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