By Paul Smart
The new dystopia imagined in our fiction, and increasingly lived by large numbers of our fellow humans (including many in our own hemisphere and nation) is about wet and dry. It’s about water.
Earlier this month, the Carey Institute outside of Millbrook presented a riveting talk about a little-known toxic spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, the same state where the city of Flint saw its water tainted, and Detroit faces challenges almost weekly… all in a vast state touched by four of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest repository of fresh water beyond the polar ice caps.
Earlier this year, we witnessed our government whittling away at its Clean Water Act protections. Earlier this decade we watched flooding swamp entire swaths of the Northeast, the Northwest, and various parts of the world. The century started with even worse floods. And throughout all this time we’ve simultaneously had increasingly worse droughts, from California to Europe. And worsening thirst.
People are talking about water becoming the new oil, that resource everyone wants some of, and are willing to fight for. Yet unlike oil, what water represents is literally a basis of life, and not just one of the legs upon which national economies stand. Yet besides regular appearances in film and literature, it’s noticeably absent from all but the most utopian of governmental thought processes (think United Nations, versus the brutishness of partisan eye-rolling at all things global).
Water politics is, fortunately, key to our history here in the Hudson Valley and Catskills.
The New York City reservoir system is a key source of continuing funding and angst in our more rural stretches, but also a global wonder that draws top scientists and policymakers from around the world as our earth’s largest non-filtered urban water supply. Especially now that the City has also started to take seriously its stewardship of an area prone to flooding as Climate Change makes all our ecosystems more fragile.
A few years back, Kingston’s own water system came into sharp focus when it started to look like some of it would be bottled for profitability. Newburgh’s had to build a new treatment plant. Poughkeepsie and Albany were found to be dumping sewage into the Hudson River, which some communities use as a backup potable water supply. Catskill has had periodical boil water alerts.
And remember, this is all in an area where we have great water sources, policies, and enough awareness to stay responsible for the growing economic and political pressures involving water.
Which is important, given how water concerns are one of those items that can only be tackled on a multi-lateral basis.
Look at it this way: in our last issue we reviewed a book about all that was involved in the huge state of Texas’ attempts to match up needs from the arid side of their lands with regions prone to flooding. And all the trouble that arose, as well as massive expenses, building the infrastructure necessary to allow for Texan-size resource sharing. And we’re all aware of the underlying water diversion plotline in the great 1970s film, Chinatown.
There were times when human development made geographic sense: cities grew where there was water for drinking, agriculture, power and transportation. Agriculture spread where resources could support it, focused on crops and livestock that made sustainable sense. Then industrialization started pushing limits; why let nature stop growth?
We worked with shortages by initiating massive projects to divert resources where we needed them. Oil and minerals got shipped hither-thither; rivers were dammed for various uses. In the United States, this allowed for the growth of communities to match the panoply of needs opened up by the automobile. The West was settled, Florida, vast stretches of the swampy south. Planning for such growth relied on a growing technological prowess that also saw our engineers irrigating vast swaths of the rest of the world, moving resources on various continents in exchange for resources.
But all of that required diplomacy and the constant reinforcement of communication and consensus between communities. The New Deal came together, albeit against much partisan fighting, to build vast infrastructure projects throughout our nation (as well as in other nations, independently, as well as colonially) as a means of pulling the world out of a Great Depression. Post-World War II, everyone came together, in two distinct ideological camps (Communists vs Free Market nations) to rebuild what had broken, driven by a sense of remorse at how destructive mankind’s warring could be.
When new challenges began emerging in the 1960s involving population growth, disease, poverty, and other global problems, we collectively built ways to at least try and deal with them. And the grand NGOs, from the United Nations on down, seemed to set trends that resulted in further agreements on ways to tackle climate changes, including means of bettering our earthly sharing of vital resources brought about by the new patterns of human growth over the past century.
Look to the U.N.’s signing of a global agreement, eight years ago, that declared water one of human’s clear rights. As the global population grows, there is an increasing need to balance all of the competing commercial demands on water resources so that communities have enough for their needs. In particular, women and girls must have access to clean, private sanitation facilities to manage menstruation and maternity in dignity and safety,” reads their website on water issues. “At the human level, water cannot be seen in isolation from sanitation. Together, they are vital for reducing the global burden of disease and improving the health, education and economic productivity of populations.”
The agency goes on to chart the world’s challenges, from scarcities to natural disasters. The end result is clear: just as a nation such as ours cannot tackle water challenges on a state-by-state or even regional basis anymore, we cannot deal with a need for better water distribution, both between countries and segments of our population (including business), solely through continental agreements. It’s a shared thing.
How then to deal with such things in a new world where sharing is anathema to the leaders of our democracy, or at least those egging on an increasingly curmudgeonly partisan base?
It’s where the underlying themes Livelihood and New Economics are all about: awareness, mindfulness, responsibility.
Which means we better steward what we have in our homes, communities, state and region, then push for similar care everywhere. Call it the Livelihood way.