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Water, the Commons, and Sustainability

Dave Ewoldt

September, 2007

   I presented a paper and attended two days of presentations and panel discussions at the recent Arizona Hydrological Society's annual symposium. One thing that stood out was a common term used by the local, regional, national, and international water experts. This term is overdraft. Everyone said, everywhere you looked, fresh water supplies are decreasing. We're using more than can be naturally replenished. But then they all went on to say we're not in danger of running out of water.

   Now, I realize that math skills are also decreasing in this country, but what planet are these people from? Is there a parallel universe, or another dimension that I'm not aware of where all this water is going to come from? The best any of them could offer was either a future or yet unproven technological miracle that will occur to save us from ourselves. I call this belief in the techno-rapture. None of the experts want to address the inconvenient truth that just about every technology that we've applied against the natural world has had the unfortunate side-effect of decreasing the ability of the natural world to support and sustain life.

   I have this bad habit of looking at everything from a systems perspective; of being concerned with underlying causes. If we don't understand what the root of the problem is, the solutions we develop won't change anything because we'll be responding to the wrong problem. At best we'll be applying band-aids to symptoms.

   No where is this lack of a systems perspective more evident than when it comes to dealing with our water resources in the SW desert. In my short presentation this evening, my goal is to highlight just a few of the most glaring underlying causes, current manifestations of an unsustainable paradigm that has arisen due to our disconnection from the natural world, and potential solutions based on a natural systems framework.

   So, let's first talk about an ancient concept called the commons. The commons included the oft-unspoken awareness that we belong to a greater whole, something larger than the self that we share with others. What has happened to this concept, and how has its loss impacted how we relate to the world and each other--leading us to the current social and environmental crises, including our dwindling water resources?

   The enclosure movement, also known as the privatization of the commons, is the physical process to enforce the enlightenment philosophy of our separation from nature. It involves removing people from their ancestral grounds, and using money to substitute for community obligations and relationships that had functioned just fine for over 600 years. The value of a person became tied to how much money they were worth.

   Medieval European agriculture was communally organized and highly democratic. This latter point is something that gets conveniently overlooked in American history texts. Peasant councils decided crop rotations, number of animals that could graze, water allocations, and forest management.

   Beginning in the 1500s in Tudor England, the enclosure movement put the commons in private hands and removed the right of the community to use it. Historians call this the revolution of the rich against the poor.

   People were forced off the land, and cropland was turned into pasture for sheep to supply the demand for wool in the growing textile industry. Newly landless peasants were forced into cities to supply factory labor, and the urban and industrial revolutions were underway. The land that people were forced from became a resource for short-term market exploitation. To keep up with growing urban market demand, soil conservation practices were abandoned. Land that had been fertile for hundreds of years was soon depleted. Land became something you no longer belonged to, but a commodity to be possessed. Reciprocity was replaced with an hourly wage.

   This marked the beginning of Thomas Hobbes' philosophy of perpetual warfare, of all against all in the competition for what were presented as scarce resources, even though they existed in adequate supply prior to commodification. Anyone who didn't go along with this would be marked as prey for the greed and avarice of the merchant class.

   The privatization of the commons was partially justified by telling people that they were now free from the iron grip of the collective will. What was deliberately hidden from them was the truth that privatization allows a few individuals to maximize their self-interests without having to be accountable to the larger community, and it was the larger community who became the ultimate loser.

   Today the enclosure movement can be seen in Central and South America as transnational corporations enclose and level the rainforest for agro-fuels, and cattle grazing for the export meat market. 1/3 of Mexico's food crop goes to livestock, while 1/3 of Mexico's peasant population go their entire lives without tasting beef.

   The same thing is happening with the corporate and national enclosure of the seas. World fisheries are depleting due to resource optimization and profit maximization, and mineral extraction of the seabeds is following suit.

   Global warming brings us face to face with the irony of our folly. In our 500 year war against nature, as we have sought to capture, enclose, and consume the natural world, we have become enclosed by the waste of our consumption.

   Another major aspect of today's enclosure movement is corporate globalization. The tendrils of this movement are labeled WTO, NAFTA, GATT, IMF, and World Bank. This entire paradigm is based on domination, exploitation, and is leading us down the path to further ruin.

   Free-trade agreements that ignore the rights of workers and the environment are the current manifestation of central bankers' grip on the global economy; but underlying that is free-market capitalism, its practice of economic cannibalism, the enclosure of the commons, and the substitution of materialism for psychological and spiritual health and well-being; but underlying that are class hierarchies and a belief in a mechanistic, dualistic universe; but underlying that is the subjugation of the Earth Goddess to the sky gods and belief in the transcendence of the soul which totally abrogates our responsibility to the Earth; but underlying that is the root--force based ranking hierarchies of domination built on fear; that rank humans over nature, men over women, whites over blacks; that see everything outside of the ego as "other"; and this other is automatically inferior and to be exploited for personal benefit. This is the root of our separation from Nature--our disconnection from the nurturing relationships we evolved to enjoy with the natural world, with each other, and with our own inner nature.

   The experts who are studying the changes that we need to immediately institute in order to deal with Peak Oil and global warming in a manner that has the greatest possibility of giving the human race any chance to thrive--let alone survive--in an era of limited and dwindling resources--that is, those who don't have a financial stake in supporting the status quo of infinite growth, a widening wealth gap, and continual class warfare--say that we need to create the largest political and economic transformation the world has ever seen.

   When one examines the barriers to this transformation, it is hard to be hopeful. Hell, it's hard not be terrified! One need look no further than the forces lining up to defeat Proposition 200 here in Tucson this fall to come face to face with these barriers to change.

   In fact, looking at the list of money-bags opponents to Prop 200 should be all that anyone needs to realize that this proposition is in the best interests of the people of Tucson, and deserves to be passed. It may not be perfect, but what is? The status quo needs to change while there's still anyone left around to change it. And the experts who look at global warming trends (more accurately referred to as catastrophic climate destabilization) say we're going to be looking at greatly reduced populations in the Southwest deserts over the coming decades.

   We must be honest about the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. The water table in the Tucson region has dropped from 20 feet to over 300 feet in the past 2-3 generations, and is continuing to drop between 2-4 ft/yr. In the 1940s in Phoenix you couldn't build a house with a basement because the water table was too high. Now it's 1,000 feet below the surface.

   We're selling water to industry for $5.80/af, but the cost to the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District to secure increasingly difficult to find replenishment water supplies is $200/af. The snowpack in the headwaters of the Colorado River is decreasing and is expected to be 40% below normal in the coming years. The Central Arizona Project is pumping water from this dwindling flow of the Colorado over 300 miles uphill to Tucson in an open concrete ditch through the middle of the Arizona desert.

   We're betting our future on paper water--the glossy report of a 100 year assured water supply. And we're allowing our local planning departments to continue to approve trophy subdivisions in the foothills, and 60,000 home "planned" communities south of Tucson. As if putting the word "planned" in there makes everything alright. Everybody seems afraid to point out that smart growth gets us to the exact same place as dumb growth, we just get their first class.

   When it comes to global warming, the argument about whether or not it occurs in natural cycles is a distraction. Of course it occurs in natural cycles. In fact, the last time the globe warmed to the same degree we're on course for today it took about two thousand years, and the only large land mammal that survived was a pig like creature. We're causing the same degree of warming due to human activity to occur in about 200 years, and we think we're going to be able to adapt? The only thing this shows is that human hubris is more widespread and more powerful than human intelligence.

   However, it doesn't need to be this way. The main group who believe in the adaptation fantasy are those who think it will be a way for them to maintain their current positions of control and power. We're told that mitigation might harm the economy, so we must develop adaptation strategies and technologies.

   We must become aware of the codephrases that are being used to keep us misinformed -- for example, lifting people out of poverty in developing countries really means turning them into American style consumers because it requires constant economic growth and the energy needed to fuel this growth. Another inconvenient truth, though, is that this energy is no longer cheap or abundant. The supposed necessity for continuous economic growth to ensure prosperity is a fantasy. The only thing that grows without limit in nature is a cancer cell.

   We spend a lot of time these days talking about our eco-footprint, but more importantly, perhaps we should begin discussing: What is our moral footprint? Because the only realistic alternative to a doomsday economy of infinite growth is to return to a more natural way of being that is in harmony with the web of life; that is based on equity; that builds on a foundation of ecological wisdom and social justice.

   Relocalization provides this alternative, and is both the antithesis and the antidote to corporate globalization. More importantly, relocalization provides the process to becoming truly sustainable. Participatory democracy is but one of the necessary aspects of relocalization, as are steady-state economies, as is living within an ecosystem's carrying capacity. We must start focusing on becoming better instead of bigger. We must place a higher value on being more instead of having more.

   When properly presented, sustainability provides an overarching meta-vision of a just, equitable, and peaceful democratic society in balance (or, more accurately, in holistic integration) with the natural world. Sustainability, when strongly defined from an ecological perspective--which is the study of relationships--fully informs the work of progressive activism, as well as providing the support and nurturing necessary for progressive activists. While some take the narrow view that sustainability is an environmental movement, sustainability is actually a community movement.

   After all, there can be no equity on a dead planet. A sustainable world will be a peaceful world, but a peaceful world addicted to growth and dependent on market forces won't be one that is sustainable.

   So, my focus is on reconnecting with nature, and relocalizing our lives and communities to act with the creative energy of the universe--to become as sustainable as a healthy, vibrant, and resilient climax ecosystem. Since humans are an intimate aspect of the natural world, we naturally embody the wisdom necessary to develop sustainable lifestyles and cultures.

   What it seems to me the progressive movement in this country is missing is a common goal based on common values. Sustainability provides the goal; the principles of the Earth Charter or the Ten Key Values of the Green Party provide the commonly shared values (they're both just slightly different ways of stating the same ones), and these values are highly congruent with the four core natural systems principles which keep an ecosystem sustainable--mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity. We're then left with deciding which tactics to deploy to reach this goal in a manner congruent with these values.

   I have two main tactics (or processes) which I use: reconnecting with nature (through a process in applied ecopsychology known as the Natural Systems Thinking Process) and relocalization (through steady-state economies and bioregional self-reliance), but there are dozens of other tactics as well, such as participatory democracy, social justice activism, environmental restoration, abolishing corporate personhood, etc. What they all require to be successful is a firm grounding in a systemic framework that is non-hierarchical; that is, one that is not based on power over, but on power with in order to be mutually supportive in attaining the common goal.

   This mirrors the way nature works. All living organisms self-organize to create mutually supportive relationships that support the web of life and the creation of more life. This is the prime activity of life. The organisms that make up an ecosystem do this. The cells in the body do this. The only thing that keeps humans from doing it is the stories we tell that keep us separate from nature and afraid of each other. And we must become aware that these are just stories, they are not reflective of a natural order.

   Change begins by making new choices, and our first choice is to begin collaboratively writing, and telling, a new story.


"Well, I didn't say it was going to be easy, I just said it was going to be the truth."


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