Water: a frame of reference

[water, resources, commodities, public attitudes]
by Stan Hirst

CBC television recently replayed a 2016 interview between Peter Mansbridge and David Suzuki. The event was part of a series leading up to David’s 80th birthday.

At one point in the wide-ranging discussions David recounted a meeting he had once had with an oil company executive who travelled from Edmonton to meet with him. David had specifically requested that the visitor drop his CEO mantle and engage in discussion on a man-to-man basis. He recalled that the CEO was not comfortable with this arrangement. David also recollected that in the discussion he had followed his well-used argument that resources such as water and air are used by everyone, that everyone is reliant on these same resources, and that conservation was everybody’s responsibility. That was apparently not what the CEO wanted to hear. As David recollected, the fellow eventually left the meeting after refusing to shake hands.

The issue brought up in this interview segment is one that has much significance for the way in which we live and in which we govern ourselves. The essential question raised here is why so many people cannot or will not acknowledge their basic dependence on resources such as water and air which are so often under siege from development and mismanagement? Perhaps it’s better phrased as – why aren’t they simply more interested?

One reason I suggest is that many people don’t relate to resources such as water in its natural form. For them water for drinking is something that comes out of a faucet at the flick of a wrist or is contained in a clear plastic bottle with buttercups on the label. Much of the air we all inhale daily has been passed through an air-con filter before we city slickers even encounter it. We all do this, not just CEO’s.

However, to the CEO of an oil company water is an important component of industrial processes which take resources in their raw form and refine them into products or concoctions which can be shipped, piped and sold. Extracting, cleaning, purifying, storing and spewing out the gunk they don’t want all incur costs which are summarized as line items in an expenditure account. Those accounting entries are all that most CEOs ever see and so they become the de facto identifiers for the resource, be they water, widgets or people. Something like headstones in a graveyard.

Why is this important? Because it changes the frame of reference between the resource and ourselves. On one hand, we casually accept that water is the key to life on the planet, in fact in the whole universe. We are not too surprised to hear that countries in the Middle East and Africa are a hair trigger away from going to war to secure their water supplies. Water is our predominant resource in Canada in many forms – fresh, marine, snow and ice. Now we’ve chosen to commodify it, deliver it in big blue demi-johns, and put it into plastic bottles to stock on supermarket shelves with Coca Cola.

Why would we do a thing like that? Cory Mintz of the Globe & Mail succinctly spells out the reasons for Canadians:

– because it’s a fashion statement

– because it’s forbidden

– because public access is limited

– because we fear tap water

– and, for 150 First Nations across Canada with no access to natural clean water sources, because it’s a necessity.

Detachment between ourselves and the ecosystems within which we dwell presents a mounting and potentially fatal flaw in our modern belief system. Our actions lack consequences.

Perhaps that’s the point of our otherwise pointless hyper-consumption: it smothers feeling. It is also the effect of constant bombardment by advertising and marketing. The media engineers seek to replace our attachments to people and places with attachments to objects. The next round of advertising then kicks in, aiming to attach us to a different set of objects.

The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become. However, even if we could somehow put aside the direct, physical impacts of rising consumption, it’s hard to understand how anyone could imagine that economic growth is a formula for protecting the planet.

As I sat and pecked these words on my creaky keyboard, the TV in the corner flickered with images of Irma battering Miami and the Florida coast. Lots of water there: 5-metre high surges of the noble liquid taking out cars, seawalls and sailboats; horizontal rain dousing through empty streets. Water in plastic bottles too. On the shelves of the darkened convenience store in the back of the gas station.


  1. Well said, Stan. Thanks. Here’s a piece, and link I’ve been sharing with my family. Now with the Elders 🙂
    Hurricanes and Climate Change: Here is a brief, but radically relevant interview …it provides background that helps us connect the dots between human activity and the climate disruption we are observing around the world. Please watch, share, with friends, activists, your politicians and lawmakers. And do what you can.
    Martin Luther King Jr said “There comes a time when silence is betrayal” and “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Let’s keep on this.
    Here’s the link, it’s to an episode of Democracy Now, with Amy Goodman interviewing George Monbiot
    Monbiot says we must bring down the Capitalist system, it’s unsustainable. There’s a lot of debate about this… views this way and that. What’s indubitable is that our levels of growth and consumption, the sucking up and spitting out of planetary resources, ARE clearly unsustainable, and seem to be portending our downfall. Let’s get on it!

  2. Good article, Stan. Great image for it.

    I’d say our misuse of the water resource is at least in part due to that there is so much of it. Usually, it’s not scarce, certainly not in Canada most of the time, so we can use it in a profligate way. However it can become scarce, in many parts of the world is scarce, with dire consequences–drought, famine, war, etc. One of the biggest complaints the Palestinians have is that the Israelis control all the water in their country(s), for instance. In Canada, we have too often allowed industry to pollute it. We forget that exploiting the Tar Sands requires huge amounts of water because it is “just water.”
    A market economist might say we then should turn water into a private good, and in so doing we wouldn’t waste it. Yeah Nestle! However, there are a lot of downsides to privatization–we generally don’t think access to water should depend on how wealthy you are–we want it to be a public good. How do we do that? It’s a real challenge for governments.

  3. I worked as a city and environmental planner, which prompted one of my colleagues – a landscape architect – to observe that a lot of people don’t recognize the results of planning. He said, “it’s like the air and the water, we don’t think about it until something goes wrong …”
    Note that Houston was the region that prided itself in having no zoning or planning. Therefore, they have a sprawling, poorly built city often located on floodplains. And it went wrong.
    We had visible reminders of bad air this summer, and water restrictions last summer. This summer our whole family went on a watershed tour sponsored by Metro Vancouver. It gave us all pause to remember where our water comes from. We are again grateful for the water, and the air…

  4. Canada has lots of fresh water, but it has been estimated that 60-80% of Alberta and BC glaciers will have melted by 2100 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/how-western-canada-glaciers-will-melt-away-1.3022242). On a positive note, the Middle East and California are experimenting in solar-powered desalination, but the costs are not yet competitive. It’s so much simpler not to pollute or waste what water we have. We need to apply pressure to make this happen, like supporting the Blue Dot Movement.

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