New Book from Ingrid Stefanovic – The Wonder of Water: Lived Experience, Policy, and Practice

This is a great looking new title edited by Ingrid Stefanovic here with the University of Toronto Press.

SP005904Facing droughts, floods, and water security challenges, society is increasingly forced to develop new policies and practices to cope with the impacts of climate change. From taken-for-granted values and perceptions to embodied, existential modes of engaging our world, human perspectives impact decision-making and behavior.

The Wonder of Water explores how human experience – from embodied cultural paradigms to value systems and personal biases – impact decisions around water. In many ways, the volume expands on the growing field of water ethics to include questions around environmental aesthetics, psychology, and ontology. And yet this book is not simply for philosophers. On the contrary, a specific aim is to explore how more informed philosophical dialogue will lead to more insightful public policies and practices.

Case studies describe specific architectural and planning decisions, fisheries policies, urban ecological restorations and more. The overarching phenomenological perspective, however, means that these discussions emerge within a sensibility toward the foundational significance of human embodiment, culture, language, worldviews, and, ultimately, moral attunement to place.

Stathis Psillos: from the bankruptcy of science to the death of evidence

Interesting talk from the Canada Research Chair in the Philosophy of Science at Western University.

Yves Gingras: Transformations in the relations between science, policy and citizens

Should we be using ecological footprints in policy?

I’ve been waiting for this to come out for about a week now after hearing about it. It is a a critique in Plos Biology that claims ecological footprint “measurements, as currently constructed and presented, are so misleading as to preclude their use in any serious science or policy context.”

The ecological footprint idea is likely one that most of us have heard of, perhaps you’ve even taken a quiz to see how many planets we would need if everybody lived like you. We even mark World Overshoot Day each year to identify when we are exceeding the Earth’s capacity.

The article critiquing the ecological footprint idea is well worth reading. In particular, its claims about how global scale data are normalized and how the ecological space required to suck up extra carbon out of the atmosphere is conceptualized. These are the key points upon which the authors pivot – arguing that the ecological footprint measurement is flawed in both respects.

It is also important to read the response to the article; both with regard to what it answers to in the critique and what it claims about the utility for ecological footprinting for policy.

And, of course, there is the rejoinder from the authors of the critique to the response defending ecological footprinting. It is here.

Early reactions to Alberta’s wetland policy

Well, that didn’t take long. There is an article in the Edmonton Journal on environmental groups and their criticisms of Alberta’s new wetland policy. Mainly, but not solely, because it exempts a large number of industry projects.

There is also a detailed response from the Environmental Law Centre here. It describes the policy as taking baby steps in an adult world.

Grounding water policy

The oil spill I mentioned earlier in Alberta is still on-going. I think we’re at about 3 months now estimates from a few days ago have the leak at about 1.2 million gallons. And counting.

The problems with this leak have a lot to do with the sort of mining technology being used and, clearly, some unpredictable factors nobody foresaw. But it also raises some concerns over groundwater law and policy that are finding traction elsewhere.

Here are a few of the things I’ve seen recently that caught my eye. The first is by Cynthia Barnett (who wrote Blue Revolution, which is a great book on water if you’ve not seen it) and can be read here. It covers a lot of ground – literally – and is a nicely written piece that considers ground water issues around the world.

51jllnVHJOL._SL500_AA300_Another is a recent blog post by Michael Campana at Oregon State University on groundwater monitoring in the U.S. He is the ‘aquadoc’ and has a number of good posts on groundwater, including reference to a forthcoming book on groundwater and conflict by his colleague Todd Jarvis.

Mike also linked to a 2013 report (PDF) on a framework for developing a monitoring system that might be of interest to some.

Losing control of ethical oil: lessons for environmental ethics

Since it began distinguishing itself as a sub-discipline of philosophy, environmental ethics has faced a tough question: will changing our values affect how we treat the environment?

When Christopher D. Stone took stock of the effect of environmental ethics on public policy over its first three decades (1970-2000) he concluded that not much direct influence took place [pdf]. But that isn’t a reason not to do ethics since it could take much longer for effects to become apparent. There might be a time lag.

OK, this is a round-a-bout way into what I was thinking about last night, which is how the Canadian government has completely lost control over the discourse about what it once termed ‘ethical oil’. I think there might be similarities between the relative ineffectiveness of both environmental ethics and the ‘ethical oil’ campaigns to steer public policy in neat and tidy ways. Not that anybody thinks policy is either neat, or tidy, of course.

The ‘ethical oil’ campaign started some time ago and I have written on its lack of cogency here and here. Earlier this week, it has come under attack by Al Gore, who stated that there is no ethical oil, only dirty oil and dirtier oil. But the conceptual bankruptcy of the concept is not what I’m interested in here. What seems more interesting is the attempt to funnel public policy through a single set of moral claims.

The ethical oil campaign was somewhat successful in capturing the mainstream discourse in Canada – shouldn’t we promote our own resources rather than those that come from places with poor records on human rights, labor conditions and so forth? Now, if we ignore the fact that eastern Canada imports most of its oil, this does seem like a plausible piece of rhetoric. And yet it has failed.

The reasons for the failure are numerous, but here are two:

1) Canada launched a sustained undermining of environmental policy in 2012. So the notion that resources are being stewarded in any meaningful environmental framework lacks credibility. Yesterday, for instance, environment minister Peter Kent stated that Canada wears many of its “fossil of the year awards” with honour. (Yes, in Canada we add “u” to honor). The awards are given out to countries who perform abysmally on environmental issues.

2) Canada has engaged in a direct war or words with leading international figures, like James Hansen. Hansen, in turn, called the Canadian government ‘neanderthals‘ when it comes to environmental policy. I doubt Hansen was trying to be ironic, but it was a funny comment since it is an open question as to whether our minister of science and technology, Gary Goodyear, actually believes in evolution. He says he does, but not everybody is convinced.

So what should we take away from this? Are there any commonalities between the failure to secure public policy through normative discourse?

I think we would do well to acknowledge that the claim to morality is not situated hierarchically in public policy, as though values are what steers things. Values matter, but they are not all that matter. This has been part of the broad critique of environmental ethics as being primarily for the rich – for those who can afford the cultural category of a “wilderness” that is made untouchable. Likewise, the ethical oil motif is only one piece of a bigger policy game involving international actors and this thing called science.

Second, it would seem worthwhile to consider how the attempt to be internally consistent in your moral claims inevitably closes off some good policy options. For instance, the attempt at logical consistency in environmental ethics often doesn’t reflect how individuals reason in complex scenarios where they use judgment, heuristics (rules) and customs to determine what matters. Likewise, the ethical oil campaigners tried to secure a basic set of western values to oil development, such as human rights and labour relations (yes, we add a “u” there too). But this is also problematic, because the  category “western” is not homogenous (even if hegemonic). So when the time came to promote Canadian oil development in the face of opposition, the government had to stick to its guns – we are already ethical! See? See?

At any rate, I think it is worthwhile to keep thinking about how real-time failures in environmental ethics – even if they are of the ‘ethical oil’ sort that environmental philosophers might seek to eviscerate – can provide lessons for how values link up to environmental policy.

What shutting down the Experimental Lakes area says about water’s value

Today, Canada’s official opposition party will make a last ditch effort to stop the government from shutting down the Experimental Lakes Area – a world-class site for conducting ecosystem scale experiments in freshwater environments.

The closure of the ELA is being described in all sorts of ways: a war on science, an instance of ideological politics, even as a vendetta where the Prime Minister exacts revenge on David Schindler, one of the world’s foremost ecologists who ran the ELA and who has, with his uncompromising but endearing demeanor, identified the many gaps in Canada’s freshwater monitoring (particularly with respect to energy development).

I imagine there could be grains of truth in any (perhaps all) of these descriptions. But whether or not there are, and certainly there are sharp disagreements over just what the government is up to, I think there is something very basic that is being overlooked: water’s value.

Until a spring storm postponed my talk at Acadia today, I planned on giving a lecture on the value of water tonight. That will now happen in early April, just days after the ELA is officially shuttered.

My sense is that there is something deeply amiss when water’s value plays no role in either side of the debate about things like the ELA. Potential ‘wars on science’ and ‘ideology’ are important, no doubt, but unless they are connected to what is deeply, if implicitly troubling about failing to steward water, my sense is that there is a missed opportunity to forge the connection from political decisions to personal life.

Why should the average person care about the ELA? Of what difference to me does some experiment in northern Ontario make?

Articulating the concrete link between water’s value and public policy decisions is what makes things matter; not the games over science and energy policy played thousands of kilometers away in Ottawa. It matters that my kids cannot swim in the lake where their summer camp is, that we cannot eat the fish we catch, that buying bottled water makes me feel ‘safe’ from who-knows-what.

So while policies are important, perhaps critical, they are not so because science tells us what to do, but because without good science we are left with fewer tools to ensure that water’s value is respected.

Strangely, however, we find again and again that discussions of water’s value are rarely, if ever, explicit.

I don’t claim to offer answers regarding what water’s value is, in toto, across space, time or culture. That is something to be determined by those who share water. But until the connection is made to water’s value, it seems unlikely that politicians on either side of the debate will be able to make explicit what is of most consequence in decisions like that regarding the ELA. Namely, that water is what enables the lives and life projects that we value and so its value is central to sound public policy.