Cynthia Barnett’s “Blue Revolution”

August 21, 2013 at 11:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I became a water activist in the early 2000s, when I heard Maude Barlow say that by the end of the century, at the rate we were going, there wouldn’t be any clean water left on the planet. Eventually, however, I came to think that climate change—droughts, melting glaciers, the salination of groundwater—was the world water crisis. Now I am not so sure.

Cynthia Barnett’s Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis* is a galvanizing examination of the U.S. water crisis and a proposal for how to solve it. In the first three chapters, Barnett explores the U.S. relationship with water that caused today’s water shortages. At the heart of this crisis, we learn, are massive past interventions in the natural flow of water—the building of dams, canals and levees. The Florida Everglades and the Sacramento –San Joaquin Delta in California are outstanding examples. To remedy the damage done to our water supply by the building of just such infrastructure, politicians and corporations now perversely propose to build even more of it.

American obliviousness to the extent of our water use makes the crisis even worse.  Our single greatest use of water in the U.S. is for energy production—hydropower, thermal, even solar. Next comes irrigation, with agribusiness draining aquifers at a terrifying pace and the Federal government still subsidizing water-intensive crops in very dry sections of the country. Almost as problematic are widespread efforts by municipal water systems, under the influence of global water firms, to enact technical fixes to water shortages. These include long-distance pipelines (an official in Nevada proposes piping water in from the Mississippi River) though such fixes only generate a new set of problems. And then there’s our obsession with turf. When other details of Blue Revolution have escaped my aging brain, I will still remember Barnett’s characterization of the 63,240 square miles of water-gulping back yards and golf courses across the U.S. as a “fifty-first state”!

Barnett presents water use and management in Singapore and the Netherlands as examples of approaches we would do well to adopt. But the heart of the “blue revolution” is what she calls a “water ethic,” a contemporary take on Aldo Leopold‘s 1949 “land ethic.” In place of any more humongous, expensive technological hydro-fixes must come a whole new ethical approach to water. All the people who lust after endless inexpensive supplies of water have to face up to the fact that the resources aren’t there. Instead we must use less water, plain and simple.

The heart of Barnett’s argument is chapter 11, “An American Water Ethic,” with its stress on water conservation and reuse, especially rainwater harvesting. San Antonio,Texas; Monterey, California; and Perth, Australia, are the models here, saving million of gallons of water (and millions of dollars) annually by having convinced their residents to reduce their water use substantially. The underpinnings of such a change, however, are increased community involvement in water-use decisions, and on an even deeper level, educating ourselves to understand water as an essential, even sacred, element of life.

And what about climate change? In some parts of the book, I regret what strikes me as Barnett’s creation of an either-or between the two: green revolution vs. blue. It seems to me that we need both.

But by its conclusion, Blue Revolution had also convinced me that at least sometimes Americans are choosing ostensibly green options to the detriment of blue essentials. The use of millions upon millions of gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals to frack for a supposed transition fuel, natural gas, is one example. The massive use of water to irrigate corn for use in ethanol is another.

In the end, I’m sure you will agree that what we need is a true land-and-water ethic; the earth won’t survive without it. May we deepen ourselves in this double ethic and do everything we can to share it far and wide.

Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis. By Cynthia Barnett. Boston: Beacon, 2012. Paperback. $16.  296 pp.

This post is a slight revision of a review that appeared in the most recent issue of Gumbo, the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the U.S.

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  1. We do need both, and education in how what we do affects the world and its water. Thank you!


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