, whether in the form of the moon or a river, in a different way, as relatives, and not only as resources. [This metaphor comes from Oren Lyons; click here for a 9 min. video].
Chama River, northern New Mexico