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Who decides what is good for us?

Jun 27, 2018

With the idea of stable water thrown into the tailspin of prevailing/emerging water crises, the need to define ‘safe operating space’ for humans to work within the planetary boundaries was never more compelling.

Cape Town may be the first waterless city and surely not the last, but that humans are drawing more than their geological share of water should make us shudder as things are becoming worse before getting any better. From surplus to scarcity, human interference with global water systems has turned it into an issue of security, requiring new ways of managing water in the age of the anthropocene. With the idea of stable water thrown into a tailspin, there is an urgent need to define ‘safe operating space’ for humans to work within the planetary boundaries for sustaining life and life forms.

By altering the planetary systems humans themselves have attained the status of a geological force, influencing the philosophy of water management that connects culture, geography, and economics to lose its relevance. Far from inducing equitable access to water across sectors, the global impact of the American approach to water management has triggered brazen water grab not only within the local hydrological limits but beyond regional and national boundaries too. Unless this predominant approach is questioned, argues Jeremy Schmidt, addressing inequalities that exist on a geological scale cannot be addressed.

And, there is no opportune time to question it than now as humanity’s total share of natural materials and energetic throughput accelerates at a phenomenal pace. While it is agreed that dividing humans from nature may not help in understanding its impact on natural processes, a failed attempt to reject the society/nature dualism in the past had engineered oppressive logic which enhanced the prospects of meeting certain ends rather than others. The book asks: how do contradictions over water, such as those over the right to water, gain civil status?

The trouble with single planetary story on water, triggered by a techno-centric philosophy of water management, is that while it does not deny that alternatives exist but simply posits that we should do without them. Instead, Schmidt presents three philosophical concerns to counter it: first, water resources should be managed without privileging any particular cultural understanding; second, acknowledge different social relations that take shape around different water use practices; and third, appreciate the different symbolic ends that others may hold as intrinsically meaningful.

These three concerns – over subjects, social relations, and symbolic goods – could be critical entry points into initiating a new discourse on water management, as the paradigm of ‘making things public’ is inadequate since it fails to see that water problems are the outcome of a failed 19th century solution associated with the society/nature dualism. Although this argument may seem troublesome to emerging social entrepreneurship around water, the basic contention here is to ask what questions arise for modernity as the result of water management practices instead of thinking about water through a theory of modernity.

Relying on volumes of historical sources, the book attempts to bridge an understanding on engineering solutions relate to the social ideas that informed them. As we are now part of an ‘unfolding water drama’, there is a great deal required to depart from the previous ways into new ways of managing water in the anthropocene. The challenge, however, for the global water governance is that it does not substantively depart from the philosophy that gave rise to the problems it seeks to solve. Schmidt does not offer any solution, but attempts to implicate ideas widely held in water management that have contributed to unequal water relations.

Making a strong case for re imagining water management, Schmidt refuses to think of water as only a resource because it lends credence to the surplus-scarce-security trilogy that reinforces structures of thought leading to a single planetary story regarding risks to people, the planet, and the economy. And such a story, far from generating empathy, offers further justifications for the existing approach to water management. Such an approach fosters unequal practices (of access, allocation, and pricing) that favor one cultural understanding of water over others.

Schmidt questions the existing philosophy of water that had rejected older ideas as too metaphysical or too far down the evolutionary ladder of social development. However, the chosen philosophy was not without its own mythical elements. Did it not claim that the idea of liberal forms of life was uniquely equipped to manage water within vast array of social and economic demands? The end result of this philosophy is that water which was once abundant is now scarce.  If water continues to be managed the way it is, majority of our rivers will only be carrying treated waste water, if at all.

The book offers refreshing new historical and philosophical insights to address water, which remains ever restless in this new geological era, and the choice to continue pursuing it as only a resource may offer limited resolution to the magnitude of the problem at hand.

This book review has been sourced from Sudhirendar Sharma's blog Cover Drive.

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