Remember that scene in Annie Hall where the young Alvy Singer is sitting in a doctor’s office with his mother? The doctor asks him why he’s depressed, why he won’t do his homework and he says “The universe is expanding.”
That’s the way I’ve been feeling lately. Maybe it’s just February—which is itself expanding this year–or maybe it’s the several hours I spent on the living room sofa last Saturday evening watching The Corporation, or maybe it’s the headlines that land on our front steps every morning (yesterday morning it was health care costs headed into the trillions, gas going up to $3.40 a gallon, and what’s being called a “Doomsday” seed vault in Norway), or maybe it’s just that everything seems to be falling apart a lot faster than anyone expected or can respond to.
Usually I feel pretty hopeful about the world. Maybe not about the way the world is going right now, but about the resilience of the human spirit, about our innate capacity to make pleasure and happiness out of whatever materials we find at hand. But this week…I don’t know, I keep thinking about Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins exhibited by P.T. Barnum back in the 1830s. After they retired they moved to North Carolina, married a pair of sisters, bought farms and raised families. But Chang was a heavy drinker; in January of 1874 he contracted pneumonia and on the night of January 17 he died. His brother Eng, healthy up until then, died two and a half hours later. On days like this I feel like Eng, sharing vital organs and a circulatory system with a profligate twin whose habits are going to bring us both down in the end.
So let’s just go with it. Be forewarned: this is the jeremiad edition of my blog, a round up of some of the things that are making me feel bleak and hopeless and scared this week. Enjoy.
Here in the Southeastern U.S. we’re in the middle of a drought; by late last summer the lawns were parched, the fountains in the park downtown were silent, and the farmers at the farmer’s market were closing their tables early because they didn’t have enough to sell. The middle part of the drought map—the part where I live—is marked in dark red indicating “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies.”
“We didn’t expect climate change, we didn’t pay attention,” Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said in October as that city looked at two to four months of water left in its reservoirs. On the other side of the country Lake Mead is drying up—mighty Lake Mead, whose waters are essential to Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California. “We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us,” said Tim Barnett, one of the scientists studying the lake’s future. “Make no mistake, this water problem is not a scientific abstraction, but rather one that will impact each and every one of us that live in the Southwest.” On the other side of the world the glaciers in the Himalayas are melting because of climate change; the UN predicts that by 2030—2030!–they’ll be mostly gone. The glaciers act as a giant reservoir for the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Mekong and many of the other great rivers of India and Southeast Asia. When the glaciers go so does the water that sustains the two billion people who live along those rivers.
It’s everywhere. The U.N. estimates that by 2025 fresh drinking water will be a scarcity for two-thirds of the world’s population. Is there anything in our recent history to suggest that the remaining one third of the world—a lot of which is us–will gladly share? My guess is that not only will we not share, but that we’ll see the scarcity as another opportunity to leverage our own power. In 2000 the people of Bolivia rose up when the government sold water rights in the city of Cochabamba to a subsidiary of Bechtel and water prices increased by 35 percent. After massive protests during which several people were killed, the contract was canceled and the water operation became public again, but the problem isn’t solved: people in the poor sections of Cochabamba still pay ten times as much for their water as households in wealthy neighborhoods.
People are killing each other in Ethiopia over access to water and pastureland; in Kenya Kikuyu and Maasai are fighting over a river diversion project, and throughout northern Africa the desert is creeping southward. The bloodletting in the Darfur region of Sudan was set off by drought and water scarcity caused by climate change. Closer to home Tennessee and Georgia are squaring off over water, and feelings are running high in the upper Midwest as other parts of the country begin drought-driven legal maneuverings to get hold of the Great Lakes water.
It’s like some horrible metaphor: 72 percent of the planet is covered in water, over half of our own bodies is made up of water. Hunger is bad, but thirst is a thousand times worse. The French philosopher of gastronomy Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825: “The sensation of thirst is so intense, that in all tongues it is synonymous with excessive desire, and irrepressible longing: thus we thirst for gold, wealth, power, science, &c., expressions which never would have become common had men not have been athirst and aware of their vengeance. Appetite is pleasant when it does not reach the point of hunger. Thirst is not so, and as soon as we feel it we are uncomfortable and anxious. When there is no possibility of appeasing it, the state of mind is terrible.”
This isn’t oil we’re talking about. This isn’t the raw materials to make cell phones or Krugerrands or shampoo bottles. This is the essential ingredient of all life on this planet. When we use access to water to coerce or punish or harm other people, when we use access to water to enrich ourselves or to increase our own power without any regard to the effect of our actions, when we foul and disregard and dishonor water, we commit a crime against our own humanness. That’s where we’re headed. And we did it to ourselves.