The pope and the water gurus

The world's water challenges are technical, economic, political, and social issues, but the Vatican Encyclical reminds us that ultimately they are ethical and moral issues as well. This is a valuable and timely reminder. -- Dr. Peter Gleick, Huffington Post, June 18, 2015

Of course someone from the California public policy world simply had to comment on Pope Francis' encyclical to show, however subtly and perhaps unconsciously, the superiority of positive science to the vague "ethical and moral" meanderings of Catholic pope. And the president of a multi-million-dollar East Bay water-policy non-profit would be just the man for the job. Peter Gleick speaks the full repertoire of technological buzz. Our favorite on Pacific Institute's website is the section on "Corporate Sustainability." One would think corporations have proved more than sustainable in our world, but, of course, the institute means "environmental, specifically water sustainability. No doubt the sector is a lucrative source of grants, contracts and fees.
However, we at Badlands suggest that the world's "water challenges" are primarily "ethical and moral," not "as well" as "technical, economic, political and social."  Framing ethics and morality that Pope Francis expressed as a sidebar to public policy issues diminishes their importance.  The pope just changed the world conversation about the environment. The ethical and moral revulsion with species extinction, air and water pollution, dry wells, collapsed aquifers beneath subsiding farms, and the ceaseless whine of special interests and their paid, elected enablers -- not black boxes and the best policy papers -- will save the day, if any human motive can. We are doomed if we rely on a technological, economic, political and social system incapable of enough cooperation to prevent environmental collapse driven by export-led agricultural economic growth, for example over two of the most endangered aquifers in America, under Texas and the San Joaquin Valley of California.  Concentration of technological, economic, political and social power in fewer and fewer hands is, to the contrary, the order of the day. And this concentration of control of resources is not accompanied by corporate environmental responsibility (although corporations spend enormous sums to persuade us that it does).
One avenue for hope lies in the growing awareness among people, the vast majority of whom have no access to the subtleties of social science research, the fact-making factories of our times. It is hard to find a person these days who lacks an opinion, often an angry opinion, about the political economic system, based on an array of facts rhetorically arranged in compelling order by a newscaster, talk-show host,  or other "communicator" for an interest group.  The opinions vary with level of education but it is clear that vehemently held fundamentalist views have never been the sole possession of certain religious sects. If one has ever had the misfortune to have the University of California establish a campus in her town, she will know that higher education and the higher real estate values said to come with it are far more potent contemporary fundamentalisms than the merely religious because criticism of a new, property-value uplifting  and resource and infrastructure damaging university is censured far more severely, and by all the Best People.
This social element, the Best People, is more important than frequently recognized because the university degree, even if granted debt-lite from a campus where no one fails, theoretically provides better opportunity to compete in our society, which wakes up every morning to have itself for breakfast.
Waiting for everyone to get a higher education to be as smart as Dr. Gleick or his cohort in the water-policy  ether, Dr. Buzz Thompson (1) of Stanford Law School is like waiting for regulation of groundwater in California and Texas, where the deadlines are carefully calibrated to defeat the alleged purpose.
Here in the San Joaquin Valley, we know that the technological, political, economic and social system Gleick sets to one side of ethical and moral concerns  won't  halt environmental destruction (although the university will research and publish about it all the way down to the last ground nester and duckling in the creek). But, the setting aside has two aspects, a negative which diminishes but another, positive aspect which highlights ethics and morality.
Perhaps we are just quibbling, but we think there is a larger, more complex difference between where the pope's ethics and morality are coming from and the language of technology, however scientific. Muted in the attempt below to at once ride on the popularity of a pope while setting his manifold authority to the side, an arrogance that needs pruning in this season of drought and era of climate change after decades of study, failed environmental law and regulation, and an endless stream of policy pronouncements on water, here, there and everywhere.
The first two paragraphs of the papal letter has an infectious passion, courage and faith that make the technocracy Gleick represents queasy. In fact, it is more than ethical and moral, it is downright religious. OMG!

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.[1]

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. --

But, quoting such spirited opening lines would risk alienating the CEO's of "sustainable" corporate clients. So, the "ethics and morality" variable is pushed to the side as a curious outrider. Even quaint, perhaps.
A cattleman told us recently that it would take 15 years of normal rainfall to make up for the damage done to seasonal pasture in the last four years of severe drought and frantic groundwater pumping. It's doubtful to us that even a Catholic nut grower would change his pumping schedule a bit as a result of reading the pope's words, but he's even less likely to take the advice of environmental consultants, the governor, the state water board or trial court judges. -- blj
(1)Thompson's  "Tragically difficult: the obstacles to governing the commons",, revisits Hardin's thesis 30 years later and offers an painstakingly researched justification for very intelligent and well educated people to wring their hands over the environmental issue and consolation that at least there is someone who articulates elite despair so well.






Huffington Post
Laudato Si' and Water: The Vatican's Encyclical Letter and Global Water Challenges
Dr. Peter Gleick
The official text of the much-anticipated Vatican's Encyclical Letter, "Laudato Si'" ("On Care for our Common Home") was released today. While considerable attention is being devoted to the sections of Pope Francis's new Encyclical related to the threats of climate change, the letter also tackles many other environmental challenges, including biodiversity, food, and especially the critical issue of freshwater. Woven throughout is attention to the social and equity dimensions of these challenges and a deep concern for the poor.
The water sections of the Encyclical Letter focus on the disparities in access, quality, and use of water between the wealthier, industrialized parts of the world and poorer populations. It notes that in many parts of the world, exploitation of water is exceeding natural resource limits - the problem of "peak water" - while still failing to satisfy the needs of the poorest.
"The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty." (Section 27)
The Encyclical identifies several key water problems including the lack of access to clean drinking water "indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems" (section 28), the challenges for food production due to droughts and disparities in water availability and "water poverty" (section 28), the continued prevalence of water-related diseases afflicting the poor (section 29), contamination of groundwater (section 29), and the trend toward privatization and commodification of a resource the Vatican describes as an "basic and universal human right" (section 30).
The Letter also expresses concern for the inefficient and wasteful use of water in both rich and poor regions:
"But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance"
and it decries the risk that the
"control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century" (section 31).
In the context of climate change, the Letter notes the clear links between a warming planet and threats to water resources and other environmental conditions:
"It [warming] creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet's biodiversity." (section 24)
Consistent with the overall theme of the Encyclical is the observation that the poorest suffer the most from water problems:
"One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality." (Section 29)
The Encyclical goes further and notes:
"Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. (Section 30, italics in original)."
This framing is consistent with the formal human right to water declared by the United Nations in 2010, linking the right to water with the right to life and well-being. Today, the UN estimates that around 2.5 billion people on the planet still lack access to safe sanitation and 750 million do not have safe drinking water. Worldwide, more people die from unsafe water annually than from all forms of violence, including war.
While progress has been made in cleaning up some water pollution, especially in richer industrialized nations, many water-quality indicators are worsening, not improving, and as populations grow, exposure to some forms of water pollution affects larger and larger numbers of people and watersheds. Even in places like California, hundreds of thousands of people - mostly in low-income communities - are at risk of exposure to water with high concentrations of nitrates because of the failure to protect and clean up groundwater systems contaminated by agricultural chemicals, animal feeding operations, and poor sewage systems.
In order to tackle these challenges, the Encyclical Letter identifies several priorities, but especially for water:
"some questions must have higher priority. For example, we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights. This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region." (section 185)
It also calls for reducing waste and inappropriate consumption, increasing funding to ensure universal access to basic water and sanitation, and increased education and awareness, especially in the "context of great inequity."
The world's water challenges are technical, economic, political, and social issues, but the Vatican Encyclical reminds us that ultimately they are ethical and moral issues as well. This is a valuable and timely reminder.