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Cover: Burdened with debt. Illustration: Images.com/corbis
Water: Life in Every Drop Julian Caldecott Virgin Books, UK, 2007, £12.99
THIS BOOK SHOULD be read far, wide and as soon as possible. Why? Because water is critical to all life, yet is fast becoming an endangered resource around the world; and because this book does an excellent job of promoting a rational, effective, trans-ideological approach to environmental decision-making.
We are living in an age which seems to have become a dangerous high-wire act: more unstable and ill-advised by the day. The typical ‘Earth in peril’ book describes this in different ways, and focuses on different issues, but rarely does one identify as many linkages as this one does, partly because water is the common denominator in all Earthly things. Nothing can exist beyond its influence – even politics and political processes. Critically, Julian Caldecott succinctly identifies what mistakes in decision-making have been made in our dealings with water bodies, and shows how we can rethink policymaking, as well as why we must.
When going into the scientific, the book is also clear and accessible. The description of the formation of water on our planet is breathtaking. It seems as though there was but the barest chance of us getting here at all. The complex, precarious conditions involved in establishing a world that would allow higher intelligence to evolve are so rarely considered in the public discourse. Is it arrogance and hubris, or even religious doctrine, that prevents us from dwelling on how fragile the conditions are for supporting human life on Earth? Reflection on this, as on our mortality and fragility, can give us more perspective, and more appreciation of the blessing of existence – and hopefully subvert our material desires.
One of the most striking things about the book is its enchanting descriptive passages. The David Attenborough voiceover is almost there. It takes me back to watching Wildlife on One as a child, and being effortlessly drawn into alien, sub-aquatic worlds, to explore the lives of creatures I might never know but could gaze in wonder at from a suburban living room thousands of miles away.
But Caldecott is also brutally realistic. Nothing here to shield us from the harsh truths that lie just beyond the shimmering imagery. We are confronted by accounts of humanity savaging the environment, groups using every possible technological tool to increase their share of the harvest, governments getting it horribly wrong, corruption and ignorance creating desperate tragedies which are repeated again and again. Even the financial costs of trying to ‘correct’ Nature for our purposes run into trillions worldwide, but the short-term decision-making habit of contemporary humanity doggedly and dangerously remains.
Clearly, as a matter of priority, decision-making processes around the world must be examined to see what is wrong and what can be done to correct them. Caldecott alludes to the destructive relationship between government and corporate lobby groups, about which much more must be written and exposed.
Two dominant models of society and approaches to environmental decision-making are discussed through an interesting and useful framing device: Confucian (hard, imperial, mechanistic) versus Taoist (soft, liberal, organic). Although philosophical theory often gives a ‘one or the other’ view of such approaches, Caldecott argues that there is utility in both, but that only Taoism also seeks harmony with Nature.
The book itself is a valuable tool from which people can learn. But it is delivered in a way that transcends ideology, that avoids getting caught up in dealing with the political spectrum. What it concentrates on is asking lean and practical questions: what can we learn from this? How should we do things differently? By what criteria can we judge the correctness of a policy or a practice? How do we work with local communities and stakeholders to maintain the healthy function of water bodies?
Eco-rationalism is embodied in this approach. Asking how we can collaborate with Nature in a healthy and sustainable fashion should be done without being distracted by political labels or becoming bogged down in the complaints of vested interests. We have seen what doesn’t work, as Caldecott outlines; now, as he further shows in his vision of the future at the book’s climax, let us decide to remake our minds, and rationally and fairly remake our world, in order to serve the interests of all life.