Planning with water: part two

By Peter Neil, World Ocean Observatory

Planning with Water is a six-part series that looks toward building a new value premise and societal change around water as the most valuable commodity on earth, essential to our future survival

What then is the most valuable commodity on earth around which a new, more viable, more realistic system of value can be built? It is water, the one natural product that every person, rich or poor, from anywhere around the globe, must rely on for life.

If global leaders have realized how much our economies and society rely on hydrologic stability, what do you suppose they intend to do about it? Despite the drought and water scarcity, despite the ongoing pollution of existing water supply by fertilizer, chemicals, toxic spills, and all the rest, what action do you suppose might be taken to address this evident, recurring, critical need? In the United States Congress, the recent response has been to deny climate change as a cause of such instability around the world, and close to home. To work with fervour and dedication to dilute the protections of the Clean Water Act, to weaken if not eradicate the Environmental Protection Agency, and otherwise to relieve any restrictions or prohibitions for any activity that will simply make the matter worse. It represents the most perverse intersection of short-term profit for a politically motivated interest and long term loss for everyone else.

So it goes, at least until the price of oil collapses and all the numbers, justifications, and reasons for sustaining the status quo go down with a great sucking sound heard from Houston to Anchorage, from New York to Moscow, from Beijing to the Poles. There is, of course, no alternative plan. Or is there?

The most valuable commodity on earth is no longer oil. All the calculations change, even as the energy companies and their investors double down on what surely they hope will be a return to the good old days. Suddenly the communities suffering from the myriad consequences of fracking or exploding pipelines find leverage to fight back against what has been so cleverly packaged as beyond them and essential to the national interest.

What then is the most valuable commodity on earth around which a new, more viable, more realistic system of value can be built? It is water, the one natural product that every person, rich or poor, from anywhere around the globe, must rely on for life. The collapse of oil, then, could be seen as a unique opportunity to shift our value system to an alternative based on water, priced by its utilitarian necessities.

Of course, we need energy to grow, not just for growth’s sake but to meet the known requirements of a world population that is increasing dramatically by the millions year to year. If we cannot provide a basic living for these inhabitants in the form of health, shelter, food, employment and quality of life, then we should be prepared to accept our responsibility for the unfortunate consequences. It does not take much imagination to envision the outcomes; we see them in the disruptive conditions of poverty, political volatility, and social injustice in those places and among those peoples already deprived of what we take for granted.

Is it possible to construct a new system on the true value of water? What decisions must be made? Do we need new technologies and more money, or can we actually change by using the technologies already in hand and re-allocating existing assets?

Can we finance such a change with funds divested from the extraction industry and re-invested in alternatives and renewable resources? Can we move the oil subsidies away from a dying industry to bring the new alternatives to scale? Can we take back the definition of our future from those who see it only as a replication of our past? Can we make, and execute a new plan?

Of course, we can. It is, in fact, already in progress, perhaps not so publicly known, perhaps not so clearly understood. There are amazing examples of progress based on a sharpening vision of the future. Examples of a world built around the movements and cycles of water and the ocean sit at its centre.

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Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is the author of The once and future ocean: notes toward a new hydraulic society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this article is inspired.

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