Tag Archives: environmental ethics

The Big Drain on the Yellow Dog Plains

One of the more compelling themes of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction has to do with what she calls our “Faustian restlessness,” the irrepressible, ambitious intelligence that made it possible for human beings to venture forth and multiply in the first place, and which now appears likely to be our undoing. We have launched a thousand kinds of ships, built bridges and towers and televisions, blasted mountaintops, traveled to the North Pole, dammed rivers, bored tunnels, felled whole forests to ease our way and launched rockets to the moon. Brilliant engineers, intrepid voyagers, seekers and conquerors, we’ve remade the world in our image and likeness, or at least to our liking, and in the process significantly rearranged and unalterably damaged the biosphere. In the course of our short time here on earth, we’ve managed to paint our way into what looks very much like a suicidal corner.

“With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it,” she writes, “which…is also the capacity to destroy it.”

Kolbert doesn’t mention mining except in passing — and then only twice, both times to talk about mining (along with logging and other extractive industries) as a threat to biodiversity. But I was reminded of her discussion of human restlessness and recklessness in The Sixth Extinction as I read mining engineer Jack Parker’s Letter to The Editor in the April 21st Marquette Mining Journal.

Parker’s “basic contention” when he first studied the Eagle Mine in 2006 is one he still maintains: “the design data for the mine had been fudged, and that can be proved easily, provided that the regulating agency and their courts do not collude in the fraud.” Unfortunately, he charges, to date the Michigan DEQ and courts have so colluded. For reasons that are not too hard to surmise, the mining companies, from Rio Tinto to Kennecott to Lundin, have “studiously ignored” his finding: it is simply unsafe to mine at Eagle. “The prognosis for the Eagle, if mined as planned, is for sudden, unexpected collapse and flooding.”

Parker has been the Cassandra of the Eagle Mine for nearly a decade. The successive owners of the Eagle Mine have tried to refute him with their own geological data, but the current plan “to handle the situation by mining upward, assessing conditions as they go, and stopping if conditions so indicate” is tantamount to an admission of concern that Parker may be right. Unfortunately, he writes, they “refuse to learn from case histories” like the overnight collapse of an 1800 foot thick crown pillar at the Athens mine near Negaunee in 1932. As Parker describes it, the plan to mitigate risk at Eagle amounts to nothing more than a whole lot of lies and denial mixed with reckless determination.

In other words, even if the bid for Eagle Mine’s nickel is not the con game Parker alleges it is, it may turn out to be a Faustian bargain of the kind Kolbert describes — a hubristic feat, a  confidently-engineered ecological disaster.

A collapse at Eagle Mine of the sort Parker predicts from his study of the area’s geology would be far more serious than the Athens cave-in, even if there were no worker injuries or fatalities, and even more disastrous than the big slide at Bingham Canyon. One big reason is water. A sentence in Parker’s letter drives this point home: “A sudden collapse of the mine structure would drain the wetlands, the aquifers and the Salmon Trout River very, very quickly.”

Take a moment to picture that.

The big drain on the Yellow Dog Plains would wreck the place for a long time to come.

It would extinguish life in the Salmon Trout River and the surrounding watershed. It would kill indiscriminately. Among its victims would be the Coaster brook trout, whose numbers on this side of the Canadian border have dwindled into the mere hundreds.

The contours of the Coaster story are hauntingly familiar: it could have been lifted right out of The Sixth Extinction. Overfishing began around the 1840s, when European settlers first arrived in the region. Subsistence fishing soon gave way to sportfishing. Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle R.B. fished for brook trout in the 1860s, and in his 1865 monograph Superior Fishing he recommends putting just “a pinch of salt” in the brook trout’s mouth, “roll him up in a few folds of newspaper, dip the swaddled darling in the water, light a fire, and place him in the embers. When the paper chars, take him out and eat him at once, rejecting the entrails.”

But even before R. B. Roosevelt was spitting trout entrails, as early as the 1850s, the habitat of the Coaster brook trout was heading for trouble. As Donald R. Schreiner of the Minnesota DNR et al. note in an article in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management, “logging and pollution from industry in rapidly expanding communities” had already begun “degrading stream habitat and further reducing brook trout abundance.” Mining was especially destructive. Schreiner and his colleagues cite the work of Charles Kerfoot (who appears briefly at the end of my film 1913 Massacre to describe the toxic legacy of the last round of Lake Superior mining):  “In the 1900s, mining activity impacted thousands of acres in the Lake Superior watershed and discharged more than 1 [billion*] tons of tailings along Lake Superior shorelines….Many streams have been impounded over the last 150 years, altering the hydrology and affecting brook trout migration and spawning and general habitat availability.”

Of the four or five hundred adult Coaster brook trout left in U.S. waters, about half swim and breed in the Salmon Trout River; most of the rest live in freshwater streams on nearby Isle Royale. (There are, however, reports of Coasters in the Baptism River and in other parts of northern Minnesota; at the moment, while the jury is still out on the Polymet project, it’s unclear whether those areas will be spared the coming mining boom). Despite their rapidly declining population, in 2009 the US Fish and Wildlife service denied a petition by the Sierra Club and the Huron Mountain Club to have the Coaster declared an endangered species. It came down to a technical discussion of whether the potamodromous (or fresh-water migrating) Coaster met the “distinct population segment” provisions of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is trying to establish a self-sustaining population of Coasters in northern Wisconsin, and a Minneapolis-based group called the Greater Lake Superior Foundation has set up and funded a Coaster Brook Trout Research Unit; but it’s unclear that these well-meaning efforts could make up for the devastation of the Salmon Trout River.

Parker has inquired about insurance in the event of a big collapse, but, he writes, “I haven’t heard from the insurance people yet”; and I have yet to find anything like a disaster-mitigation plan for the Yellow Dog Plains.

Neither Here Nor There

I set out for Lake Superior on Saturday, with the intention of spending the better part of this week meeting and interviewing people for a documentary project I’m developing. The day got off to a rocky start: at 4:30AM, United Airlines called and emailed to tell me that my 8AM flight to Chicago would be delayed. I would miss my connection to Hancock unless I hustled and got myself to Chicago on an earlier flight – the 7AM — which I did. I arrived with plenty of time to spare, and was at Gate F1A and ready to board the Hancock flight when my phone buzzed. Flights to Hancock were cancelled, due to a blizzard in the Keweenaw — lake effect snow.

The woman at the customer service counter had clearly had a rough morning. Her allergies were making her miserable: all the dust from the heater, she said; she had just turned it on for the first time this winter. She did her best, but when all was said and done my options were limited to waiting out the storm in Chicago (which probably meant the dreary and overpriced airport hotel) or making a dash to Detroit, switching from United to Delta (I never found out exactly how this was to be accomplished, or what it would cost), and trying to catch the evening flight to Marquette. Both sounded expensive, exhausting and damaging to the soul. I told myself that I could probably accomplish everything I’d set out to do on this trip the next time around. So I decided to call it a day, turn around and head back to New York.

The woman behind the counter seemed relieved, and marked my ticket “Carrie Over Carrie Back” [sic]. I moved to a new gate to wait for the next New York flight, and ate an airport sandwich that registered on the receipt as “CEB Tur Goud.” That’s about how it tasted. carrieovercarrie

Now I am here when I expected to be there, here in New York with a strange sense of being absent from the UP. This confusion of presence and absence, here and not there, is not quite the same as missing a place; it’s not like nostalgia and doesn’t involve longing to be elsewhere. It’s more like misplacing myself – a sense of dislocation. I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be here: none of my planning included that possibility. Plans commit us to a time and place. They tell us where we belong, and when. They are ways of making ourselves belong. I simply don’t belong here, at least not until Thursday, when I’d planned to come back. Until then, I am neither here nor there.

I hit on that familiar expression yesterday. It’s a colloquial way of talking about irrelevance, things that are of no account, and though I have plenty to keep me busy until Thursday, I am also seriously exploring this feeling that I am of no account, and will be for a couple days to come.

The expression neither here nor there is, I now understand, a good place to start reflecting on our plans and purposes and how they give us a sense of belonging in the world. It goes way back, and was popular and well-worn even before Shakespeare used it in Othello. That much is clear from the earliest instance cited by the OED: Arthur Golding’s 1583 translation of The Sermons of J. Calvin on Deuteronomie.

This is Golding’s translation of Calvin’s 92nd sermon, on “the law of the tithe” as it’s presented in Deuteronomy 14.24-29 — a passage which is itself already about being displaced and absent, about being “far” from the place where “God shall choose to set his name” (as the King James version has it). Tithes of money are offerings “if the way be too long for thee…or if the place be too far from thee.” Seeing that God has dealt so generously with us, Calvin writes,

what an unthankfulnesse is it for me to despise him that sheweth himself so liberall towardes me? True it is that our so dooing is neither here nor there (as they say,) in respect of God: the seruice that we do him doth neither amend him nor appaire him: but he giueth vs the poor among vs, to bee succored at our handes, to the ende that none of vs should so glutte himself by cramming his owne bellie, as to despise others that are in necessitie, but that we shoulde bee well advised to make an offering vnto God of the thinges that he hath put into our handes, and that the same might become holy by that meanes. Not that wee should paye it as a ransoume to God; but that the acknowledgement which we make vnto him in having compassion upon our poore needy brethren, is as though our Lord should allow of our eating and drinking, saying thus: Now is all lawful for you, I lyke well of it, I giue it vnto you; and that is because ye honor me in dooing almesdeedes to such as are in pouertie.

It’s a wonderful and complicated passage about making things “holy” and honoring the bounty and plenty of the world by sharing it and making an offering of it – the sort of thing we’d expect to find Lewis Hyde writing about in The Gift. Louis CK, a very different kind of Louis, makes roughly the same point Calvin makes here in a profanity-laced routine called “If God Came Back.” It all starts with the question why Christians don’t seem to believe they have to look after the creation:


This morning, sitting here in New York, and feeling as if I belong elsewhere, it seems downright uncanny that I was thinking about precisely this routine just minutes before my flight to Hancock was cancelled on Saturday. An exhibit called “Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers” – currently running at Chicago O’Hare in Terminal 2 – brought it to mind. Huge photographs of glaciers by James Balog had been hung on the wall and a sign instructed travelers to “teach your children about landscapes their children will never know.” That sentence alone left me aghast — I had plenty of time to contemplate it, sitting there at the gate — and it made me wonder what purpose could justify the things we do every day, all the running back and forth, the going here and there. We hardly ever give it a second thought.

Labor Day, 2013: Will Big Mining Do Better This Time Around?

On Labor Day, I’ll be in New York City, so I won’t be able to see the television broadcast premiere of 1913 Massacre on Twin Cities Public Television. How many will tune in? How will the broadcast cut of the film look and play on TV? Above all, I wonder, what connections will the Labor Day TV audience draw between 1913 and 2013? My comments here run this holiday weekend on MinnPost.

Many people Ken and I met in mining towns around Lake Superior while filming 1913 Massacre urged us to see the positive contributions the mining companies had made to the region. Some insisted that the Woody Guthrie song that had introduced me to the story of the Italian Hall disaster and brought me to Calumet and the Upper Peninsula in the first place had gotten it all wrong. The greedy bosses, company thugs and violent social strife that Woody sang about in “1913 Massacre” did not fit the story they knew. “We all got along just fine,” they protested.

When the mines were running, the towns thrived. The big department stores downtown were open. The churches (and the bars) were packed to capacity. Everybody worked hard and the work was sometimes dangerous, but on Saturday nights, the streets were jammed and the atmosphere festive. The company put a roof over your head then sold you the house at terms you could manage. The copper bosses built libraries, sidewalks and schools, gave land grants for churches, and even furnished luxuries like bathhouses and public swimming pools. The men who ran the mines weren’t just robber barons from Boston; they were public benefactors.

But there were limits to their benevolence. The mining captains regarded the immigrant workers – Finns, Slavs, Italians — as charges placed in their paternal care. They knew what was best for these new arrivals. They discouraged organizing. Faced with strikes on the Iron Range in 1907 or on the Keweenaw in 1913, they adamantly refused to negotiate, brought in scabs to do the work and Waddell and Pinkerton men to deal (often brutally) with the strikers. Even after the tragic events of 1913, Calumet and Hecla Mining Company would not recognize the union for decades.

The Keweenaw miners were on strike again in 1968 when C & H made a calculated business decision to pull out. No more jobs, pensions cut short; the good times were over. They left the waters poisoned and the landscape littered with industrial wreckage and toxic mine tailings.

The companies driving the new mining boom around Lake Superior these days promise to do better. They are dedicated to corporate social responsibility. They practice “sustainable” mining, tout their environmental stewardship and declare their respect for human rights. They have community outreach programs and promise to make substantial, long-term investments in the economic development of the regions where they come to mine. They work closely – some would say too closely – with regulators to create environmental impact statements and plan for responsible closure of their mines. They are eager to gain social license.

For the most part, these big multinationals operate with the support of organized labor and politicians who want to create jobs — and what politician doesn’t want to do that? But the high-paying, highly-technical mining jobs are unlikely to go to local residents; and the new mining is likely to have detrimental effects on local economies, as the economist Thomas M. Power has shown in studies of Michigan and Minnesota. Mining may provide some short-term jobs, but it can also drive away creative professionals and knowledge workers, destroy entrepreneurial culture, diminish quality of life and damage long-term economic vitality.

So promises of good times and plentiful jobs need to be treated with circumspection. Polymet has repeatedly scaled back its job predictions for its huge, open-pit sulfide mining project near Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, and the company’s own figures suggest that only 90 of the promised 360 jobs – just 25% — will go to local communities. Local is, moreover, a relative term. Mine workers today tend not to live in mining towns; they will commute an hour or more to work. And hiring will always be subject to swings in metals prices, which are now dependent on two new factors: continued Chinese growth (and urbanization) and the entry of big financial firms into metals warehousing and trading.

There are limits to big mining’s benevolence as well. The last time I flew into Marquette airport, a glossy Rio Tinto poster advertised the company’s commitment to “build, operate and close Eagle Mine responsibly.” Nobody had bothered to take the sign down after Rio Tinto had done an about-face and sold Eagle, a few months earlier, to Vancouver-based Lundin Mining for dimes on the dollar. Rio Tinto’s commitments lasted only until it was time to flip their property. Overnight, Eagle Mine had become a “non-core asset” and the surrounding community none of Rio Tinto’s responsibility.

In Wisconsin, Gogebic Taconite has drawn the line between company and community much more starkly, with help from a paramilitary firm called Bulletproof Securities. Black-masked guards, dressed in camouflage and armed with semi-automatic weapons, protect the mining company’s property from trespassers and environmental protesters. Imagine what they might do in the event of a strike.

gogebicguard

Bulletproof Securities patrols Gogebic Taconite’s property in northern Wisconsin.

The CEO and the Social Compact: Conibear Comes to Michigan

I’ve been puzzling over the few public comments Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear has made regarding the announcement that his company plans to acquire the Kennecott Eagle Mine from Rio Tinto. Industry analysts studying these same tea leaves at the end of last week seem to have judged the Eagle sale to be auspicious. But I am looking for other signs — evidence of Lundin’s disposition toward the communities around the Eagle Mine and some indication of how Lundin plans to approach and address the social and environmental challenges of the Eagle Mine project.

There are suggestions in Conibear’s resume of some interest in local and global development issues and an appreciation for the environmental and social facets of large scale mining projects. An engineer by training, Conibear made his way as an operations man, parlaying his experience in Latin America, Europe and, above all, at the Tenke Fungurume mine in the African Congo into a leadership position — first at Tenke Mining, where he served as CEO before its merger with Lundin, and then, when Phil Wright resigned in 2011, as CEO of Lundin Mining. During his time in Africa, according to his official corporate biography, Conibear was “active in advancing the group’s corporate social responsibility initiatives”; and he “is one of founding directors of the Lundin for Africa Foundation, a charitable entity established to support sustainable development across Africa”. Here, then, is a CEO with CSR credentials.

It’s too early to tell whether this will matter when it comes to Lundin’s work in the UP. Reports that the company will uphold Rio Tinto’s commitments to the communities around Eagle Mine — and keep the current Kennecott team in place — are still short on specifics. That will probably be the case at least until the transfer of the mining permit is complete and Lundin has had a chance to figure out firsthand what’s working at Eagle and what isn’t. Conibear’s affiliation with Lundin for Africa, and that organization’s focus on social enterprise, may not translate to efforts on the ground in Michigan, for all sorts of reasons; he himself has said nothing so far about how the company will continue, depart from, or improve upon what Rio Tinto has already done. In a press release Lundin issued last week, the CEO is quoted as saying only that the acquisition of the mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

fits ideally within Lundin Mining’s asset base and is the result of the disciplined approach we have been focused on for some time to acquire high quality, advanced stage assets in low risk, mining oriented jurisdictions. The Eagle Mine represents a very unique opportunity to acquire a high-grade project which is under construction and expected to begin generating significant levels of metal production and cash flow prior to the end of next year. Northern Michigan has an outstanding iron ore, gold and base metals mining history and consequently excellent regional power, road and rail infrastructure, with extensive mining expertise within local communities to support and staff Eagle Mine.

I was struck by a couple of things here, but most of all by the invocation of northern Michigan “history” in the last sentence. What makes the history of the Upper Peninsula so “outstanding,” in Conibear’s view? Nothing like what drew Richard White to his classic study of the French and the Algonquins in the pays d’en haut. Not the brutal strikes and hard times Arthur Thurner wrote about in Rebels on the Range; not the complex system of social patronage that obtained between immigrant hard-rock miners and the tight-fisted, iron-willed mining captains, described by historians like Larry Lankton. Not even the attitudes toward history that impressed me most in the interviews I did in connection with 1913 Massacre — the deep and heartfelt emotion many people in the area invest in the past, and the pride they feel in what their ancestors accomplished and endured; the way that shared stories have both concealed past trauma and allowed the region to heal; a resilience that has allowed communities on the Keweenaw to weather boom and bust.

It may not seem reasonable to expect much feeling for the history of the UP in Conibear’s remarks. He’s got a mining company to run and investors and analysts to impress. But it’s worth noting that a more considered view of UP history (and a look at the environmental damage caused by the last round of mining) would not necessarily lead one to characterize a mining venture in the Upper Peninsula as “low risk.” For Conibear, UP history seems to matter to the extent it can be exploited for business advantage. The past has value in the present as a source of “infrastructure” — a reliable power grid, rail and roads — and “expertise.” Widen the lens a bit, however, and that same history becomes a source of uncertainty and obligation as well as strength.

Take roads, for instance. It’s odd that Conibear would single out roads as one of the things that attracted Lundin to northern Michigan and the Eagle Mine. A proposed $80 million project to build a haul road from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill ended in failure earlier this year, after the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality denied the permit for County Road 595. It was a big setback for Rio Tinto, which had fought for the road for five years. Defeated, the company announced that it would spend $44 million to upgrade existing roads instead, but that plan remains controversial — and now that project and the cost as well as the controversy it entails are Lundin’s to manage.

There’s another, more general observation to be made here as well. History doesn’t just throw all those things — power, roads, expertise — into the Rio Tinto deal. If history, or the experience of the past 150 years of mining, works in favor of companies operating in the UP today, it also marks a good place to start enumerating the responsibilities mining companies have to society. This is a point about the relationship of business to society that Elizabeth Warren made in the run up to last year’s presidential election, and which snowballed into a ridiculous controversy over Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” remark. It’s worth recalling Warren’s argument in this context. A skilled and educated workforce, reliable infrastructure, the protection of the law, even the free association to do business with whom and where you like, Warren said, are part of an “underlying social contract.” Companies have to honor that contract and “pay it forward” if they hope to continue to benefit from public goods; and society has a responsibility to push hard on companies until they do.

In Michigan, of course, Governor Rick Snyder and his cronies did all they could during last year’s lame duck session to weaken the compact between business and society and to relieve mining companies of the obligation to pay forward anything at all. A bill sponsored by the UP’s outgoing Republican representative Matt Hukki set out to “ease upfront costs for mines” and make the taxes on mineral extraction in Michigan “more simple, fair and efficient,” replacing property tax, corporate income tax, sales tax and use tax with a single “severance tax” of 2.75 percent on the gross value of minerals extracted — once the mine went into production. That works out very nicely for Rio Tinto, which never took Eagle into production; and it would be worth finding out whether the company is now entitled to a tax credit on property taxes paid before the passage of HBs 6007-12. That retroactive credit — the opposite of paying it forward — is one provision of Hukki’s bill.

Tax relief and regulatory easing are no doubt some of the things Conibear had in mind when he described the Upper Peninsula as a “mining-oriented jurisdiction.” It’s a piece of industry jargon that is used to talk about whether conditions are favorable or unfavorable — a way of assessing risk. Among US states, Michigan has never ranked very high in the annual survey of mining jurisdictions by the Fraser Institute [pdf]; but generally, writes Aaron Mintzes, “jurisdictions within the United States rank very well in large measure because we have stable and transparent democratic institutions, courts that enforce contracts and resolve disputes, and generous mining policies (like the 1872 Mining Law)”. This is another unappreciated provision of the social contract: strong public institutions and the rule of law reduce the risks companies take as much as if not more than mine-friendly policies.

You would think that companies, in turn, would be obliged to do everything they can to reduce the risks they pass on to society. That has rarely been the case, and it has not been the case when it comes to the Eagle Mine. Rio Tinto and now Conibear and Lundin are requiring communities around the mine and all around Lake Superior to assume an enormous risk. It goes beyond legitimate fears of environmental damage due to subsidence or acid mine drainage. When Eagle goes into production in 2014, it will signal the start of a new mining boom in the Lake Superior region. Over the next several years, one of the world’s largest mining operations will be staged around one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. Just look at the map of mines, mineral exploration and mineral leases published by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. It is difficult even to imagine the environmental hazards and the social costs that the mining boom and the inevitable industrialization of Lake Superior will entail. I am still wondering whether Mr. Conibear appreciates that.

Race You To The Water

The other day I expressed some misgivings over the word that Earthworks chose to apply to water in the first sentence of its report, Polluting the Future: their characterization of water as an “asset,” I said, made me uneasy. The water flowing from springs and brooks, the water of rivers, lakes and streams, the raindrops that fall from the sky and the dew on the morning grass, the water in our bodies, in plants and trees, the water in dogs, flowers, bugs, fish, elephants, walruses and caterpillars, the water in everything that is alive on earth — water is and will always be something greater, more wondrous and something other than a mere entry in the accounting ledgers of some grand business enterprise, which is all that the word “asset” conjures for me.

greatlakesoilI came across the word again today as I was reading an editorial in The Detroit Free Press. I am in complete sympathy with the position it takes against plans to build a huge network of oil pipelines carrying diluted bitumen (or dilbit) across the Great Lakes region, and to transport crude oil by barge across Lake Superior. These are reckless, irresponsible ideas. The threat they pose to the integrity of the Lakes and the life the Lakes sustain is only made worse when you consider a couple of salient facts. First (and it is curious that the editorial does not mention this), the new mining around Lake Superior — as I’ve noted repeatedly — is already going to put pressure on Lake Superior and the Lake Superior watershed; the shipping of oil by barge would bring even more industrialization and greatly heighten the risk of environmental catastrophe. Second, the company building and running the pipeline (the Canadian company Enbridge) has already been responsible for an environmental disaster in Kalamazoo, Michigan — the worst inland oil spill in US history, in fact.

The editorial takes the position that these plans betray a “deep misunderstanding of the true value of the lakes,” but when the editors try to say what that value is, they run into trouble:

It’s easy to wax poetic about the value of the Great Lakes to Michigan and the other states they border. The beauty of the lakes, the wildlife and fish that dwell in and around the lakes, the environmental benefits the lakes present — they’re incalculable.

But let’s get practical: Clean freshwater is one of the scarcest commodities there is. And it’s only going to get worse. Clean water will be an asset that’s worth far more than oil. Jeopardizing the Great Lakes isn’t just morally and ethically wrong. It’s financially foolish, as well.

It’s interesting how the argument here moves, in just a couple of short paragraphs, from the “incalculable” to the crudest of calculations — the “worth” of clean water. This is tantamount to arguing that what is “morally and ethically” right should take second place to what is financially sound — as if finance should have more claim on the imagination and intellect (and the heart) than morality, and monetary value should be privileged over moral and ethical considerations.

I suppose that’s the way it goes nowadays, and I just need to get real. Still, there’s a great swirl of confusion in these two paragraphs, and I have a number of questions about the concept of morality being invoked here, how we’re to distinguish it from ethics, and why those things don’t seem to figure into what are called “practical” considerations. Practice and finance here are unmoored from and unrestricted by moral and ethical concerns; it’s precisely that kind of thinking that got us into the precarious situation we’re now in.

One remedy for all this confusion may lie in the perspective that holds water to be a basic human right — a perspective I also found missing from the Earthworks report. But even then we need to go beyond talking about assets and recognize the limitations of the argument that “clean freshwater is one of the scarcest commodities.” Why? Follow the link from The Detroit Free Press editorial to the National Geographic site on the “Freshwater Crisis.” There you enter a Malthusian world:

While the amount of freshwater on the planet has remained fairly constant over time—continually recycled through the atmosphere and back into our cups—the population has exploded. This means that every year competition for a clean, copious supply of water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sustaining life intensifies.

bilquaszwaterchildHere, all of humanity is engaged in a contest or race. More and more people enter every year to compete for the same, limited resources. This is one reason why it’s imperative to recognize freshwater as a human right. Otherwise, history becomes a death match, or a big, global reality TV show: intensifying “competition” over this scarce “commodity” means that there will be winners and losers in the water game. The winners are fully vested with their rights; the losers struggle to survive in arid, toxic regions, or simply die of thirst.