In homage to Smokey Bear’s 73rd birthday, a reflection on water.

You have been deputized, by any and all environmental groups, to do something about resource consumption. Yes, you, the individual. Because, we are told, one multiplied by thousands and even millions becomes many. This kind of multiplication of ‘one’ is seen all around the internet. For example, Woodchuck uses the tagline, “buy one, plant one” meaning that if you buy one of their products, they’ll plant a tree. The Nature Conservancy (among others) provides a carbon footprint calculator so you can know how your household rates. And, perhaps the most ubiquitous expression is in the petition. Sign up to receive news from the Sierra Club and you are guaranteed a petition a week which, with just one more signature added to many others, is destined to communicate something important. The one flows into the many to create a swell of influence and change.

Or so we believe.

Smokey, straight talking for 73 years.

But the one and the many are simply not enough. By the time an individual receives the information needed to persuade him or her, damage is already done. As I type, the Cascade region has been enshrouded in smoke from B.C. wildfires for a full week. The particulates in the air are still dangerous to breathe beyond minimal exposure. And, while the daytime highs are coming down, we are on day 12 of 80+ degrees, day 52 with no rain. No rain, in Seattle.

Wildfires are a normal part of the season. What is disconcerting is that they start earlier in the season, last longer, and hit some unusual places. For example, in 2015 the Hoh Rainforest caught fire, in June. Those two words–rainforest and fire–are not supposed to be used in the same sentence, except once every 500 or so years. For the Pacific Northwest region, the new normal of climate change comes in a haze of smoke with less and less water to temper the flames.

You have heard it said, “Conserve water by taking shorter showers,” but that isn’t enough. In fact, according to an Orion article by Derrick Jensen, it doesn’t even really address the situation. Contrary to consumer culture belief, it is not all about you because the vast majority of our water is redirected before it hits the tap. You do not have access to 90% of the water currently consumed. It goes predominantly to agriculture and to manufacturing. Sure, the juicy tomatoes and cucumbers are a manifestation of some of that water, as is the wheat that went into the hamburger buns–and don’t forget all the water needed to raise cattle for hamburger meat. Thinking of going vegetarian? While it might eventually reduce some agricultural water consumption, your one change is but a drop of dew.

But I want to make a difference–or feel something other than helplessness. And Grist.org would love for us all to believe we can use the power of individual choice to make a difference. They have the infographic to prove it. Yet in this instance, the ‘proven’ change culminates with “Have one fewer child”. How many families would consider whether or not to have a child in the same way they think about, say, car ownership? Even the editors hinted that might not be a compelling message by highlighting the “real takeaway” that personal choice matters, and every action counts.

What we are up against requires a tectonic shift in the rhetoric. The accumulation of personal choices will begin to make a difference when they are an expression of many voicing their dissent against the primary users of water: industrialized agriculture and major manufacturers. But this is a radical message for consumer culture because we are supposed to power progress and good change through buying more, or at least buying into the myth that the best thing we can do is simply take care of ourselves.

 

Listen to the opening paragraph of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si:

“Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

Mother Earth, our common home, is the conduit of God’s care and sustenance for humanity. But we have split her open for rare minerals and to mine her veins.

He continues, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” We are plunderers, and we violate the very soil that nurtures us. This is not a new message. It is a confession of sin much like that recited with each communion. The underlying question is, does ‘we’ mean ‘me’? Read in the consumer culture of North America, we only pertains to me–it is not connected to brands, labels, box stores, and corporate entities. Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned, is the more common confession of sin. In film, in newspapers and on Sunday mornings, we are so consumed with the sins of every-one, that we do not look upstream to see those redirecting the pipes at their source.

You have heard it said, ‘Take shorter showers, and turn out the lights’; but I say to you, follow the waters from tap to source, and find out who it is that drinks deep from our sister’s aquifers, draining her sides with unfathomable speed.

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