Keepers of the Water: Day 2

The second day of the Keepers of the Water VI picked up where day 1 left off. Literally, an extra time slot was made before the official program to pick up on the debate I referenced yesterday. That debate is essentially about whose numbers to trust (and why) when it comes to the links of groundwater, surface water, and hydraulic fracking. Unfortunately, this debate wasn’t followed through to its conclusion, but it did end up being between two hydrologists, which was highly informative.

Once the program kicked in, Jon Waterhouse, executive director of the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council gave introductory remarks to a superb video explaining the collaboration between many nations that rely on the Yukon River in Northern Canada and Alaska. There are numerous links to videos and other multi-media projects from these efforts here. The main principle of success that Jon built his remarks around was: include everyone on their own terms.

The video itself gave a history of the Yukon river and its peoples; a river that is the 4th largest North American watershed and which discharges (at times) more water than the Mississippi. The result of abandoned gold mines, cold war military installations and environmental neglect have seriously damaged this once pristine river within the time of immediate recollection for those living there. My favorite line from the movie was spoken by a First Nations elder: “I haven’t really heard anybody hollering, ‘Hey! I want dirty water over here!’ Haven’t heard that from anybody.”

A very interesting theme that emerged in the video was that of social ecology – the idea that ecological problems are social problems. And the solution was a vast network of partnerships, engaged citizen-driven science, and a commitment to future generations. As one participant in the video put it, what is at play is a clash of systems between an industrial (i.e. fossil) economy and alternate (i.e. traditional) systems connecting law, land and people.

The next presentation was entitled “Thinking like a watershed” and in it, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip offered remarks on the truly different ways of ordering ourselves with respect to the world. Many of his reflections were interwoven with his own stories in B.C.’s water planning processes and I was so interested in what he was saying I failed to take notes.

After a quick break, we had four sessions that essentially primed us for breakout groups that followed. Ted White, who is working on B.C.’s new Water Sustainability Act provided an overview of the policy reform processes currently underway. He’s got a number of videos and further information here. I had the chance to sit with Ted most of the day and he has a great perspective on the challenges of getting on-the-ground dynamics into broad and far reaching policy reforms.

My talk was next. I tried to offer a history of western water norms and their initial roots in a conception of community. I traced that history, showing how the idea that water serves a community excluded those who didn’t count within the moral sphere of that community (i.e. First Nations and the natural world) and how that idea of community ultimately fell away in Canada by the 1980s. I offered the point that if we want to lead in water policy reform across Canadian nations we need to recover a commitment to community and then extend that commitment to an inclusive group. I based a fair amount of my talk in Luna and Aldo Leopold and my own work on the important ways that issues of territory evoke dimensions of land (and what counts as “land”) and power.

After lunch there were talks on the on-going sub-mission of this conference to develop an accord for water stewardship in the Arctic Ocean Basin. The Yukon model provided a shared basis for what can be done, and the talk focused on how to develop a shared vision for something similar here in Canada’s north.

A final talk touched on environmental monitoring; but I was less impressed with this talk. Only because it worked on too easily setting up science as a neutral arbiter and this, in my view, does not reflect what we know or our relation to complex systems.

The day concluded with break-out sessions along the four talks, with a great spirit of collaboration infusing discussions regarding how to go forward. I was thrilled to be a part of one on water governance, ethics and leadership, which drew a large audience and really needed much more time! But that is also what today is for.

I met Maude Barlow and others for supper here at the hotel, which was really nice. I had not met Maude previously, but of course know her work and we had a nice talk about our engagements with Jamie Linton’s work, What is water? The history of a modern abstraction.

While we were eating a group arrived from one of the blockades currently standing up against the Northern Gateway Pipeline (the pipeline is proposed to run from Northern Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. but is really just the most symbolic piece of 8 pipelines currently proposed to form a northern energy corridor across the land). Quite frankly, these guys were inspiring! I listened for several hours as their conversations with the local nations here ranged over how to recover their own concepts of territory, many of which were undermined by a government program of assigning trap-lines in the 1930s and people coming to use these external markers for their own imaginings. The conversation also brainstormed ideas of new ways to connect people to their land and to persist, so that after this iteration of western civilization runs its course, future generations will have a connection to their ancient roots. A powerful vision.

In addition to strong personal commitments to preserving their ways of life, there was an exceptional sense of solidarity between this group and indigenous peoples in Chile and New Zealand, made all the more poignant by many of their struggles being against the same companies. They have a great blog site to help get their message out to the world.

And I will leave the last words to what it says on the back of their business cards:

“Stop all proposed pipelines, LNG [Liquified Natural Gas] and Oil Pipelines. Stop the Tar sands and hydrofracturing shale natural gas. No unwanted mining, open pit or strip mining. Decolonize and free your mind, body, and spirit. Time to stand up and assert our laws and responsibilities.”

Keepers of the Water: Day 1

The first full day of the Keepers of the Water VI conference set out the stark contrasts over what to do with water and about the link of water and energy. As may be expected, the bulk of the discussion focused on Northeastern B.C. with additional places getting some attention (i.e. northern Alberta and the N.W.T.).

The day started off with welcomes from several folks and a short video that brought the concerns of Fort Nelson First Nations elders on water to a larger audience. Then Wade Davis presented. His main argument was twofold. First, he argued that the ‘modern industrial carpet’ of the western world does not hold the monopoly, or even the majority stake, in understanding water or our obligations to the planet. It only does so in one cultural imagination where other cultures represent failures at becoming modern. Second, he argued that all cultures be given equal consideration for the adaptive insights they give into the human condition. He referred a number of times to the ‘sacred geography’ that comes about when individuals make sacrifices of time, energy and goods to sustain particular places. These themes were interwoven in numerous stories about peoples and practices the world over. And his message was warmly received. What was additionally interesting to me were his conclusions regarding how climate change is a psychological problem for individuals and groups who believe they have a personal responsibility for taking care of the earth. He argued that, when viewed through a cultural lens, many non-western cultures are doing more to fight climate change than the west, particularly by changing their long-standing rituals for sustaining good earth relationships. They are making changes (too many to detail here) because they see themselves as failing to prevent rapid global environmental changes and this is causing severe psychological distress.

The rest of the day focused more on practical problems in the Arctic Ocean Basin. And a particularly interesting debate emerged between a hydro-geologist from Victoria and B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission. The hydro-geologist made several arguments regarding the potential long term problems with fracking. These included the use of old wells from the 1950s and 1970s for disposing of wastewater and the industrial slurry from fracking operations. His view was that these old wells had the potential for leakage at multiple points that could affect groundwater. His second big point was that, because the effect of hydrofracturing can be to lower subsurface pressure of different bedrock formations, there exists a possibility that higher pressure groundwater nearer to the surface could been drawn down to areas of lower pressure. This could, in his view, draw down the water table considerably either through existing pathways in geologic formations or through manmade conduits, such as old wells. This seems an important consideration since western Canada has somewhere around 500 000 wells. So he made the case that the long-term effects of fracking include the possibility of dewatering many tributaries and rivers where these pressure gradients exist. A final point was the approvals for water use in fracking were made based on mean annual flows while rivers fluctuated drastically from the spring freshet to low winter flows.

The B.C. oil and gas representative argued that the hydrogeologist got the facts wrong, particularly on the mean annual flows. He argued that, in fact, water withdrawals are tied to actual surface water availability and that withdrawals are stopped when water levels are low (for instance, no withdrawals have been allowed since July of this year).  Along the way he gave some really interesting facts. For instance, 2/3 of B.C.’s natural gas already comes from unconventional sources (i.e. they come from wells made active by fracking). In 2011 the Oil and Gas regulator approved the withdrawal of 3.7 million cubic meters of water for these activities. Some of that water comes from surface water sources, but in other cases from deep saline aquifers. Interestingly, these deep aquifers have water with high contents of carbon dioxide and sour gas (H2S). The sour gas is removed before the water is used because it has market value and is too dangerous to pressurize for fracking. The carbon dioxide is off-gassed into the atmosphere in what is presently an unaccounted for dimension of greenhouse gas emissions from fracking that uses this water source. Privately, I asked if this would amount to very much carbon. The answer was yes. But no figures were given.

Ben Parfit, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, made some really nice points about how to increase water oversight of fracking operations and in policy more generally. One I found particularly interesting was that, at present, the Oil and Gas industry in B.C. is the only sector with its own regulatory commission. Every other sector (forestry, mining, etc.) has to go through an independent body for water licenses (whether they are long-term licenses or short term permits). On the face of it, it just doesn’t look good because it has the appearance of special treatment. Further, B.C.’s oil and gas commission both issues permits and does the enforcement. It was interesting that in the question period it came out that only 1% of the Oil and Gas regulator’s staff are dedicated to issues affect water. In real terms, there are two people.

I will give the last comment on the day to Sam Gargan, a former Grand Chief of the Dene Nation. I doubt he has ever read John Wesley Powell’s 1888 article titled, “The course of human progress” where Powell argues that man “adapts the environment to his wants”. But Sam railed, in virtually the exact same language against the notion of adapting the world to us. His view was one of us adapting to it.

I am up today, right after the manager of Water Strategies and Conservation from B.C.’s Ministry of Environment. Then I have the pleasure of leading a working group session on issues of water, ethics and leadership. My presentation and the workshop will focus on the role of norms in complex systems and how our background assumptions lead us to characterize systems that we have incomplete understandings of (and which are changing in ways that make an objective view of them impossible) in ways that reinforce particular narratives, or conceptions, of overall systems dynamics. I’ll be drawing on my own work and on Luna Leopold’s short 1977 essay “Reverence for Rivers”.

Linking rainfall to its source: the idea of a precipitationshed

Patrick Keys, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center, proposes an interesting new concept in this video. The idea of a precipitationshed is analogous to a watershed (the land area capturing and directing surface water flows). In the precipitationshed the areas of interest are the evaporation sites and precipitation sinks that those particular sites contribute to. More here, and a video below.

Keepers: Readying for day 1

Keepers of the Water VI began last night with an opening fire ceremony by our hosts, the Ft. Nelson First Nations. With yellowing trees and honking geese against a blue sky for a backdrop (plus the occasional rumbling of an 18-wheeler) we encircled a fire as drummers played and elders made offerings.
With a registration of around 200 people and climbing, we enjoyed a great meal and introductions last night. Slated to speak this morning is Wade Davis, the renown anthropologist currently explorer-in-residence at National Geographic. Then there will be a panel on the State of the Arctic Ocean Basin and an introduction to hydrogeology. These sessions will lay the ground work for the conference, where it is already apparent that clear conflicts loom over hydraulic fracturing (the world’s largest single frack took place not too far from here using a baffling amount of water).

With this knowledge in hand, the final panel today will look at key issues and solutions and have representatives from First Nations, B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Looking forward to it!

New [free] issue of Minding Nature out

Below is the announcement for the new issue:

The new issue of our electronic journal, Minding Natureis now available online.

In this issue you will find thought-provoking discussions featuring our Senior Scholars’ responses to our Questions. Their articles offer in-depth reflections on building ecologically sound economies and acknowledging the true dimensions of our humanity and human responsibility. Open this new issue, and rediscover where we are and where we can be, ethically, naturally, and practically.

The Center’s Upcoming Events
New York
You are invited to see our Senior Scholars respond to our Questions. Join us on October 9, 2012 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Visit our events page to register.
You are also invited to this year’s Regional Forum on Ethics and Sustainability: Healing Nature. Join us on October 16, 2012 at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois. Visit our events page to register.

From the contents of Minding Nature 5.2

Mary Midgley
On Being an Anthrozoon
This article explores the links among defining humanness, separating human beings from other species, and giving humans greater ontological value or ethical superiority. As an antidote to this, we must “get ourselves in proportion—to see through our current absurd over-estimate of human separateness and superiority.”

David Sloan Wilson
What Does It Mean To Be Human: An Evolutionist’s View
This article offers an evolutionary perspective on how species develop through various mechanisms of inheritance. Especially for human beings, evolutionary development is not found in genetic inheritance alone, but requires consideration of social learning and symbolic thought.

Peter Victor
Living Well: Explorations into the End of Growth
This article discusses a macroeconomic model of the Canadian economy, LowGrow, that indicates how ecologically beneficial growth is possible without unduly affecting employment or other essential aspects of human economic well-being.

Richard B. Howarth
Sustainability, Well-Being, and Economic Growth
This article argues that as far as climate change is concerned, it is possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially without having much of an impact on overall economic growth in the developed nations or worldwide. However, it may not be the natural limits of growth that ought to concern us most, but rather economic growth’s social limits.

Download the new Minding Nature issue and think here.

New Water Ethics Network Newsletter

The September newsletter from the Water Ethics Network is now available here. It kindly mentions this blog.

Keepers VI and follow-up talks

Keepers of the Water VI begins tomorrow night. I travel the 5800km trek (Canada is BIG) starting early tomorrow morning and arriving mid afternoon, thanks to a convenient time difference.

After the conference, which runs through Sunday, I’ll be giving smaller talks in Slave Lake, Athabasca, Lac La Biche and then in Edmonton before returning.

The talk and workshop in Ft. Nelson will both be on water, ethics and leadership; focusing on the concept of community and how to recover/extend it for the purposes of justice. The follow up talks will focus on federal changes to inland water policy that were bustled through our democratic system earlier this spring in an omnibus budget bill. These have changed the Fishing and Navigation Act considerably. A second aspect of these talks will focus on some of the signaled changes to First Nations property rights the federal government has been gesturing towards since December 2011. These could also have significant impacts on First Nations water rights that remain unclearly articulated and which have often been ignored and worse.

I’m looking forward to the entire trip, and will try to post as much as I can…

Video: Yale panel debates fracking

Yale hosted a panel on hydraulic fracturing yesterday. Here is a link to the video. I had some problems with the volume, but don’t know if that is an issue with the recording or just on my end.

More details are available here, including this paragraph about the panel presenters:
“The panel will feature John Hofmeister, a former Shell Oil executive and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy; Bill McKibben, an environmental journalist and founder of the grassroots climate campaign; Sheila Olmstead, a fellow at the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future; and James Saiers, F&ES professor of hydrology and a water chemistry expert. Brad Gentry, director of the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale and a member of the F&ES faculty, will be the moderator.

What is missing? Maya Lin’s memorial to the vanishing natural world

Maya Lin has put together an interactive website she calls a ‘memorial’ to a vanishing natural world.

Not only is the website excellent, it is an interesting idea on several levels. Its a kind of living memorial, for instance. But it is also interesting because many theorists want to do away with the concept/construct of nature. And while that goal may be worth pursuing (depending on how we go about it) we are nevertheless living in a time when nature, its loss and destruction, is a powerful part of how we imagine ourselves.

A podcast with Maya Lin is here and an interview is here, both are from Yale 360.

Dalhousie Water Resources Centre

Dalhousie University, in Halifax, has a great website up and running for its Centre for Water Resources Studies.

The centre’s faculty are a combination of social scientists, environmental health scientists, and engineers. They have posts actively recruiting graduate students here. It has been in existence since 1981, and so my happening onto its new(ish) website says more about me than it.

At any rate, I’m excited to see where this initiative goes with the current projects it has listed, not only because I live nearby, but because it has interesting projects on water issues in the Atlantic region and also in the Northwest Territories. So as I drive by “no fracking” signs all along the Northumberland Shore (there are also a lot of “no windmills here!” signs, which is a different though related issue of how communities conceptualize their own prosperity in relation to energy development) and prepare for the upcoming Keepers of the Water conference in Ft. Nelson in 10 days, I’m reminded of how water has that wonderful quality of not being only physical, but not wholly social.

Initiatives like this one have the potential to set up at this juncture between the ways things are and what we make of them; a critical intersection as pressures on water use grow.