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