39 comments on “Wat-er Mess (or, Why Society is Once Again Seriously Screwed)

  1. Interesting post. Living here in New England, water management has more to do with flood control and minimizing usage, so it[‘s a little hard to picture even though I know intellectually that such issues exist elsewhere. The closest I ever came would be sea showers on board my ship in the USCG.

    Ethanol is a real issue, and not just because of the rain forest destruction. It is also siphoning off productive food lands and crops exacerbating the increases in food costs due to skyrocketing fuel prices. Coupled to the amount of fossil fuel used in it’s total production, one has to wonder if it’s really worth it? My instinct is no.

    The graph is fastening, but I would be very interested in seeing how they arrived at their statistics. Some just seem a bit screwed. For instance, why does it take less water to produce a kg of tea compared to a kg of coffee? A kg of beer uses even less, but a kg of apples more? Not saying it’s wrong, just that it’s not making a lot of sense to me.

    • Thanks for your comment mate, and for expanding some of the issues with Ethanol- I fully agree with you and you raise good points.

      Regarding the graph, I agree, I’d love to know how they reached their statistics. However I have a feeling the water audit looks into water usage at every stage of the process; how much water the plants need to grow, what is involved in the processing of the product, possibly even tracing things as far back as the water required to produce some of the contributing functions. The difference between tea and coffee would be on two levels, I imagine. First would be the differing amounts of water required to keep the plants healthy and growing (coffee is producing a bean, which takes significantly more energy- and therefore water- than tea, which is just producing a leaf). Secondly would be in the processing. Tea is dried as leaves- a relatively passive process requiring less techncial and industrial inputs- while coffee is roasted in big ovens, which need to be manufactured and powered- both at an environmental cost (including water usage). In addition, it’s not clear whether the graph is referring to the production of coffee beans, ground coffee, or instant coffee, the latter two of which have additional processing costs associated with them, such as (in the case of instant coffee) presumably a consolidation and dehydration stage.

      Complex to say the least!

      Like I say, society’s in trouble. We need to go back to plucking berries. 😛

  2. Great post. Thank you. Did you happen to see this month’s issue of National Geographic? It was entirely dedicated (every article) to the global water crisis from many different angles and resonated with a lot of what you said. Curious what you might think of desalination? Many of the simultaneously wealthy and water-poor countries (Saudi Arabia, for example) are turning to this as a solution. I’m skeptical of it’s potential as a “silver bullet” solution, primarily because of cost (the poor of the world will once again get left in the dust–literally) and because of the brackish by-product, which increases the salinity of what’s left behind. But many people justify their own lack of conservation and sustainability practices based on the fact that the oceans represent an unlimited supply, which saddens me. It also betrays a lack of concern for the world’s most poor and vulnerable.

    • Hah! Thanks Clay. You’ve hit on one of my bugbears. Desalinization is, in my humble opinion, robbing Peter to pay Paul. As you point out, the byproducts of desalinization have nasty impacts for the local environment; imagine doing it on a large scale. As you say, it’s a solution for the rich elite (watch your water bill skyrocket). More to the point, it takes HUGE amounts of energy. Heating water is an energetic process.

      Here in Australia it’s being touted as a solution… and to deal with the energy drain, they’re suggesting… ta-da… building a whole bunch of nuclear power plants. Awesome! That’s just what the world needs!

      *shakes head sadly*

      Unless we change consumption habits, we’re stuffed. The problem is, people don’t want to change their lifestyle- some out of selfishness, some out of ignorance. And politicians don’t have the guts to push the issues. They’re too concerned about our (flawed) four-year re-election cycle.

      By the way, no I didn’t see the NatGeo issue. I’ll have to look it up.

      Thanks for your engaging feedback!

  3. Clean fresh water makes up very little of our water.
    We should conserve it but should doesn’t mean we do.

    Help lower your water usage by changing how you use it.
    Perhaps installing water efficient taps etc.


    • Good advice- and a great handle too- Remain Simple is a fantastic motto for life. The more we can avoid unnecessary consumption (of resources of all kinds), the lower our negative impact on the planet will be. It comes down to choices. And as you say, the more we keep things simple, the better impact those choices will have.

  4. Great post filled with thought provoking ideas. The coffee and jeans examples are eye openers. It’s obvious that water is going to be a bigger issue than most people in the developed world realize.

    • The coffee and jeans examples blew my mind. As you say- a huge issue. One we need to keep thinking about. It’s not going away any time soon.

  5. Great pictures to go with the posts–cattle production is considered to be one of the worst drains on water resources, too. (I saw data saying that agriculture takes up 80% of the water supply; perhaps that’s more true in the U.S., which exports a ton of beef and corn when it’s not paying farmers to toss their crops.)

    It’s always hard to decide between the high environmental cost of, say, transporting coffee/chocolate and supporting developing sustainable economies through fair trade (I’ve seen importing food compared to importing water, too). One first step is pushing for this kind of data to be included on packaging so that we can decide more conscientiously.

    • Yup, definitely agree on the packaging front.

      The debate around fair trade and supporting 3rd world economies is an interesting one. I’ve not looked into it in great depth, but my limited understanding suggests that it’s more of a band-aid/stop-gap measure. From a free-market perspective it’s not sustainable in the long-term unless importing societies change their spending habits to be more ethical (a difficult proposition). Free market economists slam fair trade as propping up a broken and untenable system.

      On another level, the idea that we in the west need to support poor farmers in the 3rd world is actually a false one. The primary driver behind third-world poverty and the economic traps that much of the rural third world has fallen into this type of income-dependant activity is western consumerism in the first place. If resource consumption returned to being a local process rather than a global one (i.e. if Ethiopian farmers grew food, crops, etc. for Ethiopia, and not for Australia) then for the most part, the level of exploitation we currently see would vastly diminish and a much greater balance would exist.

      I’m not saying there aren’t other problems that would arise from this. I’m only suggesting that fair trade in itself is not really a solution, just something that stems a bit of the bleeding from what is clearly an arterial wound.

  6. Interesting. Now I am truly convinced; “If’s its liquid, let it mellow (unless it’s really yellow), if its brown, flush it down (immediately).”

  7. Wow. Thanks for opening my eyes. Of course, I’ve been long aware and troubled by the fact that to live, it seems we must destroy. The point is to give back an equal or greater amount. Your passion and effort to quell your personal use of resources is impressive. I suspect you give back so much more though by raising others’ awareness of everyday items whose origins we don’t typically question. Thank you again, for challenging me to live a more conscious life.

    • Thanks for your kind words and encouragement Holly. I hope that what I do give back does in some way mitigate the resources I know I consume. Certainly, the more I learn the more I want to try and restrict what I take. What a complex balance to strike! All the best with your journey too.

  8. Thanks for writing this. I had a huge rant going and decided to reevaluate what I had going on. Here’s some Ideas I think people should think about on this topic:
    Composting – as in, check out ‘The Humanure Handbook’
    Polluting water VS. using it. – because of the way most cities set up their water, sewage and shower water all get mixed together and then farther up and down stream corporations pollute it. Using water is not the same as polluting it but because of antiquated systems… it is. Also, as much as ‘lifestyle activism’ (recycling, buying ‘better’ products, showering less) is helpful, unless we world wide and collectively make the big polluters accountable, they will continue to do it, and ‘consumer’ activism won’t really help. . .
    Looking at places like California, in the U.S. that have cut down forests and developed to all hell and are now suffering the consequences in landslides and forest fires, and thinking about how, as a species we have deforested and created deserts by our actions and don’t seem to be too compelled to learn from that. . . or at least not let that learning get in the way of capital.

  9. These are gorgeous photos … AMAZING!
    and I even learned something in between the vibrant colors and sharp outlines and vibrant skies.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks for your kind and enthusiastic response Mimi. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed and thanks for dropping by.

  10. Good write up on the things we are findinghidn osts in being green. Being green isimortant, but we have to do what we can to also make green affordable.

    • Thanks Andrea. As you say, hidden costs are everywhere. Although as an erstwhile dabbler in environmental economics, I have to disagree that we need to find ways to make green more affordable. ‘Cheap’ green generally means that real costs are being hidden. The products we buy should (in an ideal and theoretical world) reflect the full cost (environmental included) of that product- which means that, just like Fair Trade is more expensive as it tries to capture the ethical cost of our consumerism, so too environmentally friendly products will by default increase in price. If true environmental costs were incorporated into our products then the only way to ‘save money’ would be to buy those things with a more limited environmental impact. But because our products almost universally exclude the true environmental cost of their production, this would mean that they would still be almost universally more expensive than they currently are. The reality is, if we want to be environmentally equitable stewards of our resources, we in the west will either need to make massive concessions regarding our consumeristic lifestyle, or start paying through the nose to maintain our up-till-now very cheap standard of living (recognizing that it’s discounting the bulk of the environmental cost).

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting! 🙂

  11. Here is the English version of a brief article I recently uploaded to my blog, “Interlingua multilingue”:

    There is no solution to climate change, warns a British academic.

    “It’s too late to save the planet.” This is the conclusion of Professor James Lovelock, the ninety-year-old British scientist who developed the Gaia Hypothesis, a theory which suggests that the biosphere of the earth is a complicated system whose components interact to maintain a balance, which, for thousands of years has helped the human species but is now turning against us.

    “We are not morally guilty of causing these changes because we had no deliberate plans to warm the world,” said Lovelock. “But as a result of building our civilizations, we have started changes that threaten our existence in the near future.”

    As for the geoengineering solutions that many propose to curb global warming, Lovelock remains skeptical. Attempts to save the planet, according to Lovelock, simply make no sense because we are not smart enough to find remedies for this situation. The best we can do is enjoy life while we can. Life on earth will adapt to the changing conditions in the biosphere, but in time we will probably no longer be a part of it.

    • Thanks for this interesting summary Harleigh. While I’m not a huge fan of the Gaia hypothesis (namely, the aspects of it that try to assign Gaia with some sort of personality or will), I do think it has a lot of merit as far as recognizing the earth as being made up of a series of highly complex systems which interrelate to one another in an effort to maintain certain balances and parameters. I am a big believer in the resilience of the global systems and certainly believe that if humans were to annihilate themselves, that the earth would redress any imbalances over time and flourish once again. However I’m also something of a realistic optimist and am a big believer in the human capacity for ingenuity and survival in the face of harshness, and would disagree with Lovelock’s assertion that we as a species are doomed to be wiped out by the planet.

      That said, I believe that the process by which humanity (and not necessarily society or ‘civilization’) would survive would come at a terrible cost, and would most likely be the realm of the highly privileged (those in the west who have sufficient resources to prepare and protect themselves). The journey to that place would come at the cost of hundreds of millions- even billions- of lives lost to the loss of water resources, to famine, to disease spread, and to the conflicts that would arise over resource scarcity. I’d rather that didn’t happen, but I certainly think that as things currently sit, we’ve got ourselves on a track that could lead in that direction in the forseeable future- probably starting within our lifetime.

      I’d rather that didn’t happen, as the level of human suffering would be very high. I do believe that global society has the potential to manage itself out of this situation, or at least muddle through a scenario not as bad as the one painted about. However the sooner the world shapes up and does something about it, the lower that human cost is going to be. Sadly, history suggests that drastic measures are rarely taken until things are already well into a critical zone.

      Thanks for your contribution to this discussion- it is most appreciated.

  12. Nobody, in any way, can discount this Wat-er Mess.

    To make it far worse, 200,000 extra people are added to the Earth every day, and already there is not enough fresh water to go around.
    Probably, that is the reason nature designed for wars, mainly because humans are too stupid to quantify a finite Earth.

    • Thanks for your note Colin. I think the issue is not that there isn’t enough water to go round. On the contrary, there’s plenty to go around- but not to maintain the sort of lifestyle that we lead in wealthy western countries. To sustain comfortable life? Plenty, sure. But we need to re-qualify what our benchmark is for ‘standard of living’- and get away from the notion of that meaning “I can buy/eat/use/consume whatever resources I feel like today, just because I have the money”. For sure, if that’s our attitude, then there’s not enough water to go around.

  13. A thought provoking article, but please let me offer a note of optimism. Contrary to the pessimistic assertion (repeating a widely propagated myth) that we need chemical agriculture to feed the world, holistic, highly integrated ecological agriculture systems are highly water efficient, and much more space efficient than industrial monocultures. A holistic systems approach to community organisation, agriculture and resource distribution can get us out of the current entropic mess of competition, self interest, hierarchy, conflict etc – stronger and wiser for the struggle.

    • Thanks for your comment Joel- an intelligent, moderate and thought-provoking reminder, well overdue on what is admittedly an occasionally morosely-oriented set of messaging. Indeed there are alternative ways to doing things that can produce viable results- I’ll try and pen more in response to this tomorrow when it’s not late at night, but I would be very interested if you could share some links to articles giving an overview of the techniques you describe. I have colleagues who work in permaculture- in developed countries and in developing ones- and they are very passionate about their field and its potential to provide environmentally sound solutions to some of the problems discussed here. Cheers.

  14. A very interesting and thought provoking post, and one that makes me look forward even more to returning to living on our boat – though how long we will be able to do that, how long before more intense and more frequent storms affect that we do not know. Life on our boat is simple, we use much less water (and power) than when we are on land, and mostly buy only what we need since space is an issue. One solution we use is a composting head – no water needed for flushing – and from time to time I wonder why the use of composting heads is not encouraged on land. Particularly when we visit a water starved island – with flush toilets and a laundromat – but also here in North America and other ‘developed’ countries where even when water quantity is not understood to be an issue, water quality is. There are many trade-offs in our lifestyle as well, mainly in the maintenance and upkeep or our fibreglass boat, but also in provisioning in far away places where local foods are scarce and imported food more easily available (and much more expensive). I could go on, but I won’t – I’d just like to say thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts about this very important subject, and for your beautiful photos.

    • Hi Margaret and thanks for dropping by and leaving a note. I am envious- the thought of living on a boat, and living simply, has a huge draw. A friend of mine from high school lives on a boat with her husband in Santa Barbara, and while I recognize some of the challenges you raise, it does sound like a fantastic alternative to the mess that is modern living. I hear you on the islands issue. I spent a year (2008) living in Papua New Guinea, where most goods for sale were brought in from overseas (mostly Australia) and resold at exorbitant prices (and frequently out of date too). We lived off the local vegetable market for the most part, which was wonderful, but had to succumb to the imports periodically, and it hurt both wallet and conscience. I also agree with your observation about composting toilets. Our sewerage networks are anachronistic and we’re overdue for a change! Thanks for your thoughts. 🙂

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  18. Hi, nice post! I really like your post about environment.

    My favorite part is “I have always been sceptical. For example, it’s all very well if I restrict my water usage, or even if all households in Melbourne restrict their usage and cut back, but what sort of a difference do we make when there’s no evident transparency around the amount of water going into, say, agricultural irrigation schemes, or industrial production. ”

    I always feel the same way too. But we have to start it with ourselves, right?

    Keep the good work!

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