Satiating Cultural Thirst

In 2003, at the end of the United Nations International Year of Freshwater, the University of Applied Sciences Basle and Zurich University in conjunction with the Consul International des Femmes à Genève organized a conference under the theme of “Cultural Diversity and International Solidarity.  “Anyone thinking about the future of humanity must take water into account. Water has become a fateful question.” Rosmarie Bör, Swiss Coalition

Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned, “The global water crisis had become the major challenge facing the international community. The UN environmental authority UNEP reiterated the same theme by stating that the freshwater crisis was on the same scale and potentially just as dangerous as climate change.”

We have been warned. Twelve years ago, we were warned. We were warned that the state of the freshwater supply is in a calamitous state. Rosmarie Bör from the Swiss Coalition stated, “Any discussion of water must entail a discussion of policy. But not (merely) of classical development policy. Water policy is just as closely tied in with land and farm policy, trade and economic policy, environmental, social, healthcare and gender policy. But above all, water policy is human rights and cultural policy. For nothing has pervaded the history of human civilization and its cultures as much as the handling, distribution and use of water.”  We must look as this situation from a new perspective - one without political delineations and interest groups skewing the points-of-view. We need to look at the water supply from the practical perspective of long-term sustainability - so that we may sustain our existence on Earth.

The scope of the problem is huge. The facts:

  • The water crisis is the #1 global risk based on impact to society (as a measure of devastation), and the #8 global risk based on likelihood (likelihood of occurring within 10 years) as announced by the World Economic Forum, January 2015

  • 750 million people around the world lack access to safe water; approximately one in nine people.

  • More than twice the population of the United States lives without access to safe water.

  • Diarrhea caused by inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene kills an estimated 842,000 people every year globally, or approximately 2,300 people per day.

  • 82% of those who lack access to improved water live in rural areas, while just 18% live in urban areas.

Water is becoming scarce. Water has become another in the list of natural resources we take advantage of. We have been warned.

In reviewing Jane Jacob’s “Dark Ages Ahead” and Mark Hertsgaard “How Growers Gamed California’s Drought,” both authors make rational and logical arguments that educated leaders should be able to draw the conclusion that without action concerning our culture, and specifically our water supply (which ensures some level of food security), we are positioning ourselves for a calamity. Based on these arguments, logic should prevail. However, Dale Carnegie reminds us that, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.”

In his article titled “How Growers Gamed California’s Drought,” Mark Hertsgaard makes a seemingly simple argument of who is benefitting from the use of the water in the California’s Central Valley, in the midst of the record setting drought. California’s agriculture is responsible for the consumption of approximately 80% of California’s “developed water.” However, agriculture is responsible for only 2% of the state’s gross domestic product. This lack of balance should raise questions beyond what is being offered at this point.  Hertsgaard’s case though simple, is filled with wisdom. Covering topics such as greed, pricing structures, federal and state policy decisions/subsidies and politics, and crop decisions. The underlying theme is that the current strategy is seriously flawed and that the current state of politics is negatively affecting the supplying aquifers exposing the state to irretrievable harm.

In her book titled “Dark Ages Ahead,” Jacobs posits that we – who live in the Western culture of North America and Western Europe - should acknowledge the instructive signs, which are indicating the decay and potential collapse of the culture we enjoy. Jacobs, as a cultural worker, purports that – while gloomy – we can work to avoid the inevitable Dark Age by understanding the inputs that contribute to the calamity of cultural collapse.

Jacobs argues that there are five pillars that are critical to maintain to the survival of our culture. And, she believes that they are in danger and are becoming more and more irrelevant. The five pillars include:

  • Community and family

  • Higher Education

  • The effective practice of science and science-based technology

  • Taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities

  • Self-policing by learned professions.

For the sake of this bog, I believe the focus and emphasis of the argument lay in the latter of the three and in the following order:

  • Self-policing by learned professions. Sustainability – both in terms of cultures (organization, worker, employee and community associated with the agriculture and farms mentioned in Hertsgaard’s article) as well as natural resources requires that the learned leaders and professionals make a commitment to the industry/product or service they are producing in for the sake of the capability to be able to produce in the long run. By understanding the implications of the natural resources and how they are being consumed, professionals can collectively make decisions for the short-term as well as create a vision by which the entirety of the community or company can support.

  • Taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities. While on one hand, I am impressed with the market Paramount Farms has been able to create for pistachios through a campaign featuring a Superbowl TV campaign. Furthermore, the pistachios marketing team was been able to create a high-energy, frenzied like environment at a grower assembly, as a means to celebrate the collective success of the community. The celebration was based on the fact that pistachios have been able to increase the wholesale price per pound to an incredible yield, which has positive effects on California’s gross domestic product. Great. However, what are the long-term effects of the planting and harvesting crops, which require high volumes of water? According to the article, California is the world’s eight largest economy, which produces nearly half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables consumed in the US, and approximately 90% of the almonds, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and other specialty crops. Crops that are important to our way of life. Our culture. The hard to understand part is where is the government leadership and policy development to make the situation in California better. Or, even better, sustainable. Jacobs discusses Jared Diamond’s example of Mesopotamia – also known as the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers – thought to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden, which was a thriving source of innovation and renaissance for some 9000 years. However, with all of the advantages the region offered, over the period of more than 18 centuries it lost its cultural direction and was subsequently passed around from invader to invader. Today, the region faces much of the same conflict. For California, the long-term effect may be different. No water. At that point, the eighth largest economy in the world will no longer be able to – under the same set of rules – continue to operate in the same manner. Rules will change for agriculture because the proper steps were not implemented by the ruling authority of time to prevent the inevitable outcome. Prices for a threatened natural resource will be unmanageable though they are now controlled by government policy with the influence of social forces. Water will shift the culture of agriculture.

  • The effective practice of science and science-based technology. Though Hertsgaard does not address the potential steps that could be taken to reduce the negative effects of agriculture’s water consumption from a scientific perspective, surely – with our infatuation of science – we could either develop an alternative to California or better communicate the short- and long-term negative effect(s) of the water shortage and the drought. However, based on the limited amount of research I have conducted on the matter, in this case, maybe Jacobs article should be titled “Science Ignored” vs. “Science Abandoned.”  While I understand the difference between her perspective and my assertion, the role, approach and methodology of science become somewhat irrelevant as long as there is a reasonable solution to the problem in question.


Both of these authors argue, quite convincingly, for their own thesis. Jacob’s is beyond affective in making the case that our western culture is decaying to the point in which participants will not be able to recover of the negatives or lost memories being ushered out. But, as previously stated, we have been warned. By way of example through civilizations that have made poor decisions and failed, in terms of loosing the direction of their culture. In our culture, the media is constantly “reporting” and reminding us of the errors of our way – in a way that has created a deafening effect – one in which we don’t even hear what is be offered to us as reliable and sage advice. As in the case of California, I am sure that water is a significant topic of conversation for its residents. A topic that I am sure will be tuned out by some and absorbed by others.

I am confident to say that – if it were possible – to gather a group of the most influential people (relative to the water crisis) in California, Jacobs and Hertsgaard would be able to make a case for immediate action and future debate based on the premises of their respective works. To a point in which people would realize – not only the negative effects of the drought in California – but rather to understand the implications no action would have on their culture, in the long term.

Andy Kovan