Aengus Anderson: Welcome back to The Conversation. I'm Aengus Anderson.

Micah Saul: I'm Micah Saul.

Neil Prendergast: I'm Neil Prendergast.

Anderson: And today's interview is with Peter Gleick. He's the cofounder of the Pacific Institute, a think tank dedicated to international and domestic water policy. He's won a MacArthur "Genius" fellowship, and has been deeply involved in crafting water policy with the United Nations. In other words, Peter knows a lot about water.


Peter Gleick: The water cri­sis is unfor­tu­nate­ly a lot of dif­fer­ent things. It’s hard to pin it down. In part because water is a glob­al resource, of course. But it’s also a local resource. Water’s con­nect­ed to the require­ment to grow food for the world’s pop­u­la­tion. It’s con­nect­ed to our nat­ur­al ecosys­tems. It’s part of the cli­mate sys­tem and the hydro­log­ic cycle. It’s part of our indus­tri­al sys­tem.

So, the water cri­sis is dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple in dif­fer­ent places. And when peo­ple ask me well, There’s a water cri­sis, real­ly? What kind of a water cri­sis is there?” If there’s any­thing that in my opin­ion defines the water cri­sis, it’s that it’s now the 21st cen­tu­ry and we have failed to pro­vide safe water and san­i­ta­tion to every­one on the plan­et. There are a bil­lion peo­ple or so with­out access to safe drink­ing water. There are two and a half bil­lion peo­ple with­out access to san­i­ta­tion ser­vices, some­thing that I and my com­mu­ni­ty basi­cal­ly take for grant­ed. That’s a gross fail­ure. It’s a cri­sis. It leads to bad things. It leads to water-related dis­eases and cholera and dysen­tery and typhoid and prob­a­bly two mil­lion deaths a year—unnecessary, pre­ventable deaths from water-related dis­eases. And there are many oth­er aspects of the world’s water cri­sis. That one is the one that both­ers me the most, I guess.

We’ve been lucky in the United States, in the sense that we start­ed indus­tri­al­iz­ing in the 1800s. The United States was where some of the great­est advances in water and san­i­ta­tion occurred, almost exact­ly 100 years ago. We start­ed build­ing the sophis­ti­cat­ed water fil­tra­tion, water chlo­ri­na­tion, water treat­ment sys­tems that in the United States elim­i­nat­ed those water-related dis­eases that are still ram­pant in much of the rest of the world. Cholera, typhoid, dysen­tery, those were com­mon dis­eases in the United States in the 1800s and even in the ear­ly 1900s. And we’ve now van­quished them, most­ly. We’ve got­ten rid of them. Precisely because we invest­ed in inno­v­a­tive tech­nol­o­gy and mod­ern water sys­tems to pro­vide safe water and san­i­ta­tion.

Now, I can’t not men­tion the fact that even today in the United States, there are pop­u­la­tions with­out access to safe drink­ing water and ade­quate san­i­ta­tion ser­vices. There are peo­ple, espe­cial­ly in rur­al America, who do not have safe drink­ing water. And they either don’t know it, or they do now and we’ve not addressed the prob­lem.

So it’s not a uniquely…developing coun­try prob­lem. We have even in the United States seri­ous and grow­ing water scarci­ty chal­lenges. We have con­t­a­m­i­na­tion prob­lems with chem­i­cals that we have not ade­quate­ly reg­u­lat­ed here in the United States. We have con­flicts between states in the United States about who gets to use what water to do what. We have evi­dence that cli­mate change is already influ­enc­ing water demand, affect­ing water avail­abil­i­ty, chang­ing extreme events. There are a whole suite of water-related prob­lems, here, unre­lat­ed to these basic human need chal­lenges that’re press­ing in oth­er parts of the world.

Aengus Anderson: Do you think that we are tak­ing ade­quate steps to rem­e­dy any of these prob­lems?

Gleick: Well, yes and no. In gen­er­al no, I think. For too long we’ve tak­en water for grant­ed. That we turn on the tap and, almost every­where in the United States, incred­i­bly high-quality potable water at an incred­i­bly low price comes out. And that’s the way it’s been for a long time. It’s the cheap­est ser­vice that we have. It’s cheap­er than our cell phones. It’s cheap­er than our cable TV. It’s cheap­er than our Internet con­nec­tion. It’s cheap­er than our ener­gy bill. Of all the util­i­ties, almost every­where water’s the cheap­est. As a result, we’ve often ignored water and water-related prob­lems.

But I do think that’s chang­ing. And peo­ple care enor­mous­ly about water when there are prob­lems. And I think there are remark­ably inno­v­a­tive things that are going on in some places.

Anderson: If there’s type of thought that sort of char­ac­ter­ize our cur­rent approach to water, what would you say that is?

Gleick: Well it’s cer­tain­ly frag­ment­ed and for the most part unin­formed. We don’t have a nation­al water pol­i­cy. Or, we do by default, but not by intent. There’s also just a gen­er­al lack of under­stand­ing about where our water comes from, and what we do with it, and what’s required to pro­tect the nat­ur­al ecosys­tems and what the val­ue of nat­ur­al ecosys­tems are. And there’s a lot of igno­rance about the nature of our water prob­lems.

Anderson: We live in a mar­ket soci­ety. And that is a log­ic that under­lies a lot of how we approach the world. Like, your cell phone bill you expect to be part of the mar­ket. Water of course, you’ve got 19th-century law, you’ve got much old­er com­mon law tra­di­tions. But you’ve also got a trend towards think­ing of it as a mar­ket com­mod­i­ty, cor­rect?

Gleick: We do live in a market-dominated, cap­i­tal­is­tic kind of econ­o­my. And water doesn’t fit in well with that frame­work and that struc­ture. The prob­lem with water and mar­kets also reflects in part a con­tra­dic­tion between the idea of water as a human right and water as an eco­nom­ic good. Water is both of those things. After a very very long, multi-decade dis­cus­sion and debate at the United Nations, for exam­ple, access to water and san­i­ta­tion were final­ly declared a for­mal human right at the inter­na­tion­al legal lev­el, in 2010.

But water is also an eco­nom­ic good. We pay for water. Often not enough, but we pay for water, or, for water ser­vices. We have to fig­ure out a way to fund the infra­struc­ture to pro­vide that safe water out of our taps and to take away mag­i­cal­ly the waste water when we’re done with it. We price water in some places and we don’t in oth­er places. We think about mar­kets for water, but water’s hard to move from one place to anoth­er. The idea of water as a mar­ket good, as an eco­nom­ic good, is a chal­lenge. I think it’s an impor­tant tool in solu­tions but it can’t be the only one. Because it’s not like a tra­di­tion­al good.

Anderson: Do you think this is some­thing where we can arrive at bet­ter solu­tions for deal­ing with water and solv­ing our water-related prob­lems— Can we arrive at that pre­emp­tive­ly through con­ver­sa­tion? Or is it some­thing that we have to have some sort of cri­sis to gal­va­nize?

Gleick: Well we’ve nev­er been good at solv­ing our prob­lems in any sphere before a cri­sis occurs. I just… I don’t know whether that’s human nature or the nature, of our insti­tu­tions, or the nature of our gov­er­nance struc­tures. But, it’s a rare prob­lem that is seen and ade­quate­ly addressed in advance.

There’s a great quote which I’m gonna man­gle from East of Eden in which Steinbeck says, In the wet years they for­got about the dry years. And in the dry years they for­got about the wet years. And it was always that way and it always will be.”

And that’s the truth. In the dry years, we get upset and we get active and we get inno­v­a­tive about deal­ing with water. And then it rains and we have a wet year, a series of wet years, and the cri­sis dimin­ish­es. So it’s two steps for­ward, two steps back. Sometimes it’s two steps for­ward, three steps back. I’m not san­guine about the idea that we will ade­quate­ly address our water prob­lems before they become seri­ous­ly prob­lem­at­ic.

Anderson: When we hit that point when there is ten­sion between the states that’s unbear­able. Say, agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­ers are get­ting squeezed by cities. How do you think we will deal with those prob­lems? Will we come up with inno­v­a­tive solu­tions or do you think that this could lead to some sort of real melt­down in how we address prob­lems? I’m curious…your take on that in the water realm, but real­ly that’s kind of a human nature ques­tion.

Gleick: Yes,” is the answer to that. [Anderson laughs] We’re going to do both of those things. We will see grow­ing com­pe­ti­tion, for exam­ple, between agri­cul­tur­al water use and urban water use, which is sort of the big split on the water use side. And seri­ous polit­i­cal dis­lo­ca­tion as a result of that. But I also believe that we will see smart, innovati—and are already seeing—smart and inno­v­a­tive and thought­ful solu­tions put for­ward to reduce the prob­lems that we see.

Part of the answer I guess is depen­dent on who’s prepar­ing for these things, and how we’re prepar­ing, and what the costs of imple­ment­ing solu­tions are ver­sus the per­ceived costs of doing noth­ing? And if there is a good per­cep­tion that look, there’re smart things that we can do now that might ben­e­fit every­body and that will reduce the risk of seri­ous dis­lo­ca­tion lat­er, then maybe the pres­sure to do those smart things will over­whelm the iner­tia of doing noth­ing which we see too often.

Anderson: And I want to con­nect this into an eco­nom­ics con­ver­sa­tion. I mean, do you think that if we hit that point with water where push comes to shove and we have to real­ly start mak­ing hard deci­sions, do you think that we can make the right ones with the sta­tus quo eco­nom­ic think­ing?

Gleick: It’s not just an eco­nom­ic ques­tion. Part of the prob­lem around water is relat­ed to the legal struc­tures and the insti­tu­tions we put in place, and in par­tic­u­lar the water rights sit­u­a­tion. So, this gets back to this ques­tion about eco­nom­ics and mar­kets. We can’t solve the water prob­lem pure­ly with eco­nom­ics and mar­kets because we’ve set up a non-economic, non-market sys­tem, a legal sys­tem that allo­cates water, espe­cial­ly in the west­ern United States, to first in right, first in time users. That’s the legal pri­or appro­pri­a­tions doc­trine. And so it almost doesn’t mat­ter for many users what the price of water is. What mat­ters is who has the right, the legal right, to use a cer­tain allo­ca­tion.

Changing that struc­ture, the water rights struc­ture, is a very very dif­fi­cult thing. And one of the rea­sons why I think we are head­ing at least in some parts of the west­ern United States for polit­i­cal dis­rup­tions over water is because it’s not as sim­ple as just putting a price on water. It’s not as sim­ple as just say­ing, Alright, the real solution’s let’s just have some mar­kets. We can bid for water and who­ev­er pays more can put it to a higher-value use and the econ­o­my will ben­e­fit, and…” That’s not the way it’s gonna work. That’s going to lead to dif­fi­cult polit­i­cal debates.

Anderson: That’s inter­est­ing. So it’s almost more of a polit­i­cal issue just in terms of ossi­fied law then it is a mar­ket issue.

Gleick: Well that’s right. I mean, I’m a sci­en­tist by train­ing but I believe very strong­ly in pric­ing and mar­kets for prop­er allo­ca­tion of resources. But there is this con­flict between water as a human right and water as an eco­nom­ic good, and water is both. And in the West we don’t always allo­cate water under mar­ket sys­tems. In fact we rarely allo­cate water under mar­ket sys­tems. And so my econ­o­mist friends who say, intel­lec­tu­al­ly let’s just put a price on water are aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly right but polit­i­cal­ly naïve. Because that’s not the way the sys­tem is set up, and that alone won’t be enough.

Anderson: Given the cur­rent dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er sur­round­ing water and water rights, do you think there’s any way to demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly unlock that? I mean, you have these peo­ple who’ve got water rights going back you know, 100 years or more. Perhaps agri­cul­tur­al areas that are legit­i­mate­ly pro­duc­ing use­ful goods, right, that are being con­sumed else­where. So to dri­ve them out of it, that seems like that would be real­ly…not only polit­i­cal­ly dif­fi­cult but eco­nom­i­cal­ly prob­lem­at­ic because in the end you’re just shift­ing resources. You know, maybe your allow­ing your city to grow but you’re cut­ting off some of the food sup­ply that would’ve gone into it. It seems like there are mul­ti­ple aspects that would make that legal adjust­ment very dif­fi­cult.

Gleick: Well, first of all there’s a mis­con­cep­tion here. Which is that no one is propos­ing or fore­see­ing tak­ing water away com­plete­ly from agri­cul­ture.

Anderson: Oh no, I wasn’t sug­gest­ing that.

Gleick: And so, real­ly the ques­tion could be reframed in the fol­low­ing way: is there a way to main­tain a healthy, pro­duc­tive agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem in the United States that uses less water? And frees up some water for indus­tri­al goods, for grow­ing urban demands, for nat­ur­al ecosys­tems. For restor­ing the health of our rivers. And if you reframe it that way, I think the answer is very clear­ly yes. And I think that’s the right way to go, mov­ing for­ward.

Anderson: So to be talk­ing more about effi­cien­cy than about real­lo­ca­tion, nec­es­sar­i­ly.

Gleick: And much of the work that we do at the Pacific Institute is focused on effi­cien­cy. Defined as doing what we want with less water. Not depri­va­tion. Not tak­ing water away from one user and giv­ing it to anoth­er. But doing what we want with less water. I think that’s fun­da­men­tal. I think that’s key.

I do think that there will have to be a dis­cus­sion about water rights and allo­ca­tion sys­tems. But I don’t think the kinds of changes that we need in those sys­tems are dra­con­ian. I think they’re incre­men­tal, and pos­si­ble. But hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion is polit­i­cal­ly dif­fi­cult just because of the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of the dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties to water rights and law and his­tor­i­cal cus­tom and so on.

Anderson: It also seems like there’s a facet of that where, because of our his­to­ry we end up with say, alfal­fa pro­duc­ers in the Colorado River basin grow­ing a crop that is just not worth much and could be grown else­where, right. And so, even if we achieve effi­cien­cy there, and we don’t want to deal with the polit­i­cal fall­out of a dra­con­ian solu­tion, obvi­ous­ly it would be much more effi­cient to grow that some­where east of the Mississippi. Do you think defi­cien­cy in the cur­rent sys­tem is enough to solve the prob­lems? Or will we even­tu­al­ly need to face some­thing a lit­tle more dra­con­ian like say, put that alfal­fa out east?

Gleick: Well, there’s enor­mous poten­tial for improv­ing effi­cien­cy. And we’ve stud­ied for exam­ple if you have the same crop mix­es today but change irri­ga­tion meth­ods and use sophis­ti­cat­ed soil mois­ture sen­sors and dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems, and reg­u­lat­ed deficit irri­ga­tion (which is a tech­nique for cer­tain kinds of crops), that you can grow the same crop, pro­duce more revenue…because yields go up per unit of water, and decrease water use.

Whether or not in the long run that’s enough, or whether you also have to begin to think about dif­fer­ent crop types, tak­ing some land out of pro­duc­tion, those are more dif­fi­cult ques­tions, polit­i­cal­ly. But even there, giv­en the right sig­nals and the right insti­tu­tions and the right pric­ing struc­tures, farm­ers change what they do over time. Just look­ing at California, there’s been a remark­able shift in what we grow over the last thir­ty years. We grow a lot less of the four big water-intensive crops—that is rice, cot­ton, alfal­fa, and irri­gat­ed pas­ture, and much more of the higher-valued fruits and nuts and veg­etable crops that use less water, pro­duce more rev­enue.

So, there hasn’t been an inten­tion­al effort to do that. There hasn’t been a state pol­i­cy to do that. But water scarci­ty, changes in mar­kets for food, changes in pric­ing of food and water, all of those things have led farm­ers over time to change what they do and where they do it. And if that was some­thing we want­ed to encour­age, I think we could see it hap­pen even faster. And that gives me a lit­tle bit of hope that even with our hide-bound insti­tu­tions, even with the century-old water rights laws, there’s enor­mous oppor­tu­ni­ty to change the way we man­age and deal with our water.

Anderson: Do we run into the Jevons para­dox here, where sav­ings and effi­cien­cy just gen­er­ate more use of water?

Gleick: I hate the Jevons para­dox. [Anderson laughs] I think the Jevons para­dox is…fallacious. It’s a para­dox with a ker­nel of truth and a big­ger mis­un­der­stand­ing.

In the con­text of water, you could cer­tain­ly have an exam­ple, and I could point you to exam­ples where a farmer improves effi­cien­cy, cuts their water demand, and sim­ply takes that water and does some­thing else with it. They grow food on land they hadn’t brought into pro­duc­tion. And does that fall into the Jevons para­dox? I would say no. I think that’s a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of it. Because in fact, one could argue what that is is a farmer using the same amount of water to grow more food. So from a pro­duc­tiv­i­ty point of view, that’s still a great improve­ment. You get more food per unit water. You get more mon­ey to the farmer per unit water. That’s not the Jevons para­dox, that’s pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. And that’s a good thing.

Now, from a soci­etal point of view, we might want that farmer not to reuse that water on ag land but to leave it in the riv­er, for ecosys­tem pur­pos­es. Or to trans­fer it to an urban use. But that’s a pol­i­cy deci­sion, and it’s not in any way an argu­ment that effi­cien­cy doesn’t work. That efficiency’s a bad idea. I just think that’s… And I think the Jevons para­dox has been mis­used in the ener­gy sec­tor as well.

Anderson: How about applied to pop­u­la­tion? So say we’re look­ing at sub­ur­ban devel­op­ment. And say Phoenix switch­es over to xeriscaped lawns. Maybe the city coun­cil goes, Well, that’s an effi­cien­cy sav­ings. Now we can zone X many more areas for sub­di­vi­sion.” So it’s not… The effi­cien­cy in this case is just putting more peo­ple in Phoenix, which may not be a pro­duc­tiv­i­ty gain in the same way that adding anoth­er crop from your sav­ings is.

Gleick: I’m sor­ry, but it is a pro­duc­tiv­i­ty gain, in cer­tain people’s minds. In the sense—

Anderson: Oh, total­ly.

Gleick: —in the sense of, you can pro­vide for more peo­ple with­out increas­ing your demand on nat­ur­al resources. I think that’s a good thing.

Now, is it a good thing that pop­u­la­tions are mov­ing to these arid regions where we just don’t have the water for them? That’s a plan­ning ques­tion. It’s a pop­u­la­tion ques­tion. It’s an urban devel­op­ment ques­tion. And it’s one that we’re not ade­quate­ly ask­ing or answer­ing. So, is that an appro­pri­ate use of saved water? No, not nec­es­sar­i­ly. But that’s a deci­sion not for a water man­ag­er to make, but for soci­ety to make, and for urban plan­ners to make, and for cities to make. You know, I don’t know why peo­ple move to hot, dry places. Well, if I lived in Minneapolis prob­a­bly I would know.

But you can’t encour­age inef­fi­cient use of water in order to try to dis­cour­age peo­ple from mov­ing to a place. I just think that’s got it back­wards. I think you use your nat­ur­al resources as effi­cient­ly as pos­si­ble, and the broad­er ques­tions about who ought to live where and what we ought to do with our nat­ur­al resources, those ques­tions have to be addressed direct­ly.

Anderson: We’ve been talk­ing about pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and effi­cien­cy. And I kind of want to get into what that’s for. You know, this is a project about ques­tion­ing sta­tus quos, and a lot of peo­ple talk about progress, and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and effi­cien­cy in ways that are often ill-defined and typ­i­cal­ly just seem to equate to…more. More peo­ple, more stuff…

I’ve had oth­er peo­ple in this project who said, Well, that doesn’t real­ly address any qual­i­ty of life things. Actually you don’t need any of those things for a qual­i­ty life. Efficiency should be work­ing towards sim­pler lives, and less stuff.” And for them that’s a goal that could be more effi­cient­ly met. So in this case, as we talk about progress and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and effi­cien­cy, what are we work­ing towards here? What’s good in this case?

Gleick: Well there a lot of issues there. One is at the sim­plest lev­el, effi­cien­cy and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty for me is doing what we want with few­er impacts on our resources. Using less water, using less ener­gy, hav­ing less of an impact on nat­ur­al ecosys­tems.

The qual­i­ty of life that we have, or want, and the resources nec­es­sary to pro­vide that qual­i­ty of life are two sep­a­rate ques­tions. Whatever qual­i­ty of life we choose to have, the ques­tion of effi­cien­cy and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty means sat­is­fy­ing that qual­i­ty of life with as lit­tle impact as pos­si­ble. And in that sense when I talk about water use effi­cien­cy and water pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, I mean using less water to do what we want.

Now, what do we want? That’s a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent ques­tion. And with­out a doubt ought to be addressed both indi­vid­u­al­ly, in terms of our choic­es as con­sumers, but also col­lec­tive­ly as soci­eties and our impact on the plan­et.

Part of the broad prob­lem of envi­ron­men­tal and sus­tain­abil­i­ty issues is what I would describe as the dis­ease of growth. The assump­tion that we have to grow, grow, grow in order to have a healthy econ­o­my and improv­ing qual­i­ty of life. I think that might’ve been true in a nar­row def­i­n­i­tion in the past. But now I think it’s much more prob­lem­at­ic than ben­e­fi­cial. The ques­tion of pop­u­la­tion dynam­ics. The ques­tion of pop­u­la­tion growth. The ques­tion of demand­ing that our GNP grow two or three or four per­cent a year. I think those are bad things now, not good things. And inte­grat­ing that into a con­ver­sa­tion is hard to do because it gets at the fun­da­men­tals of what most econ­o­mists and politi­cians have assumed to be cor­rect for­ev­er but that I think is no longer cor­rect.

Anderson: Right. And I want to get a lit­tle more into that in a sec­ond, but I want to con­nect that up with effi­cien­cy very quick­ly. If we con­tin­ue to pur­sue effi­cien­cy, do we allow our­selves to car­ry an enor­mous pop­u­la­tion on a frail tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture, and that by build­ing high­er and high­er we’re essen­tial­ly mak­ing the risks high­er should some­thing fall apart?

Gleick: Well you know, that’s cer­tain­ly a risk, and one could argue that we’re already there. If our tech­no­log­i­cal soci­ety broke down in any fun­da­men­tal way, most of us are already way beyond any abil­i­ty to live with­out the fun­da­men­tal sup­ports that our urban struc­tures, and our com­mu­ni­ca­tion struc­tures, and our food deliv­ery sys­tems, and our water deliv­ery sys­tems pro­vide. And so if one was a cat­a­strophist and was con­vinced that cat­a­stro­phe to soci­ety was com­ing, one would want to be as invul­ner­a­ble to those kinds of dis­rup­tions as pos­si­ble. And to some degree that’s what sur­vival­ists are doing. But if that hap­pens, then most of us are screwed any­way. And I don’t think that’s an argu­ment for not improv­ing tech­nol­o­gy and not improv­ing effi­cien­cy.

So, I mean like here’s a mun­dane exam­ple. Think of the low­ly toi­let. Now, we love our toi­lets. They mag­i­cal­ly whisk away our wastes, and we don’t have to think about them. In any urban con­cen­tra­tion, you’re depen­dent on a water sys­tem that deliv­ers water to that toi­let and you’re depen­dent on a waste water treat­ment sys­tem that col­lects and treats it and then gets rid of the…deals with the waste.

But from a pure­ly per­son­al per­spec­tive, the ser­vice that you get out of a toi­let is the same whether your toi­let uses six gal­lons every time it flush­es or is an effi­cient 1.3 dual-flush toi­let. That’s a tech­no­log­i­cal shift. But in fact our old toi­lets used six gal­lons every time we flushed them and the new, mod­ern ones that are actu­al­ly better-performing than the old ones use 1.3 gal­lons every time you flush them and that’s a 70 or 80% reduc­tion in water demand. That’s an improve­ment in effi­cien­cy. The ser­vice that’s pro­vid­ed is the same. There’s no argu­ment against it. It’s an improve­ment with­out a change in our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. I would argue it reduces our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to dis­rup­tion. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Anderson: Technology, you have to take it as an enter­prise. Is the tech­nol­o­gy that gives us that greater effi­cien­cy toi­let also going to cre­ate some­thing that caus­es us to use far more water else­where? Can you break those things apart?

Gleick: Well, some­times. I’m in the mid­dle. I’m a huge fan of inno­v­a­tive tech­nol­o­gy, and I have fears like any­body else that our indus­tri­al­ized soci­ety that has cre­at­ed many of the ben­e­fits that we love also pro­duces a lot of ills that we either don’t see when we’re cre­at­ing them, or have ignored for too long. But it doesn’t have to be one or the oth­er. The trick is devel­op the tech­nolo­gies that’re going to help us, and avoid the tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lems that come with ill-thought-out, ill-planned devel­op­ment.

Anderson: And that seems to get back to what we were kind of mov­ing into ear­li­er, which is the growth par­a­digm.

Gleick: Yeah, in part. So… I mean, are the ills of the world a func­tion of the num­ber of peo­ple on the plan­et, or the tech­nolo­gies and insti­tu­tions and indus­tries that we’ve devel­oped to sup­port the num­ber of peo­ple on the plan­et, or some com­bi­na­tion? And I rebel against any nar­row def­i­n­i­tion of the prob­lem. Some peo­ple say well it’s pop­u­la­tion, and if only those devel­op­ing coun­tries would cut their pop­u­la­tion then there’d be a lot less pres­sure on resources.

And peo­ple in devel­op­ing coun­tries say, Fine, but it’s your con­sump­tion pat­terns in the rich­er part of the world that are the prob­lem because you use two or four, or ten or a hun­dred times the resources per per­son that we do. And if every­body just lived like us, the pres­sures on the plan­et would be low­er.”

You know, it’s all of those things. Anyone who nar­rows it down to one piece of that and says it’s only the tech­nol­o­gy, or it’s only the pop­u­la­tion, or it’s only the con­sump­tion lev­el isn’t tak­ing a broad view. And I think in the end the solu­tions are all of the above. We have to deal with the pop­u­la­tion prob­lem. We have to. We have to deal with bet­ter tech­nol­o­gy, because cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy is inef­fi­cient and some­times harm­ful. We have to deal with our indi­vid­ual con­sump­tion lev­els, and the choic­es we make as con­sumers. I think an inte­grat­ed approach is the only way to solve these prob­lems.

Anderson: And I think I was sug­gest­ing the con­nec­tion back to growth because it seems like if you take growth as the umbrel­la cat­e­go­ry you can look at both pop­u­la­tion and tech­nol­o­gy. And both of them, there’s a need for some kind of growth or progress or a sense of for­ward momen­tum. That’s not explic­it­ly stat­ed in a lot of cas­es, but that may be an under­ly­ing theme that uni­fies how both of them are mov­ing at the moment.

Gleick: Alright, but let me throw in anoth­er per­spec­tive on this puz­zle. Because I do think we’re liv­ing in a weird, unusu­al time in his­to­ry. I do a blog at National Geographic ScienceBlogs, and I wrote a piece a few weeks ago that said the most impor­tant day of the 21st cen­tu­ry is going to be the day when the pop­u­la­tion of the plan­et is small­er than it was the day before. And I don’t think I’m going to live to see it but I think my chil­dren will live to see it.

The world’s not going to rad­i­cal­ly change that day, from a human mis­ery per­spec­tive, or a the nature of our prob­lems per­spec­tive. But it’s going to change…philosophically. It’s going to make peo­ple think dif­fer­ent­ly than we’ve ever thought in human his­to­ry about this con­cept of growth. And I think it’s a good thing. If we can get to that point, if soci­ety sur­vives the next sev­er­al decades, we get the oppor­tu­ni­ty at that point to start to think about a tru­ly sus­tain­able soci­ety.

Anderson:talked to the head of The Population Connection. And he was talk­ing about that, too, and he has faith that it will lev­el off. For him, a lot of that con­nects to well, we need to keep fight­ing the bat­tle for edu­ca­tion, for women hav­ing con­trol over their own bodies—that’s a polit­i­cal ques­tion.

And he’s con­vinced that if we can make those steps, peo­ple will make the choic­es to not be above the replace­ment rate. And what I want­ed to ask him—actually I did ask him—was what about the cul­tur­al con­text? We have to deal with a lot of places where women don’t have con­trol over their lives. And for cul­tur­al rea­sons it may be real­ly hard for us to con­vince any­one there that they should. And we also see that being con­test­ed here. So much of this it seems like it’s a cul­tur­al con­ver­sa­tion where, in the ide­al set­ting, peo­ple might make those choic­es to grad­u­al­ly start lev­el­ing the pop­u­la­tion off. But do you think that’s going to hap­pen?

Gleick: I think it’s inevitable, absolute­ly inevitable. And I’m not a pop­u­la­tion dynam­ics expert, but even in parts of the world where cul­tur­al­ly, the con­ver­sa­tions about birth con­trol and the con­ver­sa­tions about women’s rights and edu­ca­tion have been dif­fi­cult, even in those regions, pop­u­la­tion growth is slow­ing.

And actu­al­ly, to tie it back to water, briefly, there is a population/water con­nec­tion. And that is that it turns out, when you pro­vide safe water and san­i­ta­tion in rur­al areas in Africa, for exam­ple, and in schools, girl stay in school longer. Because they don’t have to walk one or two or five kilo­me­ters to car­ry often con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water back for the fam­i­ly, which takes hours of their time and is back­break­ing, hor­ri­ble labor. They stay in school longer.

When they stay in school longer, they get bet­ter edu­cat­ed. When they get bet­ter edu­cat­ed, they have small­er fam­i­lies. So solve the water prob­lem and you con­tribute to one of the fac­tors that improves the qual­i­ty of life over­all, and espe­cial­ly for women. And that feeds back to the pop­u­la­tion dynam­ics ques­tion.

Anderson: When you say it’s inevitable that the pop­u­la­tion will decline it seems like you feel that phys­i­cal real­i­ty is ulti­mate­ly going to trump these sort of ara­tional assump­tions about how we should live—like in a way, the fact that there are just too many peo­ple has to make that say, reli­gious or cul­tur­al tra­di­tion change?

Gleick: No, it’s not just phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions.

Anderson: So it’s some­thing else.

Gleick: It’s cul­tur­al and it’s social and it’s eco­nom­ic. Large fam­i­ly size is not pure­ly a result of a reli­gious or social or cul­tur­al demand. It’s been an eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty. It’s been a result of health issues and the fact that you have ten chil­dren and nine of them die from water-related dis­eases or oth­er dis­eases. We’re begin­ning to address at the med­ical lev­el some of those issues, and fam­i­ly size is drop­ping because of that.

So, I just think the trend toward slow­ing of the increase in pop­u­la­tion, and ulti­mate­ly a lev­el­ing off, we’ve seen that for a hun­dred years now. And I don’t think there’s any plau­si­ble argu­ment that can be made that reli­gious demands or social or cul­tur­al demands is going to turn that around.

Anderson: One of the inter­est­ing ideas that branch­es off from that is, you know, our cur­rent econ­o­my is pred­i­cat­ed on growth. I mean that’s…consumables but also a lot of the rea­son con­sumer demand ris­es is because there are more peo­ple. And so if you have a declin­ing work­force, how does that change the big­ger eco­nom­ic pic­ture? You know, in a way does achiev­ing envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty force us to rethink the eco­nom­ic sys­tem, or force it to col­lapse in some way?

Gleick: Well, when I refer to the dra­mat­ic change that I think is gonna hap­pen psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly when pop­u­la­tion final­ly starts to decline, that’s what it’s about. It’s how do we trans­fer our eco­nom­ic ideas, our insti­tu­tion­al ideas, our cul­tur­al ideas from a growth par­a­digm to the oppo­site of that? To a shrink­ing par­a­digm. There’re going to be fun­da­men­tal dif­fi­cul­ties in deal­ing with aging pop­u­la­tions. We already see this hap­pen­ing in places like Italy and Japan, parts of Eastern Europe, where an old­er and old­er pop­u­la­tion is sup­port­ed by a small­er and small­er num­ber of young peo­ple. That’s a very dif­fi­cult question.There are gonna be some prob­lems in chang­ing that par­a­digm, the eco­nom­ic par­a­digm. But we’re going to have to fig­ure that one out.

The advan­tage from an envi­ron­men­tal point of view and from a resource point of view is that if we’re able to sup­port a pop­u­la­tion of nine or nine and a half bil­lion with the resources we have now, it’s going to be eas­i­er and eas­i­er eco­log­i­cal­ly to sup­port a pop­u­la­tion of eight and then sev­en and then six bil­lion peo­ple and what­ev­er we end up lev­el­ing off at. That rais­es the broad con­cept of what does a sus­tain­able plan­et real­ly look like? What is a sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tion? What’s an appro­pri­ate stan­dard of liv­ing? What’s an appro­pri­ate lev­el of tech­nol­o­gy ver­sus non-technological solu­tions to deal­ing with— These are prob­lems for the late 21st cen­tu­ry that we’d bet­ter start think­ing about now.

And today, the con­ver­sa­tion is shift­ing from get more, get more, get more; new sup­ply; find the next source of water; tap the next ground­wa­ter well; bring the next riv­er over to where you want it.” That’s been the 20th-century—what I call the hard path for water. And I think we’re in a tran­si­tion now to what I call the soft path for water, which is a much more inte­grat­ed, inno­v­a­tive sup­ply; rethink demand and effi­cien­cy and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty; smart eco­nom­ics; rethink the insti­tu­tions that we’ve put in place to man­age water and the water right sys­tems.

And from there, we have to move to a com­pre­hen­sive sus­tain­abil­i­ty phi­los­o­phy, where what we’re doing we can do for­ev­er. We are inevitably going to move to a sus­tain­able water sys­tem. The ques­tion is what path are we going to take? How much mis­ery are we going to expe­ri­ence along that path from where we are today to where we want to be? And can we find a path that min­i­mizes that mis­ery?

Anderson: And are you opti­mistic about that? Because that part seems like that’s the cul­tur­al part, that’s the con­ver­sa­tion that has to hap­pen.

Gleick: That’s the con­ver­sa­tion that has to hap­pen. And I am a qual­i­fied opti­mist. I’m absolute­ly an opti­mist. But in the sense that I do believe we’re mov­ing to a sus­tain­able plan­et. I do believe we will solve our water prob­lems and we’ll even­tu­al­ly pro­vide safe water and san­i­ta­tion and ade­quate water ser­vices to every­one on the plan­et.

I’m a qual­i­fied opti­mist in the sense that I also under­stand that there’s already far too much unnec­es­sary human mis­ery asso­ci­at­ed with our bad use of water, and our bad impacts on ecosys­tems and the envi­ron­ment. And that it’s gonna be a while before we get to that pos­i­tive future. And that among the paths to that pos­i­tive future some are bad or dan­ger­ous or vio­lent or full of unnec­es­sary death and ill­ness. So, I’m an opti­mist but not for every­body and not in the near term, I guess is the best way to put it.


Neil Prendergast: Well I'm thirsty.

Aengus Anderson: Yeah, no doubt. But not for water. You know, if we were to draw a big line down the middle of the interviewees in The Conversation, we've got some that are like, these really abstract connect-to-everything sort of conversations, and we've got other ones that are like, "this is a technical thing; let's get into it," right. So our last conversation, Kim Stanley Robinson, we were talking about the fate of humanity and every possible related component of that.

Here, we're talking about…water. That really puts us in the category of other interviewees. James Bamford talks about security. Recently, Rainey Reitman talks about digital liberties. But we've had the same thing, John Seager talked about population. Really focused. Much smaller interviews. Much more tangible in the world. What do you guys think of that?

Micah Saul: I think it's important to have both voices in this project. It always makes it a little harder for us, at the end, to sort of try and provide those bridges out to the other things. I don't know if that's necessarily…required? It's just something that personally I like doing? But I think there's enough here that we can talk about for sure.

Prendergast: One big bridge I think is the way that he talked about the market. I thought it was really interesting for him to note, again and again really, that the market is critical in some important ways that maybe we can discuss. But even as he was saying that, he acknowledged that there were real limits to economic growth. And I think you very rarely get those two things in the same breath.

Anderson: That's an interesting thing. And I was wondering that even as I was going through the interview. And part of it is that well, water doesn't fit into markets in any sort of normal way. He mentions water's a right; that's an arational thing. Water is capable of being regulated by the market. Water is physically really difficult to move around to treat in market ways. So it's sort of market, sort of not-market, and I ended up wondering if talking about the market wasn't just being a really savvy communicator. I mean, he knows the context that we're living in, that we're working in. Like, maybe he thinks that markets for water are the best way to solve a lot of problems related to water. But maybe he knows that like, that is our language.

Prendergast: Right, and I think you know, in the world he must work in where he has very targeted audiences, where those audiences think in terms of market, it's probably necessary to use that language.

Anderson: So how does that square with the growth limits? Most of the people who've talked about limits to growth talk about markets, not necessarily intrinsically markets but the way they're implemented, as being troublesome.

Saul: He didn't seem to have…that big of a problem with it? Something he did that really jumped out at me and I'm not sure why, he almost equates an end to the growth mindset in economics with this moment when suddenly the population is going to stop growing and begin shrinking. And…I don't know that I was convinced that that inflection point, in terms of population, is going to cause that inflection point in terms of the market and in terms of economics.

Prendergast: What's your reluctance there?

Saul: I guess I— He didn't explain the logic there quite enough for me. I have no problem with believing that it's something you could argue, but…I didn't think it was argued.

Prendergast: Yeah, it's seemed to me like he was just sort of equating you know, population with environmental impact. And we actually got a little of that recently, where Robinson referenced Paul Ehrlich's famous equation of environmental impact I think equals technology multiplied by population. Something close to that I hope.

Anderson: Or yeah, and technology and demands.

Prendergast: Okay, yeah. And in there maybe there's a place for culture and deciding what technologies are there. But it seemed to me, Micah, that in Gleick's view there wasn't really a place for culture to sort of steer how population would impact the environment or the economy.

m That was a big thing in this entire conversation, is that he felt…like an engineer to me, which will be a notion that will come up in the next conversation we have. He's talking about technical things. He's talking about solutions. He is very rational. And the policy and culture changes that need to happen, he sort of pushed off and said, "And then that conversation needs to happen."

Anderson: Yeah. And when I was conducting the interview that was something I felt like I kept pushing him on. There are people who are engaged in the world of politics and policy. And they give different interviews. To be totally honest, I wish I could talk to them after they retire, because I want to know what they really think. You know, I felt this way at several points in this project, and it's one of the reasons that we haven't spoken to many politicians?

And I kind of felt that Peter was on that page. Like, he really knows what he has the expertise to talk about in the public space. And he doesn't want to get into personal beliefs very much, because he doesn't want to compromise his effectiveness in crafting water policy. There's kind of the old purity versus pragmatism thing here. I feel like, he's got well-formed beliefs on everything that I asked him about. But, if he wants to be a relevant actor, he has to say, "That's a conversation that should be had in the public sphere," rather than saying, "I really think we ought to deal with markets in this way," you know? And I don't blame him for that at all.

Prendergast: Well I think there's something in that in terms of just thinking about The Conversation, especially as we wind the series down, and taking a step away from Gleick in particular, but just thinking about the role of engineers and technocrats in the world. How critical they are for thinking through issues. But that maybe sometimes the framing of the really big questions in front of us happen elsewhere. Happen with fiction writers. Happen with activists. Happen with all sorts of different people. And each one of them is a part of the conversation.

Anderson: This is The Conversation. And that was Peter Gleick, recorded in Oakland, California on June 18th, 2013.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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