Religion and Environmentalism: Carl Sagan on Conservation, Ecology, Nature, Values, Ethics

A lecture from 1990 now available:

Sheila Jasanoff: conflicts between scientific elitism and public values

New Book on Water Ethics by David Groenfeldt

David Groenfeldt, Director of the Water-Culture Institute, has a new book out from Routledge. All the details are here.

Water Ethics: A Values Approach to Solving the Water Crisis

This book introduces the idea that ethics are an intrinsic dimension of any water policy, program, or practice, and that understanding what ethics are being acted out in water policies is fundamental to an understanding of water resource management. Thus in controversies or conflicts over water resource allocation and use, an examination of ethics can help clarify the positions of conflicting parties as preparation for constructive negotiations.


The author shows the benefits of exposing tacit values and motivations and subjecting these to explicit public scrutiny where the values themselves can be debated. The aim of such a process is to create the proverbial ‘level playing field’, where values favoring environmental sustainability are considered in relation to values favoring short-term exploitation for quick economic stimulus (the current problem) or quick protection from water disasters (through infrastructure which science suggests is not sustainable).

The book shows how new technologies, such as drip irrigation, or governance structures, such as river basin organizations are neither “good” nor “bad” in their own right, but can serve a range of interests which are guided by ethics. A new ethic of coexistence and synergies with nature is possible, but ultimately depends not on science, law, or finances but on the values we choose to adopt. The book includes a wide range of case studies from countries including Australia, India, Philippines, South Africa and USA. These cover various contexts including water for agriculture, urban, domestic and industrial use, the rights of indigenous people and river, watershed and ecosystem management.

James Wescoat on “The Duty of Water”

James Wescoat, at MIT, has a new paper out that looks at the irrigation concept known as the “duty of water” to see how different social norms have changed over time. It’s open access, here is the PDF.

Here is the abstract:

This paper assesses changing norms of water use known as the duty of water. It is a case study in historical socio-hydrology, a line of research useful for anticipating changing social values with respect to water. The duty of water is currently defined as the amount of water reasonably required to irrigate a substantial crop with careful management and without waste on a given tract of land. The historical section of the paper traces this concept back to late-18th century analysis of steam engine efficiencies for mine dewatering in Britain. A half-century later, British irrigation engineers fundamentally altered the concept of duty to plan large-scale canal irrigation systems in northern India at an average duty of 218 acres per cubic foot per second (cfs). They justified this extensive irrigation standard (i.e., low water application rate over large areas) with a suite of social values that linked famine prevention with revenue generation and territorial control. Several decades later irrigation engineers in the western US adapted the duty of water concept to a different socio-hydrologic system and norms, using it to establish minimum standards for water rights appropriation (e.g., only 40 to 80 acres per cfs). The final section shows that while the duty of water concept has now been eclipsed by other measures and standards of water efficiency, it may have continuing relevance for anticipating if not predicting emerging social values with respect to water.

Planetary boundaries: fact/value divide…no thanks.

Steve Rayner, from Oxford University, has written a guest post on planetary boundaries over at Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog.

The concept of planetary boundaries was introduced in two main papers, here and here, as a way to ascertain how human activities are affecting different earth systems: water, nitrogen cycles, the atmosphere and so on. Here is a visual image.


In an earlier post, which generated a number of responses, Pielke had characterized planetary boundaries as a kind of power grab. The worry here, for Pielke, is that science becomes the arbiter of normative and political legitimacy, when in fact science is just one tool, and a certain kind of tool at that.

In the more recent post, by Steve Rayner, he concludes that:

“The framing of planetary boundaries as being scientifically derived non-negotiable limits, obscures the inherent normativity of deciding how to react to environmental change. Presenting human values as facts of nature is an effective political strategy to shut down debate.”

My problem with this framing is that it presumes that there is a divide between facts and values. But that supposition has frequently been shown false, by Hilary Putnam, Bernard Williams, Quine, Wittgenstein (the list goes on…). So it doesn’t make sense to me to frame the debate in this way. And I do think there is a debate here.

The debate is one that has been going on around the idea of ecological ‘limits’ since the 1970s. And it brings to bear all sorts of issues about how we scale human activities to a certain imagination of Earth systems. Scale, here, is a ratio of time to space. And our imagination of the temporal and spatial effects of human activities are projected against some canvas. Early on it was Gaia, then a static view of a stable earth, and now a view of non-linear and complex systems.

It will be interesting now to follow this debate to see if it unfolds in any new ways. I have my doubts, since it seems positioned on roughly the same axes of similar ones; over in this corner “facts” and weighing in over here “values”.


The limits of your lens: today’s lecture on water values at Acadia

My previously scheduled talk at Acadia University is going ahead today. Here is a snippet of the introduction that targets how we do not see the lens of our own world picture…and what can happen to plans/dreams that are forged before we realize we have one:

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.