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Which Strategy for Water? The Fundamental Question of Sustainability

Editor’s Note: Dr. R. Bruce Hull is a regular contributor to the Getting to GREENR blog and an advisory editor for GREENR, Gale’s interdisciplinary web portal for Environmental and Sustainability Studies. This essay is in support of Blog Action Day, which this year focuses on raising awareness of water issues all over the world.

As goes water, so goes society—and hopefully that’s not downhill.  Water is emblematic of our struggle to construct sustainability.  It is essential.  It is plentiful.  It is ignored. It is abused.  How we sustain water will teach us a lot about how to sustain society.

Water powers our bodies, grows our food, washes our clothes, flushes our wastes, transports our global trade, and is essential to most every industrial process, from energy production to building construction. Our beautiful orb floating in the great black void is mostly blue because of a thin layer of water.   Regrettably, a recent study published in prestigious scientific journal Nature confirms that the water is in trouble.

There are two basic approaches to sustaining sufficient, safe, equitable access to water—and just about every other challenge of sustainability. One approach treats the symptom; the other treats the cause.  One approach relies on human ingenuity; the other relies on proven natural systems. One approach emphasizes engineering, regulation, and remediation; the other emphasizes planning, policy, and education. One approach builds water treatment and storage facilities; the other directs use and development in watersheds.

Rich countries can afford to ignore the causes that degrade water and treat the symptoms, and they do so with dams, storm water drains, filters, chemicals, and equipment.  The investment is considerable.  The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that several hundred billion dollars will be needed over the next few years just to maintain the infrastructure that provides our drinking water.  Poorer countries face the same problems but don’t have access to the same solutions.  As a result their water systems are dangerous and imperiled.

“There are two basic approaches to sustaining sufficient, safe, equitable access to water…One approach treats the symptom; the other treats the cause.”

Technical band-aid solutions have hidden costs.  They limit options.  People of the future are given little choice but to sustain expensive water transport, storage, and filtration technologies.  They must allocate money, people, and time to mitigate the damages caused in the past.   Of course people of the future also benefit from the schools, businesses, wealth, and roads we hand them.  Deciding what we bequeath to the future is a fundamental challenge of constructing sustainability.

As we create the future, we constantly decide between development alternatives.  Some trade benefits now for problems later; others create fewer or different benefits now but avoid or minimize future problems.  Smart growth and green chemistry are illustrative of development alternatives that minimize symptoms the future must fix.

Some problems can’t be fixed now, and many symptoms can’t be anticipated.  Does that mean we should halt creation of our future until we have perfect information?  No. It is also unfair to people of the future to be too timid with progress, because doing so slows advances that will save lives, feed hungry, and ease poverty.

Therefore we need people with the skills to treat both symptoms and causes: we need both development and conservation as we pull our way into the future.  Students must be enticed into career paths that address both causes and symptoms.  Universities must help them make these choices obvious and support students with strong educational programs.

More importantly, however, all of us need the courage to ask the fundamental question of sustainability: With each step of progress, should we focus on fixing symptoms or causes?  As is often the case in life, asking the right question matters more than getting the right answer.  Great answers to the wrong question may feel good, but they can’t be sustained.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

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Posted on: October 15, 2010, 12:11 pm Category: Opinions Tagged with: , , ,

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