Amartya Sen has a New York Times Op Ed today about China’s birth policies. He attributes the decline in birth rate to the power of reason on the part of prospective mothers, more than on the one-child policy per se. It’s not reason in a vacuum, of course; there are supporting social norms and government policies (e.g., education and job opportunities for women). But the take-away message for me is that the power of reason, quaint sounding though it may be, might actually be alive and well, and just waiting to be applied to new tasks.
What would water management look like if we dared to apply “reason” to our decisions about how much water to pump out of declining aquifers, or how strict to make water quality standards? Applying the power of reason to the tangled knot of vested water interests would quickly run into conflicting policy signals: “Use it or lose it” is a legal rule of thumb for water use in the Western US states. Then there is the corporate fig leaf of the financial interests of shareholders as a reason that environmental safeguards should invariably be relaxed.
Which social norms and government policies should be the target of our reasoning process? We would need a preliminary process of sorting out which values we consider important enough to serve as a basis for reasoned decision-making. Is the health of the river a first priority, or a secondary one? Should we base our decisions about river management on short-term economic returns or on intergenerational eco-justice?
Reason can help us sort through the contradictory values and at the same time, subject those values to ethical reflection: If we value the economic potential of the river to create jobs, do we also value the biodiversity value of the river as habitat, and the amenity value of the river as a pleasing waterscape? How do we solve for all those values at once, or do we even try?
Reason, it seems to me, can only be “reasonable” when it has clear values and ethics to be reasonable about. This is why Water-Culture Institute is working with UNESCO and other organizations to develop a “Water Ethics Charter” of core principles about using water and protecting water ecosystems. For details, see WaterEthics.org.