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.
I 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.
Here, 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.