The Conservation Chronicles — No. 1, The BIG Picture

Let’s start with the BIG PICTURE. But to get to it, we are going to look at a little picture, a specific situation. There has been much made in some circles about a request for a well permit in Rollingwood to produce 1 MILLION gallons per year of water to irrigate ornamental gardens on the owner’s property. It is surmised their aim is to avoid usage restrictions imposed by their water supplier, and also the high cost of obtaining water through other means.

Doing the math, noting this is reported to be a two-person household, we see this works out to a year-round average water use of 1,370 gallons/person/day. Add in an estimate for interior water use and the total average day water use by this household would be over 1,400 gallons/day. Contrast that with the figure set forth by the Texas Water Development Board as a target city-wide average usage – 140 gallons/person/day. A TEN-FOLD increase in average day demand. And of course the peak day use would be considerably in excess of this.

It doesn’t take a seer to realize that this sort of behavior could not be widely emulated, or else the local/regional water economy would go hugely into deficit – in short, this is not sustainable. So why then would these persons even suggest they be permitted to do this? Some in the commenting community have suggested that they are “spoiled a$$holes” and the like. But the truth is that they are really just like most of us. They WANT what they want – in their case, it is a “vanity” garden – and feel that if they have the fiscal wherewithal to get it and they can legally assert their desire, then they will try. And they will expect to prevail.

They have chosen to engage in unsustainable behavior because that is the path to something they WANT. They appear not to take into account the impact of their actions on the rest of society, not just today, but on the next generation and the ones after that. In short, they lack a water ethic. This is an understanding that, while human laws may confer upon water the status of product, commodity, property, it is undeniable that water is life, so unless you have a very cold Darwinian view of how human society “should” function, you must concede that an inherent characteristic of water is that it is also “the commons” – a resource that must be shared by all.

Yet even in severe drought, the “Rollingwood Two” hold their desires paramount, believing they have a right to consume large amounts of water because they CAN, and so reject a water ethic, and sustainability as a guiding principle. But they are far from alone in that. Like I said, they are pretty much like most of us – we WANT what we value. They value their garden. We all have our “garden”.

Indeed, most of society lacks a water ethic, and so acts in a similar manner. The question of whether to invest in Water Treatment Plant #4 or to invest in deep conservation highlights the local situation in that regard. The Water Utility leaders, and some of the City’s political leadership as well, appear to act as if they believe nature is a bottomless pit of resources – they WANT that water supply capacity and they don’t CARE whether or not that pathway is sustainable. This is the stock, the standard, the cookie-cutter solution for the here and now. They are not looking forward, as Native American wisdom asserts we must, seven generations. They are looking, at most, maybe a half generation ahead.

Such is the hubris of this generation. It’s there, we CAN consume it, let’s DO consume it. Because we WANT it. But these people are just acting as this society has trained them to act.

Sure, I expect they would concede that there really is a limit to the amount of water we can consume; they just don’t think this particular project runs up against it. But doesn’t that really beg the question – If that pathway is indeed not sustainable over the long term, then at what point do we start trying to figure out how to diverge from it, and move onto more sustainable pathways? When do we start to look to deep conservation measures to circumvent the need for an ever-expanding water supply, and do so on an apples-to-apples basis with actions like WTP#4, that simply further exploit a limited resource? We may indeed WANT it, despite knowing the dead-end nature of that pursuit, but do we really NEED it?

This is the very sort of question which is at the heart of the human dilemma here in the 21st century, when all of the planetary ecological systems are in decline. This unwillingness to take sustainability into account in determining how we act and live is considered by many to be a disease of the human mind, a fatal narcissism, that if not cured will lead to the demise of the current planetary civilization, exactly because we do not act to sustain its ecological underpinnings. Water is one small, though critical, part of that larger problem.

But rather than proselytize on this myself, what the problem is, what we need to do about it, I borrow from a chorus of other voices, who perhaps may be deemed to bring an ethos to these viewpoints that I lack.*

Our biosphere is sick. We have a planet that is behaving like an infected organism. … The problem is not a problem of technology, the problem is not a problem of too much carbon dioxide, the problem is not a problem of global warming, the problem is not a problem of waste. All of those things are symptoms of the problem. The problem is the way that we are thinking. The problem is fundamentally a cultural problem. It’s at the level of our culture that this illness is happening. … We do have technology. The question is, how can we use our understanding of science and our understanding of technology along with our understanding of culture and how culture changes to create a culture that will interact with science and with the world around us in a sustainable fashion.
– Thom Hartmann, Author, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight

The value is the healing power that comes from getting that it’s not just global warming, it’s not just fossil fuel dependency, it’s not just soil erosion, it’s not just chemical contamination of our land and water, it’s not just the population problem, and it’s not just ALL of those. The deterioration of the environment of our planet is the outward mirror of an inner condition. Like inside, like outside. And that’s a part of the great work.
– Wes Jackson, President, The Land Institute

So where we are now as a civilization is … consumerism is the leading ideology .… Once commodities become cultural symbols … there’s no stopping that. You have to change the object of desire in order to get to the root of the problem. … You have to change the idea behind limitless expansion. In a phrase, from well-having to well-being. It’s a cultural transformation. … I think we have to reintroduce an old term, from before the industrial revolution – frugality. Frugality does not mean poverty, frugality means the wise use of resources.
– Nathan Gardels, Editor, New Perspectives Quarterly

What we risk is the destruction of civilization. Everything we’ve fought for, this fragile little craft that’s navigated the centuries and the millennia to come to this particular point. It will have been undone in a flash of consumption and bad judgments and violence and injustice. … These are not technical issues nearly as much as they are leadership issues. How much time do we have? Well, not much. By my reckoning, we ought to be about the business as rapidly as possible. And this means everybody, every citizen, every government level, every organization, every corporation, this is all hands on deck time. So that in the future, 500 years out let’s say, the people look back at this time, that this was our finest hour. The humans of that time, in that generation, all across the planet began to come together in a very different vision.
– David Orr, Chair, Environmental Studies Program, Oberlin College

There isn’t one single thing that we make or system that we have that doesn’t require a complete remake. There’s two ways of looking at that. One is oh my gosh, what a big burden! The other is what a great time to be born, what a great time to be alive, because this generation gets to essentially completely change this world. … There are on earth today over one million environmental and social justice and indigenous organizations at present. It is the fastest growing movement on earth. And you’re starting to see them pull together and close the loops and plug the leaks of energy, water, food and finance … to re-imagine what it means to be a human being in the 21st century when every living system is in decline, and learning how to reverse that.
– Paul Hawken, Author, Environmentalist, Entrepreneur

We have to imagine what it would be like to redesign design itself, and see design as the first signal of human intention, and realize that we need new intentions for our future where materials are seen as things that are highly valuable and need to go in closed cycles – what we call cradle to cradle – instead of cradle to grave, and that energy needs to come from renewable sources, principally the sun, and that water needs to be clean and healthy as it comes in and out of the system, and that we have to treat each other with justice and fairness.
– William McDonough, Architect, William McDonough & Partners

Whether we’re talking about the design of a factory, or a building, or a road, or even a town, it’s much easier to design in isolation and superimpose a design ON what exists. But if we were to follow nature’s operating instructions, it designs in exactly the opposite way. … For example if we combined our housing and our waste treatment and our food production and our energy generation, all integrated, single, whole systems, we can live beautifully on the planet with one-tenth or less of the resources that our current civilization uses.
– John Todd, Ecological Designer

Our project today, for a new generation of designers, is the welfare of all of life as a practical objective. It goes beyond ourselves to include the entire ecological realm, that all of life is actually a design project today. We have to design the capacity to sustain it in the long run. … It’s almost as if we had distributed an ambition without ever having written it down so that people all over the world knew what they ought to be working on, and were working on it in their own way, knowing that they only had one pixel in this incredible mosaic of an image of a future, and that they could contribute that pixel to that mosaic knowing that, in the end, that incredibly beautiful image was a sustainable future.
– Bruce Mau, Creative Director, Bruce Mau Designs

Deriving, fostering and implementing a sustainable water resources management system in this community is our “pixel”, the little bit of that much larger problem that we will address here. In these chronicles, we will review the means by which that vision might be realized, the means by which we can “live beautifully on the planet” while consuming far less of that precious, limited water resource.

*These quotations were transcribed from “The 11th Hour”, a documentary on the global ecological crisis.

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