November 24, 2018

What Can Water Ethics Do for Climate Change?



The biggest priority for any thinking human has got to be climate change because that is the existential threat to the very survival of our species.  Which brings me to the uncomfortable question about water ethics.  Is water ethics too refined an issue to worry about when there are more important challenges, like the oil industry hell-bent on profiting from the destruction of our planet?  Is water ethics just another form of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, as we head towards the iceberg?

It's true that water is not everything; there is more to life than water.  But water is clearly connected to everything; it is the basis for life.  Ethics is also not everything, but like water, ethics is connected to everything we do.  How do the ways we use water and the ways we apply ethics make any difference in limiting the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere?  Is Exxon-Mobil going to pollute the world any less because of our adherence to ethical water principles?

There is a famous quote by John Muir, one of the 19th Century founders of environmentalism, that if we tug at one small piece of nature "we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe".  It's certainly true for water, and it's also true of ethics.  The lessons we learn from applying an ethics perspective to the way we use water, can help us tug at the existential threat of climate change.

How?  The oil industry uses lots of water directly and contaminates vast aquifers in the process of fracking, drilling, and transporting oil and gas through pipelines prone to leakage.  These are huge water management issues made visible in protests by American Indian tribes and environmentalists at Standing Rock last year, and in similar protests around the world.  The oil industry is a huge threat to scarce water supplies.  That's the water issue.

But ethics helps us see further connections between water and climate change.  Pumping oil out of the ground so it can be burned is a guarantee that climate change will get worse.  Ethics reveals the oil industry's activities as not just a water problem, but a climate problem. 

Either reason on its own is already pretty impressive:  Why pollute scarce groundwater through fracking when there are renewable sources of energy available?   But adding climate ethics to the water ethics makes the case for renewable energy even more of a no-brainer.  

Should we be pumping oil and gas out of the ground?  No for reasons of water, and No for reasons of climate.  There is an ethical synergy between the ethics of water and the ethics of climate.  By applying ethics to water, and becoming aware of the ethics of everything water touches, we can -- and we'd better -- address the ethics of cooking our planet.  Water ethics is not a distraction; it's part of the solution!

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