Gaius Publius: One Way to Ease the Worldwide Water Crisis — End Privatization

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.

Water is literally the stuff of life for living beings. All life began as single-celled organisms floating in water. In their earliest and simplest form, living things are organized bags of water capable of reproduction, whose “inside” water is held together by a permeable or semi-permeable membrane (“sack” or “skin”) through which nutrients borne by the “outside” water (the environment) pass in, and through which waste passes out.

The simplest organisms live like that today. Bags of water, floating in water, taking what they need from water, passing what they don’t need back to water.

What one organism doesn’t need, another does. Water is the soup, each life takes from other lives via the medium. Without water the planet is barren, a Moon, a Pluto.

Later, living things developed mouths — so much for the peaceful passing of nutrients through the outer membrane — and skin and shells. With skin and shells, the inner water could be retained even in non-water environments. With mouths, the nutrients didn’t need to be water-borne. To sustain itself, a being could simply ingest the nutrients and water in other “sacks of water” by ingesting the sacks themselves. So armed, life would eventually roam and inhabit the non-watery parts of the world.

But the basis of our life starts with our ability to contain and maintain our inner water environment. We began in water. We must remain in water — retain and maintain our inner water — or we die. In the physical world, water is the god that gave us birth and keeps us living.

So why, in a drought, are we allowing water to be ring-fenced by the few, “appropriately priced,” marketed and sold back to us by the only people capable of buying it in quantity? Or does “promote the general welfare” have no meaning?

I want to explore two aspects of the water discussion here. First, the drought itself — it’s not ending anytime soon. Second, the way to end one of the great squeezes on our remaining water supply — end the death grip of privatizers.

The Bad News for Western Drought: ‘Monster’ Hot El Nino on the Way

This report is from western Canada, but it applies to the western U.S. as well, especially California and the Southwest (my emphasis throughout):

In the dead of a Prairie winter, when cars won’t start and exposed skin freezes in 30 seconds, people pray for a searing hot summer. But across Western Canada this season, many may be recalling the old adage, “be careful what you wish for” as forest fires, drought and pestilence invite biblical comparisons.

More worrisome, though, than the sight of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia wilting under 30 degree [Celsius; 86°F] temperatures in June and July — and rationing scarce water supplies in some areas — is that this might just be the start of an even bigger problem.

Many meteorologists are chalking up today’s weird and wacky weather in the West to the fact that this is an El Nino year, referring to the cyclical Pacific Ocean phenomenon that disrupts global weather patterns.

The problem with that, according to Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips: “It’s not even arrived in Canada yet.”

We don’t see the effects of El Nino until late fall, winter and early spring,” he says.

What that likely means is at least three more consecutive seasons of warmer, drier weather when farmers are already, quite literally, tapped out in the moisture department.

As for what that could mean for drought conditions next summer and beyond, Phillips says it’s “not looking good.”

So the drought will likely continue through next year at least. Again, not good. “Game over” for ranchers:

Canada’s Prairies have just experienced their driest winter and spring in 68 years of record keeping. “So they were behind the eight-ball before the summer season ever came,” says Phillips.

That, coupled with a record low snow pack in North America, and few of the traditional June rains needed to grow crops, has had a cumulative effect that’s hit some producers harder than others.

Says Phillips: “For ranchers it’s pretty much game over.”

The tinder dry land has kept pastures for grazing cattle from turning green and producing feed, forcing cattle ranchers to sell down their herds or ship the animals around looking for alternative feed sources.

And farmers:

Our cereal fields, our oats, our wheat, our barley essentially baked in the field,” says Garett Broadbent, agricultural services director for Alberta’s Leduc County, just south of Edmonton.

The municipality voted unanimously this week to declare a local state of agricultural disaster as soil moisture and crop conditions continue to decline to the worst levels in half a century.

And here’s a NOAA scientist saying that there is a trend, and it will continue “as long as greenhouse gas levels continue to rise year after year”:

NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden says, in addition to the dwindling snow pack, “glaciers are melting, sea ice is melting, sea levels reached record highs last year, the ocean heat was record high last year, sea surface temperatures were record highs last year, so you put it all together and there’s a definite trend.”

It’s a trend Blunden expects to continue into 2015 and beyond as long as, she says, greenhouse gas levels continue to rise year after year.

I’m feeling more than a little confirmed for disagreeing with other NOAA scientists quoted in the ProPublica Colorado River report. It’s going to take at least a decade or more of better-than-normal rain and snowfall to bring us back to where we were before the drought began.

“We have 15 years to avert a full-blown water crisis; by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent”

There’s also an excellent piece in The Nation that gets to this issue, but also offers solutions. First, the drought analysis. The writer is Maude Barlow:

The California Drought Is Just the Beginning of Our National Water Emergency

For years, Americans dismissed dire water shortages as a problem of the Global South. Now the crisis is coming home.

The United Nations reports that we have 15 years to avert a full-blown water crisis and that, by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent. Five hundred renowned scientists brought together by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that our collective abuse of water has caused the earth to enter a “new geologic age,” a “planetary transformation” akin to the retreat of the glaciers more than 11,000 years ago. Already, they reported, a majority of the world’s population lives within a 30-mile radius of water sources that are badly stressed or running out.

For a long time, we in the Global North, especially North America and Europe, have seen the growing water crisis as an issue of the Global South. Certainly, the grim UN statistics on those without access to water and sanitation have referred mostly to poor countries in Africa, Latin America, and large parts of Asia. Heartbreaking images of children dying of waterborne disease have always seemed to come from the slums of Nairobi, Kolkata, or La Paz. Similarly, the worst stories of water pollution and shortages have originated in the densely populated areas of the South.

But as this issue of The Nation shows us, the global water crisis is just that—global—in every sense of the word. A deadly combination of growing inequality, climate change, rising water prices, and mismanagement of water sources in the North has suddenly put the world on a more even footing.

There is now a Third World in the First World. Growing poverty in rich countries has created an underclass that cannot pay rising water rates. As reported by Circle of Blue, the price of water in 30 major US cities is rising faster than most other household staples—41 percent since 2010, with no end in sight. As a result, increasing numbers cannot pay their water bills, and cutoffs are growing across the country. Inner-city Detroit reminds me more of the slums of Bogotá than the North American cities of my childhood.

Historic poverty and unemployment in Europe have also put millions at risk. Caught between unaffordable rising water rates and the imposition of European-wide austerity measures, thousands of families in Spain, Portugal, and Greece have had their water service cut off. An employee of the water utility Veolia Eau was fired for refusing to cut supplies to 1,000 families in Avignon, France.

As in the Global South, the trend of privatizing water services has placed an added burden on the poor of the North. Food and Water Watch and other organizations have clearly documented that the rates for water and sewer services rise dramatically with privatization. Unlike government water agencies, corporate-run water services must make a profit for their involvement.

Talk about heartless — “An employee of the water utility Veolia Eau [“Veolia Water”] was fired for refusing to cut supplies to 1,000 families in Avignon, France.” Veolia is the largest privatized water company in the world according to this list.

World’s ten largest privatized-water companies (source; referenced here; click to enlarge)

Veolia had $50 billion in revenue in 2009. No doubt they’ve grown since then. The writer clearly notices that this is predatory behavior. (In fact, it’s behavior that kills for profit, so we’re in psychological territory here. If Veolia were human, they’d be diagnosed as psychopathic and put away forever.)

The story of over-stressed water resources is the same everywhere in the world. Barlow discusses China (“more than half the rivers in China have disappeared since 1990”), Africa, Brazil and ends in the U.S.:

The story repeats itself in the North. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the Ogallala Aquifer is so overburdened that it “is going to run out…beyond reasonable argument.” The use of bore-well technology to draw precious groundwater for the production of water-intensive corn ethanol is a large part of this story. For decades, California has massively engineered its water systems through pipelines, canals, and aqueducts so that a small number of powerful farmers in places like the Central Valley can produce water-intensive crops for export. Over-extraction is also putting huge pressure on the Great Lakes, whose receding shorelines tell the story.

I’ll say now there will be no “Chinese Century” or “American Century” or “Basque Century,” for that matter. A century of chaos is coming if we don’t get a grip and end carbon emissions fast. (I’ve been told by renewable-energy industry professionals that the only barrier to fully transforming the U.S. to renewables in ten years is political — we have the money and the physical and technical ability. We just have to want to use them.)

A critical-mass cry to do that — end emissions fast — could be coming, by the way, as the climate screws turn tighter and tighter. What governments do when that cry comes will determine how we fare as a species. Will governments remain wealth-captured, or will they take up the cause of the people they claim to represent?

The Growing Water Justice Movement

In that vein, Barlow writes the following:

There is some good news along with these distressing reports. An organized international movement has come together to fight for water justice, both globally and at the grassroots level. It has fought fiercely against privatization, with extraordinary results: Europe’s Transnational Institute reports that in the last 15 years, 235 municipalities in 37 countries have brought their water services back under public control after having tried various forms of privatization. In the United States alone, activists have reversed 58 water-privatization schemes.

This movement has also successfully fought for UN recognition that water and sanitation are human rights. The General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing these rights on July 28, 2010, and the Human Rights Council adopted a further resolution outlining the obligations of governments two months later.

Working with communities in the Global South, where water tables are being destroyed to provide boutique water for export, North American water-justice activists have set up bottled-water-free campuses across the United States and Canada. They have also joined hands to fight water-destructive industries such as fracking here and open-pit mining in Latin America and Africa.

And the global goal:

Water must be much more equitably shared, and governments must guarantee access by making it a public service provided on a not-for-profit basis. The human right to water must become a reality everywhere. Likewise, water plunder must end: Governments need to stand up to the powerful industries, private interests, and bad practices destroying water all over the world. Water everywhere must be declared a public trust, to be protected and managed for the public good. This includes placing priorities on access to limited supplies, especially groundwater, and banning private industry from owning or controlling it. Water, in short, must be recognized as the common heritage of humanity and of future generations.

Saying it should be so doesn’t make it so, Captain Picard to the contrary. But an organized force pushing back against the “plunder” is both needed and welcome.

Pickpockets on board the Titanic; they would be comic if death-for-dollars weren’t part of the plan. 

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  1. ramesh

    Hm… I wonder where India stands on this issue of water considering it is expected to have the biggest population in the coming years. Can you please recommend a good place to start researching?

    1. Vatch

      Start with the glaciers of Tibet and the Himalayas. Many of the rivers of India, South East Asia, and China are supplied by those glaciers, which are shrinking. It will probably take many decades for the glaciers to dry up, but it is happening. Ironically, the meltwaters create glacial lakes, which temporarily increase the risk of flooding.

  2. Foppe

    A brief comment: the likelihood of this happening while 99% of the population consumes animal products is pretty close to zero. One liter of milk requires on the order of 1000 liters of water to produce (to produce the feed + water drunk by the cows). 1 kg of beef requires on the order of 15.500 liters. 1 egg, 200 liters. (See p.12 and following here.) As such, if the cost of water goes up, the cost of animal products will skyrocket. So long as people view animal products as something they “must” have access to (for whatever reason), the animal ag lobby will be able to keep this from happening, because they will be able to convince the pols that this will lead to food riots.

    1. Sam Adams

      Meat and animal products are essential to human life. Absent constant vigilance humans get ill and die. One primary example being the B12 most people get from meat. We can reduce consumption but not eliminate it.

      1. rusti

        We can reduce consumption but not eliminate it.

        In the Western World, it could drop by literally an order of magnitude and I suspect it would be a net positive for public health. It wasn’t until I started eating meat just a few times per month that I realized that the quality and quantity of meat that I ate before (with a fairly typical Northern European diet) were repulsive.

        1. Vatch

          This is a good suggestion. We aren’t faced with a stark choice between eating meat three times per day and a strict vegetarian diet. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat meat every day. A diet rich in foods such as broccoli, tomatoes, blueberries, and various types of beans reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. As Foppe says, it also saves water.

          Of course, if a person is comfortable with a vegan diet, I say go for it! And I agree with Foppe about vitamin B12 supplementation.

      2. Foppe

        Sam: a whole host of institutional bodies, not the least of which being the (extremely conservative) largest North-American professional body of nutritionists and dieticians disagrees with you:

        It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.

        Yes, you will need to take b12 supplements, but given that these are also given to the food animals that everyone eats, I don’t think that it makes a great deal of sense to say that the animals people eat may take supplements but we can’t.

      3. savedbyirony

        I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 very healthy years. (Only suppliment i’ve ever taken was for iron, and that was proactively without any medical professional telling me i needed to do so.) Not a problem to get enough B12. At the very least, one can add fortified Bran cereals with milk or soy milk or yogurt to his diet, and that does fine without being very expensive (soy milk can get pricey).

        I’d recommend a vegetarian diet to anyone to try after reading up on vegetarianism and if possible talking with her doctor or a nutritionist. Veganism is tough. For one, going without a small to moderate amount of dairy products makes it difficult to replace the nutrion they supply. And the studies done on soy products so far make it look to me that people should be moderate about how much they eat of those.

          1. savedbyirony

            Calcium and protein from milk and yogurt.
            Yes, i know about leafy greens vegs as sources of calcium and eat plenty of those but especially being a female i like to err on the side of a little over rather than under or spot on when it comes to calcium, and dairy offers an addition food group to supply it in my diet (plus taking in the exercise and other behavior considerations one needs to keep in mind for healthy bones). When i experimented with a vegan diet, i found some cons i personally just didn’t like. For one, I missed the texture and taste of eating dairy products but didn’t want to add a great deal of soy based replacements. Since i don’t have that much experience with living as a vegan and only lived it for year as an experiment (the only foods i had to cut out were dairy so i figured why not try), i wouldn’t want to talk anyone out of doing so, but i personally found it more expensive, a bit monotonous so less pleasurable eating wise and perhaps less healthy for me because i would become fatigued at times and lost some weight when i didn’t need to. So i guess what i should have said was “veganism was tough for me.”

            1. Foppe

              I get that the supermarkets, and the whole discussion surrounding the importance of “protein” sort of suggests that soy is somehow ‘important’, but it really isn’t (even if the dangers are vastly overrated). That said, I only eat it (mostly tempeh, a fermented whole food soy product) twice a month, tops. So many other legumes to choose from.

              As to the calcium thing: please know that animal protein consumption has fairly nasty side effects (diabetes 2, heart disease, arthritis, among other things), which (from a health perspective) imo far outweigh any benefit when it comes to calcium absorption (consider that bone fractures actually go up in societies where they consume a lot of dairy products). If you are interested in maintaining good health while aging, I would strongly recommend you pick up McDougall’s book The Starch Solution, as that explains how a vegan diet can be both healthy and affordable. (Your energy level issues most likely derived from your eating insufficient amounts of starches.)

        1. rusti

          if possible talking with her doctor or a nutritionist.

          This certainly shouldn’t be a prerequisite though! I think the easiest thing to do is to just find some vegetarian recipes that look interesting and start cooking them. One of the tangential benefits I’ve found from switching to a low-meat diet is that I’ve taken more of an interest in finding different sources of calories and have become a much better cook as a result.

          1. savedbyirony

            Yes, that statement is overkill. In the back-of-my-mind i was thinking about all the people who have type 2 diabetes and that a vegetarian diet can work for them, but in those cases i do think they should talk with some nutritutional or medical professional if they plan to become completely vegetarian if they are able.

  3. zapster

    I realize that this may be an unpopular comment, but I think we need to think about the meat situation a bit more thoroughly. Animals process plant materials that we cannot eat–huge, massive amounts of it. They also produce something that, for me, is more valuable than gold: manure. As a wannabe organic gardener, I’m shocked to find that the stuff is actually becoming hard to get. As a kid on the farm, we had unlimited piles of it. Urine returns valuable nutrients to pastures as well. It’s not the cows, it’s the mismanagement of cows that we need to think about. We waste megatons of their most valuable output, turning it into methane in noxious lagoons when we *could* be turning it into fertile soil without generating greenhouse gases from it.

    Factory farming is monstrous for many reasons, but animals existed in much greater numbers on this earth before climate change than they do now, and I seriously doubt they were threatening the future of the planet. They are *part of the soil-building cycle.* If we eliminate them, we make restoring the soil we want to grow our plants on much slower and more difficult, and maybe even less efficient. Organisms in the soil exist just to break manure down–do we risk damaging ourselves by starving them out?

    Humans are victims of our own bright ideas a lot. What seems like a good idea on a small scale is elevated to policy, with frequently disastrous results. Taking the cows out of factory farms and redistributing them to millions of small sustainable farms would bring them back into the sustainable cycle where they belong.

    1. HotFlash

      The USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, instituted in 1980 by Congress and finally funded in 1988, has been addressing exactly this question. This video,, a talk by sustainable farmer Gabe Brown, is one of the many resources available. In the 20 odd years he has been farming he has eliminated all chemical fertilizers and pesticides and aims to eliminate the little herbicide he uses. It’s a no-till operation so fossil fuel use is low as well.

    2. Foppe

      Veganic farming (using composted plant matter, coupled with rotating crops) is perfectly possible; it’s just not something we’re used to.
      As for the rest, you’re (sadly) quite wrong. Currently, we are breeding, using and killing about 58 billion (!) land animals each year; whereas even during their heyday, there were only like 50m bison roaming the American plains. Please have look at the documentary Cowspiracy, if you want more information.

      1. susan the other

        We’ve been practicing bigger-is-better lunacy for so many decades now it’s hard to admit what morons we have been. Monolithic vertical integration is not a very organic model for any sustainable business; it’s just that it has been, until now, the most profitable one because it is so single-mindedly focused on extraction – proudly claiming it is modern productivity. Profits uber alles. If modern small farmers formed a co-op to buy a plastic recycling plant, they could recycle everything involved in their operations.

    3. dana

      What about human manure and urine as well? While it would be unwise to exploit refuse of people who fill themselves with pharmaceutical drugs [a growing portion of population in the Northern hemisphere], it should be remembered that there was a time when our feces and urine returned directly to the soil, just like any other living creature.

      As for the water issue, HUGE quantities of water are wasted via the now virtually ubiquitous toilet flush, not to mention post-flush, centralized ‘waste’ treatment centers.

      Via a quick search: “More than 4.8 billion gallons of water is flushed down toilets each day in the United States. The average American uses about 9,000 gallons of water to flush 230 gallons of waste down the toilet per year (Jensen, 1991)”. [source].

      And those figures apply to the US and to toilets, alone. Imagine total individual water consumption if one were to include showers, kitchens and watering of yards and gardens. Then add to the equation, water consumption amongst populations in the entire industrialized world, which are probably roughly equivalent to US figures = one hell of a lot of wasted fresh water.

      1. Vatch

        Typhus, cholera, and other diseases were common in the time before modern plumbing. We need to be very careful about reusing water with human waste in it.

        If insufficient water is used when flushing, pipes can become clogged.

    4. Vatch

      Are you sure that animals existed in greater numbers prior to factory farming? There were more species, of course. But nowadays, there are tens of billions of hogs, chickens, and cattle in farms world wide.

    5. TheCatSaid

      Allan Savory and The Savory Institute have a lot to say along similar lines. They’ve been successfully implementing their Holistic Management techniques over many decades on four continents. (It’s a decision-making process for managing livestock to restore grasslands even in severely desertified areas. While seemingly counter-intuitive, with the right management process the livestock become the solution rather than the cause of the problem.)

      This is NOT conventional livestock approaches like the conventional feedlots. Rather, the animals’ hooves, dung & urine are allowed to do their work in ways that mimic the impact of the vast herds of animals whose movement was predicated by the presence of predators. The health of the grassland was intimately connected to the interdependence of the vast numbers of animals, the predators, and the timing of animal movement allowing for grassland recovery.

      The Holistic Management techniques developed by Savory and others have been shown to rapidly improve soil quality and structure, biodiversity, restore native perennial grasses, with virtually no external inputs (except, rarely, in the first year).

      There’s an impressive talk at Tufts (including a marvellous Q&A) and many interviews and information on various sites.

  4. SYnoia

    Not at all: A century of chaos is coming

    A century of death is coming.

    6.5 Billion people will die. Infrastructure will collapse. Rising sea levels will eliminate 80% of sewage plants, making all coastal areas uninhabitable, and 75% of refineries unusable, eliminating both food production and transportation.

    No shelter, no food, no water.

    There is NO credible plan which could be proposed to unwind the dead end to which our intelligence has led us.

    One can foresee a period of incredible Government repression, severe martial law and summary executions, uneven and unfair allocation of resources, to control the bad news, water, food and fuel.

    Muse intelligence, and reflect on the lack of signs of intelligent life in the universe, and consider if intelligence is itself an evolutionary dead end. Intelligence flowers and dies in its own excrement.

    1. vidimi

      A century of death is coming.

      6.5 Billion people will die.

      i know you’re trying to sound alarmist, but this is, in reality, a truism. of the 7B people alive today, at least 6.5B of us will die in the next century. Some of the young ones may live past 100 to make it past 2115.

      1. Synoia

        No I’m not being alarmist. Resigned, because what plan is there that will cope with 3m of mean sea level rise? Especially in the US with it coastal focus on living, and its truly difficult interior climate.

        There is good cause man evolved in better climate that central Asia and the middle of the N American continent, and ease of living in a climate must rank highly among the causes.

        The people best equipped to survive may be those remaining hunter/gatherer societies living well above sea level.

        1. BillK

          @Synoia: If we assume the US ignores a 10 ft (this IS Amehricaah, after all–we don’t do meters here, and we don’t plan ahead) rise in sea level, then we will save a LOT of money. I just checked to see what it would take to flood the Congressional Halls, and it’s about 7m -errr, 7.7 yards or about 23 feet. We need a much bigger ice melt to make this country a better place. However, I don’t know if the EPA will allow a 10 ft rise because the San Fernando Valley river smelts will be consumed by all the new fish that will fill the valley. Dam the Pacific Inlet!!

          You need to spare yourself all the misery you feel –but not experience–by stop believing those who model the radical weather patterns such a paltry temp change will “cause”. They can’t even get the sea surface interface right, let alone the subsea currents. It’s global COOLING that will create the famine conditions you envisage for the planet.

          The BEST videos I’ve seen on this topic are by the History Channel about Northeast North America and Europe in the period 1000-early 1800’s, documenting the effect of the Little Ice Age of 1300-1800 (roughly), fostered by a quiet sun including the Maunder Minimum, and / or a shutdown of the Gulf Stream caused by the global warm period around 1000, or a succession of really awesome volcanic eruptions over the course of the late 11th century.

          The videos begin from a green Greenland and vineyards in England in the warmer centuries before the Big Chill’s onset in the 1300s, leading to the Black Death in which 1/3 of Europe died, to the harsh winters that aided the success of the American (think Trenton) and French (let them eat cake) Revolutions, the failed ambitions of Napoleon in Russia (90% wipeout of his army over the winter) and the Year Without a Summer in New England to the mighty famines extending to India and the end of a Chinese Dynasty. Now, we’re talking disasters!

          Frankly, I’d prefer a 15 meter rise. Florida needs a Sabbath rest, and the amount of new coastland and wetter climes globally will stagger the imagination. Imagine the time when there were WHALES in the Sahara (see Wadi al-Hitan at Wikipedia for a quick reference)! Sea rise is inconvenient, but it’s not a bad thing. It only gets bad when the amount of seacoast decreases.

          Finally, if we’re stupid enough to depopulate ourselves to the low 2 billions–and we are, we revert back to the global population around 1910, I think–chastened, but with the tools to do it right the next time. Sadly, that’s a lot of India and China that takes the largest hit–but it will take either nukes, volcanoes, or a quiet sun to achieve such a reset–the earth has had its billion-year snowball period, too. Bring on the warming! More people have been lifted out of poverty worldwide thanks to sufficient food available during this two-century warm period. You lack perspective in the global sense of climate and REAL mass extinctions. Rather, be thankful that today, billions of people, if not all, are fundamentally happy where there is freedom and sufficiency, and then you share in that happiness. Have an excellent 2nd half of 2015, though not even that is guaranteed, we’re so stupid……

      2. optimader least 6.5B of us will die in the next century.
        I know I will be dead, but I take some comfort knowing everyone else on the planet today will be recycle material in the next century as well!
        I gotta go, but I’m taking you all with me. I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!

    2. Rex

      Unfortunately yes, through global government’s lack of planning including U.S., at least planning to avoid the worst. And take a look at the elevation above present sea level for all those nuclear plants! These take a long time to decommission and move fuel and waste to safer areas. Is anyone planning for that? Where is our government?

      1. jrs

        Yea don’t wait for that, but it MAY be possible to close your local nuclear power plant. I think San Onofre is indefinitely off line and may never come back. Of course the waste is still there.

        1. newyorker

          Maine Yankee of Wiscasset was leveled. No sign of it now and presumably its waste was removed. If there’s a will there’s a way.

  5. TG

    Certainly water is critical – we need a lot of it, and there is no energy efficient means of producing it in bulk. However, we really must end this willful blindness about the real cause of the coming water crisis. It’s not climate change, it’s a population explosion that has been both variously deliberately created, or enabled by a total censoring of the effect of too-rapid population growth. With a modest population we can have steak and swimming pools, but if you jam in billions upon billions even the most dismal stander of living won’t be enough to save the environment. Sure, if we radically lower our standard of living now, that will cut us some slack – and then keep on adding more people and then what? Besides, why should we live in poverty just because the elites want a high population density? And before you ask, no, poverty does not cause rapid population growth, rapid population growth causes poverty. It is largely the elites and their love of cheap labor that cause rapid population growth.

    Consider Syria. The government banned contraceptives, propagandized that more people are always better, and created a population explosion, until the population ran out of food, and things collapsed. As far as weather goes: the aquifers had been dropping enormously well before the current temporary ‘drought’. If the Syrian population had been left alone and had stabilized at 6 or even 10 million people, the recent temporary dry spell would have been no problem at all.

    Compare how much water there is per capita in Norway and Canada. Now how much in India and Bangladesh. Talking about water without giving population growth a central place is like talking about orbital mechanics without mentioning gravity. The rich don’t want this talked about, because of course they don’t want any opposition to their pro-growth cheap-labor policies, and they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions. But we should not kowtow to the weight of corporate propaganda that any mention of population is racist. It’s about the numbers.

    1. Vatch

      Good comment. I was not aware that Syria banned contraceptives at one time. When was contraception illegal? Could you please provide a link with some information about that?

      I have read that the ISIL fanatics have banned contraception in some or all of the regions that they control.

    2. rusti

      It is largely the elites and their love of cheap labor that cause rapid population growth.

      If I were a billionaire in the Western world, I’d be a lot more inclined to promote immigration rather than encouraging uppity middle class citizens to have more kids.

      I think population control is such a touchy subject because it’s so deeply offensive to people of virtually all political affiliations who have been culturally conditioned to think that having kids is the point of life. Nor are they prepared to confront the idea that we’re all collectively part of the drain on the ecosystems which sustain us by virtue of being born when every inhabitable corner of the planet was already being pushed to the limit. This is why it’s so easy to sell the absurd idea that we need to produce More Consumers to support the elderly, and that it’s only the Uncivilized Third World who should cut back on having kids.

      1. jrs

        In my more pessimistic moments I often think the only point of my existence, and all I really did in the grand scheme of things, was to throw more carbon into the atmosphere and be part of the destruction of the world. Hardly unique, one of many, but … such is the only lasting effect of my existence.

        Not because I’m particularly bad in the carbon use, I neither drive an SUV, nor fly (ever anymore pretty much), nor do the hyper consumption thing etc.. But I’m an American in this day and age. That is all.

        1. rusti

          I think it was the commenter John Merryman who wrote (I’m paraphrasing) that maybe our function in the great scheme of things was to provide more carbon for the plants that will grow after we’re gone. I found some reassurance in that.

    3. BEast

      Of course population is vitally important. Especially in local and regional terms, when subsistence farmers/fishers/pastoralists over-stress the local land and water resources.

      In Collapse, Jared Diamond argued that one cause of the Rwandan genocide was overpopulation — as a lot of killings took place within families and between neighbors even in regions without both Hutus and Tutsis, and lot of those killings were about land. Generations of subdividing land among many children and people using more and more marginal lands for farming did not directly cause the genocide, but it did add to the pressures people were under and the motives for participating in the killings.

      All that said — impact equals population times consumption. We cannot pretend that Americans and Western Europeans do not use, and waste, more of everything than Burundians or Bangladeshis. (And Bangladesh has made important steps in reducing family size.) And not just a bit more — many times more per each of us. A recent study suggested that each time a U.S. woman has a baby now, she quintuples her environmental impact. (Of course assuming things go on as they are, which one way or another, they won’t.) And her impact is already probably 20 times a Bangladeshi’s!

      Overpopulation does cause poverty, but poverty also causes overpopulation, especially when that poverty is accompanied by poor educational opportunities for women. Girls who are able to go to school marry later, and have fewer and healthier babies, than girls who can’t. That’s a cultural issue, yes, but it’s also a huge poverty issue — families have to be able to afford school fees, afford books… afford pads! Afford lighting for studying; afford food even if the girls aren’t working on the farms.

      In short: you are correct, but your analysis is incomplete.

  6. greg kaiser

    Capitaalism is a greater threat to survval than all the tyrants and terrorists since the beginning of civilization.

    Humans survived for at least 25 times as long as civilization has existed, without its curse. A population the size of the Earth’s today can’t live with or without it.

    1. TheCatSaid

      This link is from 2010. I found a 2012 paper by the same researchers that reports successfully addressing two limitations experienced in the original work. But nothing since then in a cursory search . . . I wonder what happened.

  7. Brooklin Bridge

    The paradoxes are warming up along with everything else that’s warming up. The more clever we are in squeezing out capacity for additional population, the more tightly we are caught in our own trap when it all collapses. And the relentless drive for profit has a nasty way of filtering out all our better impulses for rational thought, much less for recognizing the cliff we’re driving over in time to do anything about it. And most of our efforts to address problems -such as health care- occur in a system that has evolved in such a way as to automatically co-opt them into profit schemes of rent extraction before any significant benefit occurs (or before any strand of the knot can be undone).

    1. NoFreeWill

      The relentless drive for profit has historically developed alongside the obsession with rational thought. What we need is irrational thought!

  8. Dan Lynch

    As a Westerner, I totally agree with Gaius that our water consumption is unsustainable. I also agree that privatization of public utilities is a bad thing.

    However this essay ignores the elephant in the living room — population.

    I have a feeling that Mother Nature is going to take care of the population problem for us, since we refuse to take of it in a humane & fair manner.

    1. Gaius Publius

      I don’t ignore population, Dan. Just didn’t deal with it this time. I didn’t want to “kitchen sink” the piece. But I agree that the chaos that’s coming if we don’t stop emissions will reduce total population drastically in this century.

      I also agree that population is a root cause of the problem, but not the only cause. Modern (i.e., as practiced today) capitalism’s need for “growth” is a root cause, among others, and that need for growth is tied to a need for population expansion — because, more customers.

      Yet as I wrote in another piece, we can’t have it all, and by trying, we’ll have none of what we want.

      Thanks to all for the comments along these lines.


      1. susan the other

        “Because, more customers.” Because more profit. If we do not eliminate the profit motive we will always be in trouble. Ocean rise. Drought. Essential services. War. Cars and gasoline. Useless and poisonous manufacturing. Capitalism needs to morph. Non-profiteering would be good. Going against the gods is difficult. But we can do it. We need to equate profit with extinction.

        1. BillK

          Humans, being humans, are not and will not be altruistic by nature. We can be by exception, but that 24th century place known as earth where people work to improve themselves without regard for money isn’t there. Now, having said that, there are acceptable substitutes for money if the rewards are set commensurate with the desired outcome: Every organization, be it profit or non- or not-for- behaves in a way to maximize benefit under the rules of the organization. Change the reward/punishment structure and you change the behavior. Homeostasis is good for the body but a killer of the mind. An achievement isn’t an achievement unless the proposed solution is total.

          Most commenters have written something about evil profit already, but the problem is that the overseers of the “capitalist” entity are as venal as the reward-seekers, and that’s where the evil profit lies. Hold the overseers strictly accountable that a planned enterprise will not be implemented until the end state of the process is as healthy as or better than the original state, and then you get the models of capitalism worth emulating. There’s a Hyundai plant (or is it VW) in the southeast US where NO trash is left to toss. All processes were designed from the beginning to eliminate something that can’t be reused. I’m sure they’re gaming the claim a little, but only a little, and they can’t be including the administrative staff because of their incessant need for paper–unless they went seriously paperless.

          Here’s a simpler, Adam-Smith sized example: You are a good cook and make irresistible flambes. If all you think about are getting the ingredients and cleaning the pans, then you don’t have a business yet, but that’s basically what most mom & pop restaurants did until government bureaucracies arose; bureaucrats were rewarded for catching and fining evildoer polluters, including flambe makers–second-hand smoke and all that. Compliance costs get too high and then mom & pops who aren’t up to snuff in the side duties can’t make flambes anymore, them being too expensive to sell. Governments generally have the wrong reward structure, get too big, and as a result small businesses resort to corner-cutting or going on the dole. Put in venal overseers, and you have present-day Chicago.

          There are far better ways to do government than what we do to ourselves. Everyone loves the Swiss–they may have the best bureaucrats. Colorado bureaucrats are pretty good for being a bunch of liberals–there’s just a few too many. Perhaps South Dakota’s bunch do it best.

        1. susan the other

          just this little tangent: Bacteria. They are nature’s first capitalists and nature’s most successful recyclers.

  9. susan the other

    I agree with GP that water is a political problem. We have the know-how to live sustainably. And continue to reduce our population explosion. Most of us have the commitment. As far as population control is concerned, we and the world have been fighting a greater population explosion for most of the last century until today. If we hadn’t realized the danger of over population way back then and started educating people about the worse danger of everything getting out of control, we’d be struggling with 10Bn souls right now. One of the problems is that governments have avoided any comment. Just like they avoid comment on drought and ocean rise. It is because they fear panic will set in and people will become ungovernable. I think just the opposite. We need to be talking about this stuff on a daily basis.

  10. shinola

    Let me put my neolib. thinking cap on:
    Water is a precious resource. Obviously, water rights should be privatized since governments “waste” the (financial) potential of such a resource.

    Just think of the leverage provided to the “owners” of water rights.

    Financial wages could be eliminated. Pay workers with water. A big disincentive to strikes. Gives new meaning to “subsistence level” work.
    Those who don’t/won’t/can’t work for us (neolib’s) will have to pay whatever price we deem appropriate for water. If you can’t afford it, you die. Cuts down on the “excess” (ie unproductive) population.

    If you think you can go off-grid & get your own water, think again. Our water rights not only include all surface & subsurface water sources, but by extension any source feeding those sources. We own the rain, snow & morning dew. Any attempt to “steal” our rightfully owned water, such as rain barrels or individually drilled or dug wells, will be dealt with harshly by our (privatized) water police.

    Sounds like neolib./corporate heaven to me.

    This is the road that the TTP/TTIP “trade” agreements are taking us down.

  11. RTR

    The hydrologic cycle is significantly broken. The water situation can only be addressed by looking to ameliorate the factors that cause the breakage. The major factors are:

    1. Tillage agriculture. Sorry veggie/vegans, but your corn and soy are water hogs and the tillage employed to plant it destroys water holding carbon content of soil. Folks like Mark Shepard ( are making strides at showing how perennial ag (chestnuts and hazelnuts) can replace tillage ag.

    2. Deforestation. Massive deforestation on a global scale has significantly disrupted the hydrologic cycle. I’ve seen research that directly link unbroken forest with water vapor movement inland from the ocean. Once the coastal areas are deforested, it is only a matter of time before the interior land mass starts to desertify.

    3. In populated and sprawled areas, hard surface runoff (rooftops, parking lots, lawns). Obviously hard surfaces impair the infiltration of water and prevents the water table from being replenished.

    4. Water pollution. Much can be said about water pollution, from industrial dumping to fracking. I’ll just mention the link between tillage ag and water pollution (fertilizer and pesticide/herbicide runoff, as well as top soil erosion).

    1. different clue

      If all the corn/soy land were put back to prairie or at least prairiform multispecies pasture and range, and then were used to feed strictly pasture/range fed livestock on it; then the sale of killed-animal body parts as grass-fed “meat” could pay for the management of that land AS multispecies prairiform pasture and rangeland. It would bio-sequester carbon back into its subsurface soil. It would increase the water-holding capacity of the deepening and humus-percentage-rising soil. If it were possible to close all the tiles and drains underlying so much corn-soy land without compromising pasture-range plant growth, then
      the artificially depressed water tables could re-rise to pre-farming levels. And all this could be paid for by sales of grassfed meat grown on all this grassbased land.
      Under such an approach, livestock levels would fall to a fraction of the feedlot numbers of today. That would take care of the problem of overconsumption of water-guzzling meat. People would be limited to far smaller amounts of water-enhancing grassland-maintaining meat animals.

      1. Foppe

        Not gonna happen so long as there is demand. What politician on earth is going to deny “people” (and the animal ag lobby) “essentials” such as animal products?
        As for the rest, large grazers are not a necessary part of a viable ecosystem; they just lead to a certain type of ecosystem, which is not at all better than alternatives (the amazon jungle has basically no large grazers, and does fine; the same held for most of the continental US); basically all food animals were domesticated in eurasia, and didn’t exist until a measly 30-50kya, which is nothing, evolutionarily.

        1. different clue

          Large grazers are not part of the Amazonian jungle ecosystem? So what? Large grazers are not part of the polar icefield ecosystem either.

          Large grazers have been part of millions of square miles of ecosystem for millions of years all over the earth as revealed by fossil records. The large grazer ecosystem of prairie America sequestered carbon for thousands of years and built the deep high carbon topsoil the settlers invaded. Whereas the “vegan’s delight” agrisystem of corn/soy has degraded and attrited that soil from settlement till now. Restoring Prairiana to its proper status of Large Grazer ecosystem will restore soil depth and soil carbon. It can either be buffalo again or domestic livestock.

          And the big animals domesticated in Afro-Eurasia were descended from wild large animals which were parts of their ecosystem for millions of years

          1. Foppe

            Whereas the “vegan’s delight” agrisystem of corn/soy

            I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed.The main reason for monocropping is to provide feed for animal ag. To quote a bit:

            According to the EPA, approximately 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by livestock, poultry and fish and “[o]ver 30 million tons of soybean meal is consumed as livestock feed in a year.”[27] Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, “[w]hile 56 million acres of U.S. land are producing hay for livestock, only 4 million acres are producing vegetables for human consumption.”[28]

            27 See Major Crops Grown in the United States, at
            28 Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?,” at (quoting U.S. Department of Commerce, Census of Agriculture).
            (Similar figures hold for wheat.)

            As to Amazon deforestation and “soy”, it happens for the same reason:

            70% of formerly forested land in the Amazon, and 91% of land deforested since 1970, is used for livestock pasture.[15][16] In addition, Brazil is currently the second-largest global producer of soybeans after the United States, mostly for export [i.e., as feed] and biodiesel production;

  12. TheCatSaid

    The Real News Network did an excellent series of reports in late 2014 having to do with water privatization, discussing both international experiences and local Baltimore politics.

    I learned a lot from these reports, including:
    –doublespeak to watch out for
    –how privatization is often disguised as hiring private contractors (“we’re not privatizing, just hiring in outside experts who know more than our own staff” )
    –how fine print typically contain harsh financial penalties for breaking OR NOT RENEWING contracts for water services, often make it prohibitively expensive for countries/municipalities to undo their mistakes once they realize the horrible negative impact (e.g., poor services, poor water quality, rapidly rising water prices to residents)

    Three of the best links from this series–the first being particularly important:
    Can Corporations Help Save Baltimore’s Crumbling Water System? (2/2)
    “Emanuele Lobina, author of a new report “Troubled Waters” argues private water companies could spell disaster for the city’s water system”

    “We’re continuing our conversation with Emanuele Lobina about his new report Troubled Waters: Misleading Industry PR and the Case for Public Water.

    Emanuele Lobina, he’s principal lecturer at Public Services International Research Unit at the University of Greenwich in the U.K.”
    Baltimore City Says It Does Not Plan To Privatize Water
    It’s Baltimore’s Water Supply Up For Privatization?

  13. BEast

    Well stated.

    I’d add that extractive industries form a huge part of the plunder of water: fracking uses (and permanently pollutes) huge amounts of water. In dry localities like Oklahoma and Texas, if oil and natural gas companies out-bid farmers and ranchers — or municipalities — in water auctions, they get the water. They then go on to use it profligately, waste it, poison it, and/or remove from the hydrological cycle.

    The “invisible hand” of the free market does not distinguish between proper and improper uses of anything, even the things we require to survive.

    Hard-rock mining and nuclear power also use huge amounts of water.

    So regardless of whether a not-for-profit public utility or a for-profit corporation legally owns the water, there need to be policies in place that protect uses in terms of human needs, first of all drinking, cooking, and bathing water. Sooner or later crops are going to have to be grown using drip irrigation, some crops will need to be grown in different places, and ranching will have to move/be reduced as well. But before we start poking at everybody’s hamburgers and pecans (which we do need to do), we need to go after fracking and mining. (Which will be hard enough.)

  14. HotFlash

    Here in Toronto our Green Bin programme takes all organic refuse including dog shit and kitty litter. They even take paper towels and tissues. It would be a very small step to collect human feces, urine is usually sterile and makes a nice addition to a home compost bin. Gaetan has made a beautiful dry toilet, No water required. People who don’t have room or inclination for a year-long compost project can just put theirs out for collection in their Green Bin with their other organics. Where does it go? Compost for farms and parks, or perhaps biogas.

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