By James G. Workman
PERC Enviropreneur and Author
Editor's note: If you missed World Water Day—March 22—an event that seems hard to dismiss, read why international water expert Jamie Workman recommended a boycott.
In case your email isn’t already loaded with 967 well-meaning reminders, the United Nations officially designated today, March 22, as a time for us all “to focus attention on the importance of freshwater and to advocate for its sustainable management.”
In that spirit, as one who has invested two decades into conserving this precious resource 364 days a year, let me advocate how you can truly honor our supreme liquid asset, the matrix of life, the wet stuff on which we depend: boycott World Water Day.
That’s right. Skip the political speeches, ignore the tired propaganda, bypass the grim statistics, and avoid the marches expressing solidarity and concern.
Instead, do what I plan to do. Hose down your sidewalk. Plant a lawn. Order a Big Mac (1,000 gallons to produce). Buy a new pair of jeans (2,900 gallons to make). Take a long shower. Flush your toilet a few extra times and put off fixing that leaky sink. And, in that most sinister act of betrayal: brush your teeth while leaving the tap on.
No, I haven’t come unhinged. I recognize more than ever the serious risk we all face from depleting aquifers and draining rivers. I know I’m wasting our finite resource.
So where’s the method behind my deliberate madness? I now realize that World Water Day does more than soften or hide the impact of water depletion. It makes matters worse.
First, it creates the illusion that we value water when all economic indicators show we clearly do not. Second, it punishes the very people who strive to be frugal and green while rewarding profligates. Third, it reinforces a rigged and perverse centralized system, a vertically integrated absolute monopoly of disincentives that ensures water conservation remains increasingly unsustainable.
You can stop reading right now. You can take part in the annual, feeble, “celebration of water.” Or you can face reality in the water world and decide to change it.
If you, like me, decide to boycott World Water Day, you will essentially be taking the red pill that Morpheus offers Neo in The Matrix. You will see the truth behind your local water works. That is to say, you will be exposed to the Three Paradoxes of Water.
Like Adam Smith – godfather of the dismal science and author of economics’ Holy Scripture, the Wealth of Nations – you will shiver at the implications upon grasping the Paradox of Value: that water is invaluable in its use yet worthless in exchange. In other worlds, the one substance that keeps all things alive is, literally and figuratively, priceless.
Like William Stanley Jevons – 1865 author of the ‘rebound effect’ in the field of energy – you will be horrified to discover the Paradox of Efficiency: that the spread of urban and rural water saving programs, methods and devices actually lead to increased overall consumption.
Finally, like Charles Darrow – Depression-era inventor of the world’s most popular board game – you will shudder at how it is possible to invest in and buy or sell every single asset in your life except the absolute natural Monopoly that determines every aspect of your life. You can put a house or hotel on Boardwalk, but not on Water Works. You can only pay rent, controlled by a fixed ceiling. In real life, 53,000 U.S. utilities depend on us to rent more artificially cheap water rates in order to break even. The third Paradox of Monopoly is that conserving water destroys an institutions revenue base; so to avoid a ‘death spiral’ a water district must punish conservation and encourage and reward waste.
Not a pretty picture, is it? I bet right now you wish you’d taken the blue pill, and returned to the easy, safe, and reassuring former outlook. You long to recover the easy answers and soft solutions offered by World Water Day. You miss the images of smiling children, splashing in the wet stuff, holding hands and singing: “water is life!”
Too late. Welcome to stark reality. Happily, though, a brave, new world is in sight, a world of personal responsibility and natural restoration, and it is not far away.
By boycotting World Water Day you will create a local disturbance. You will provoke questions in others. You will generate real discussions about who really owns the matrix of life, and how much water we can own, and whether we should have the right and ability to save and trade what we don’t use with others in our system for a price we voluntarily negotiate.
Only by doing so can we ensure water has real value in exchange to match its value in use. Only then can we return efficiency gains back to the natural world. Only then can be unlock virtual markets within natural monopolies.
Only then can we vanquish forever the crippling and perverse Three Paradoxes of Water. At that point we won’t need an external World Water Day reminding us to value our liquid asset. We’ll intrinsically and emphatically treasure it 365 days a year.
James G. Workman (a PERC Enviropreneur Institute alum) is author of Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought. He is also an entrepreneur who is translating the proven system that has sustained indigenous people of the Kalahari Desert into an online, utility-based system that could unleash a widespread, egalitarian race to conserve water and energy in cities worldwide.