In Winter 2009, ARCADE published "Water 2.0: Aquatic Dysfunctions," feature edited by Jason F. McLennan, which offered a new perspective on water and explored how design can help us form a healthier, more sustainable relationship with this valuable resource. Below is McLennan's introduction to the feature. McLennan is the CEO of the International Living Future Institute and will be a keynote speaker at their 2014 unConference, 21 - 23 May in Portland, along with Maya Lin and Jay Harman.
“Water is the one substance from which the earth can conceal nothing; it sucks out its innermost secrets and brings them to our very lips.” —Jean Giraudoux, The Madwoman of Chaillot, 1945
I have always found that metaphors are one of the most useful tools in helping to convey complex ideas clearly and succinctly. Here’s one you might find a bit shocking and abrasive, yet on close scrutiny is tragically accurate:
When it comes to our relationship with water, humanity’s actions are so dysfunctional that it is safe to say that we have a psychopathic relationship with the resource.
True psychosis manifests itself in actions that are disconnected from reality, including delusional beliefs that can be violent, disturbing and self-destructive. And humanity often reserves its worst behaviors for those closest to it—the “flame burns hottest closest to the source,” as they say—and the world is full of domestic disturbances and abuses to those that should by definition be the furthest from harm—our families, friends and the people in our communities.
Let’s look at water. No natural resource could be closer to us; water is our family, it is us. Here is a substance that is not only critical to our very survival but is in fact the whole basis for the existence of life on this planet. As David Suzuki says in the book A Sacred Balance, “We are water—the oceans flow through our veins, and our cells are inflated by water, our metabolic reactions mediated in aqueous solution.”
In fact, as a species we are approximately 65-percent water—it defines and shapes us in every way imaginable, physically and spiritually, from our first few months in the womb, when we are literally enveloped by it, to life outside the womb, where we need to be constantly replenished with eight to ten cups of clean water each day to survive.
The world, being a finite, interconnected place, means that given time, we drink and breathe in water molecules that have been in every ocean, every river, every lake on the planet and inside of every animal, insect and person. We are all connected—truly—through the water on this great, blue rock.
Only a psychopath would seriously think it was okay then to take something so profound and so essential to our core being and to wantonly abuse it, degrade it and pollute it. Given that we depend so greatly on the quality of this resource—and given that it all literally comes back to become a part of us—you would think that our cultures would have created taboos, procedures and technologies that go out of their way to protect, nurture and improve its quality and conserve its use! Only a truly delusional and dysfunctional civilization would institutionalize practices and procedures that could pose a threat to its very own long-term survival.
A vast majority of our water is used in feeding us and in making the “things” we use in our daily lives—in other words, agriculture and industry. Both are leading causes of water pollution and water scarcity. The balance comes from daily consumption in our homes, offices and places of recreation. Americans use the most water per person of anyone on the planet—nearly 60 gallons/individual/day.
It’s not a good record.
Every time we dump heavy metals, PCBs, industrial chemicals and fertilizers into water, we dump them into our own mouths and those of our children and grandchildren. Every time we wantonly use water, waste it, over-pump it and hurry it along through pipes and pumps rather than through natural flows and natural ecological cycles, we steal from future generations.
The very behavior that should be viewed as “crazy” is in fact codified in our regulations, building codes and water laws and worse still in our cultural taboos. We flush our toilets with clean, potable water when we shouldn’t be defecating in our water supply to begin with. We irrigate lawns and fill our swimming pools in the American Southwest—behaviors supported by price signals that make the resource so cheap that nobody even cares about it. We spend billions on moving water around in pipes—instead of taking care of and responsibly using the water we already have at hand.
When progressive individuals try to realign their relationships with water—through rainwater collection systems, composting toilets and greywater re-use, just to name a few—they are discouraged through regulatory barriers and financial obstacles.
We need some serious therapy!
The solutions to the water challenges we face exist today. It is possible to build living buildings and living communities that are completely water independent—even in the driest parts of the country. Living Buildings use water super-efficiently; they capture all of their water needs through rainfall and snowmelt. Water is then reused multiple times and treated on-site without chemicals in a nearly closed-loop process. As more and more projects are proving, it is now possible to completely transform our relationship with water and waste from a psychopathic one to one which is balanced and well-adjusted.
The articles in this edition of ARCADE are meant to give just a glimpse towards a saner approach, with each author outlining one piece of an overall integrated approach to water use. It is clearly time to cure ourselves of our deep-rooted aquatic dysfunctions.