Thursday, April 19, 2012

Maude Barlow Speaks on the Global Water Crisis at SMC

As I mentioned in my last two posts, this past week at SMC we've been celebrating Earth Week, and tonight we had the privilege of hosting our keynote speaker, Maude Barlow, in the McCarthy Arts Center. Mrs. Barlow is a well-known activist for human and water rights issues, a best-selling author, the recipient of eleven honorary doctorates, as well as an incredibly personable human being. Her talk today was on the topic of the "global water crisis", which was incredibly informative as well as appropriate given the recent Bottle Free SMC campaign, which is backed by Green Up.

She began her talk with a funny anecdote about a student at an American university who, while she was speaking at a sustainability weekend there, offered her a plastic water bottle. She politely refused, she said, and then shocked the student when she told him that she would be fine drinking water from a tap. The audience laughed, and it was nice because it was a light-hearted way of showing that we, as a species, have a long way to go. 

After this, she mentioned the photo of her that was projected on a screen (pictured right, in poor quality) standing next to some SMC students while at the Keystone XL Protest surrounding the White House last November. For those who don't know, this protest was against plans by a corporation called TransCanada, which was planning to build a crude oil pipeline from Alberta, CA, through the Oglala Aquifer (once one of the biggest groundwater systems in the world) and down to the gulf of Mexico to be refined. Mrs. Barlow briefed the audience on this conflict, and highlighted the sheer absurdity of the situation. 

"So what do you do when you have a wonderful aquifer like that, that's already in danger, with many thousands of jobs dependent on it? Well, just put a pipeline that for sure is going to leak with the world's most corrosive oil, of course that's what you do; I mean are we all crazy?"

She then transitioned into her talk about the "global water crisis". She began by saying that "the most important thing I want you to come away with that we're a planet running out of fresh available water." These words might take some people by surprise, because it discounts the idea most of us learned in elementary school that there's a cycle of water which cleans and contains all fresh water. But this is apparently not true, and she explained why; "we're taking water from where we can access it, and we're polluting it, or we're diverting it, or pumping it out of the ground." These practices neither benefit the planet nor replace the removed water, and this is a problem, she said.

My mind was blown, and what ensued for the next thirty minutes was a combined slew of some things I already knew, some things which I thought I had known that were apparently not true, as well as some things that I had no idea were true. Some examples: most major rivers don't reach the ocean anymore because they're diverted to grow things like food and cotton in inappropriate areas, massive amounts of land-based water is sent from major cities as waste into the ocean (which is a huge factor in rising sea levels), and a lot of the water we lose can be understood through the concept of "virtual water".

Virtual water is a concept which basically represents the amount of water that is used to produce any given thing, and the example that she used was of a beef steak taking an Olympic-sized swimming pool amount of water to be produced. Throughout the duration of her talk she explained why both virtual water and real water are connected to other issues, such as climate change and food justice. They're all connected, she said. And they're all relevant to everyone. It's easy for us to write off a drought in the third world as something that's too far removed for us to be able to deal with. But when these droughts are a result of our current economic system of trade agreements and otherwise, and when there are forty-thousand something people in Detroit without running water who have to walk to retrieve enough to bathe (reminiscent of women and children in the third world doing the same), we have a different issue. But it's always been this issue; it's always been this close to home, it's just that it's increasingly visible and always getting worse. Unless something is done about it.

I came away with something extremely important from this talk. Like she said, that we're running out of fresh available water, and that we need to do something to change it. But more than that, we're in a position to change it. We're the 1% in a global consumer perspective, and we have the power and the capital to change this issue and so many more.

At the end of her talk, she left us with the words of her ninety-five-year-old activist friend. In regard to the commonly shared feeling of being overwhelmed by social justice issues to the point that it feels like we have to pick and choose, or care about one over another, she quoted this friend, saying "Activism is like taking a bath, you do it every day, or you stink".

Green-Uppers posing for a photo with Maude Barlow after the event.

Thanks for reading, and a HUGE thanks to Maude Barlow for coming to SMC!

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