By the Books: Christiana Z. Peppard's Just Water. Part 3

Part 1 Part 2 │ Part 3

On the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and in recognition of World Day of the Sick—keeping in mind the importance of clean water for human life and healthwe conclude our three-part interview with Dr. Christiana Z. Peppard, author of Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis.

Catholic Ecology: Political leaders may not be well versed in the natural sciences, which can prevent them from appreciating issues like watershed approaches to water supply or the impacts of new ways to drill for natural gas. How can the education of civic and state leaders improve their decision-making capacity when it comes to protecting natural resources like water?

Dr. Peppard: Education is vital! Throughout Just Water, I stress that water is not always a self-evident, eternally renewing resource that bends easily to political and economic wishes. I wrote Chapter 2, "A Primer on the Global Fresh Water Crisis," precisely as a way to communicate essential, foundational, and timely information to folks who are not well versed in hydrology. My public media work (with videos and articles on TED-Ed,, the History Channel, and others) also strives to portray these complex realities in accessible ways.

In fact, new media offers amazing opportunities for communication and learning. As more resources become available, responsibility rests with educators (to create the materials) but also with the publicincluding politicians and business people and other decision-makers, whose choices bear long-term impacts for local and regional areas.

But, frankly, one of the real difficulties in ensuring an appropriate stance towards water is that politicians and business people are not usually oriented towards long-term outcomes. They focus on re-election, or profit/growth. They don't focus on the integrated functioning of watersheds in the long term. This short-term attentionthe focus on election cycles and fiscal quartersis deleterious, risky, and pernicious to the protection of our most vital resources, like fresh water, upon which the possibility of all life depends.

Is there a way to enforce long-term thinking about environmental goods in political or economic contexts? Not yet. But we have to try. There's no human existence without water—nor societal, economic, or civilizational. It under-girds everything and therefore its preservation and thoughtful use deserve our utmost attention. It is a public good par excellence.

What can people do right now? First and foremost, it's time for water sources and infrastructure (especially water supply and sanitation) to become highly visible. We need massive investments in, and maintenance of, water/sanitation systems. We also need innovation in the realms of gray-water (reuse) and incentive structures to eliminate wasteful domestic uses (lawns in California and Arizona, for example). Investing money, time, and energy in renewing our aging water/sanitation infrastructure is vital and is a contribution that politicians can make, starting now. We as citizens can advocate for this kind of pragmatic action. I recommend the book Blue Revolution, by Cynthia Barnett, as a great resource for becoming aware of infrastructure, policy, and the future of water.

If you want more information, there's a list of further resources for the educated non-specialist in the back of Just Water. I'll also shamelessly plug my TED-Ed videos, which are aimed at high-school students as well as life-long learners: what you need to know about global fresh water in four-minute, animated videos! [See here and here for examples.]

For younger students, StudentsRebuild (a project of the Bezos Family Foundation) has been doing a "Water Challenge" for middle schoolers all year, with great resources for that age bracket.

Water for People, a Denver-based non-profit, has a stupendous approach for water-system empowerment and ways for interested adults to get involved. I recommend all of these entities as sites of learning and engagement.

As an educator, I want to help people to find reputable resources for thinking better about water, while encouraging all of us to enter the conversation with our unique biographies of experience and knowledge. As a scholar, I want to explore and strive to articulate crucial insights that emerge at the intersections of hydrology, ecology, theology, and ethics. If my work contributes to an improved level of public discourse about fresh water-both within educational institutions and outside of them-then I will be thrilled. Water is not self-evident and deserves our critical, ongoing attention.

Catholic Ecology: What are your greatest concerns and greatest hopes in the area of global and regional water policies?

Dr. Peppard: My greatest concern is that the short-term logic of fiscal and election cycles may prevent societies from enacting healthy, sustainable, long-term water policies that benefit individuals, communities, and ecosystems now and in the future. Water is a short-term need and in many places it's an immediate crisis. And as we grapple with these discrete and urgent situations, we also have to consider long-term policies that respect the primacy of waters for all forms of life, industry, agriculture, economy, and civilization.

I also worry that water's "value" will come to be seen as solely an economic category. Surely, economic valuation is a fabulous and important tool in our global economy. But markets should not be ultimate arbiters of value, especially for something like fresh water.
Environmentally, socially, theologically, and philosophically, it's clear that the value of water transcends market value or price (see Chapter 3!). I'm a pragmatist who supports innovation, and I believe that entrepreneurship and economic exchange have their place in environmental policy. But it's immoral for pursuit of profit to be the only motivating force, or the dominant conversation partner, for the value of something as essential and complicated as fresh water. This is where theology, philosophy and ethicsas well lived experiencehave major contributions to make. Those insights may well be the wisdom that preserves the possibility of existence on every level of scale, from the local to the planetary, in an era of fresh water scarcity.

To that end, in Just Water I depict how water is (in philosophical terms) sui generis and sine qua non; translated into economic terms, this means that it is non-substitutable and a baseline for all forms of existence.

Moreover, in many ways, fresh water is a classic market failure. These core insights, in conversation with the historical emergence of hydraulic and economic paradigms out of the American West, are the subject of my next book-tentatively titled "Valuing Water in the Anthropocene."

One of my greatest hopes is that "fresh water policy" will eventually become nearly synonymous with "fresh water ethics." This will require, specifically, that special attention to be paid to long-term flourishing and integrity of water sources as well as the demands of justice for the most vulnerable (usually women and children in subsistence economies). And it requires a large-scale increase in familiarity with water supply, policy, and infrastructure.

Another hopeborn out of my vocation as an educator and scholaris that Just Water can be an accessible, encouraging introduction to some of these vital issues, in a way that empowers people. It's important to empower people, not exhaust them! This is particularly delicate because when it comes to global water scarcity, the danger of burnout is very real: as the BBC quipped in 2005, "If you want to exhaust mental meltdown, the statistics of the worsening global fresh water crisis are a surefire winner"!

But I hope there is some kind of succorperhaps an ironic comfort that provides a base for actionin the indisputable fact that no one person, no single approach, is going to solve the fresh water crisis. It's a collective task-a problem of we, not just me. And everyone starts from exactly where we are at a given moment. My hope is that learning about water and the common good can be empoweringa way of discerning how to be better neighbors and citizens in this complicated, pluralistic, globalizing world.

The task is ongoing: I too am constantly learning, discerning, analyzing, revising, re-framing. Dealing with water scarcity and water ethics is not like solving a straightforward algorithm. It's what sociologists refer to as a "wicked problem"an issue with many inputs, implications, and unintended consequences. That can be daunting; but it can also be a pragmatic invitation to jump in wherever your abilities and insights may be useful.

Fresh water scarcity, like water itself, is always in motion. That means we have to learn to think fluidly-to learn, revise, and adjust course when something is not working. Humility and persistence are both vital. Ethics needs to be the frame that guides water and economic policynot the reverse.

Catholic Ecology: Is there anything we haven't covered that you would like to add?

Dr. Peppard: The opportunity to consider and respond to your questions has been wonderful! I hope that readers of your blog will continue to have conversations about the intersections of theology, ethics, water, and the common good. You can find me on Twitter (@profpeppard) or through my website. I welcome inquires about resources or ongoing conversations from your readers!

Catholic Ecology: With many thanks to you, Dr. Peppard, and with assurances of the prayers of many for your continued work seeking the just use of water.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.