If global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, have now suddenly realized how much our economy and society rely on hydrologic stability, what do they intend to do about it? Despite the drought and water scarcity, despite the ongoing pollution of existing water supplies by fertilizer, chemicals, toxic spills, and all the rest, what action do you suppose might be taken by this leadership to address this evident, recurring, apparently critical need? In the United States Congress, the response is to deny climate change as a cause of such instability and to work with fervor and dedication to dilute the protections of the Clean Water Act, to weaken if not eradicate the Environmental Protection Agency, and otherwise to relieve any restrictions or prohibitions for any activity that will simply make the matter worse. It represents the most perverse intersection of short-term profit for a politically invested interest and long-term loss for everyone else. So it goes, at least until the price of oil collapses and all the numbers, justifications, and reasons for sustaining the status quo go down with a great sucking sound heard painfully from Houston to Anchorage to New York, from Moscow to Beijing, Caracas to Riyadh.
There is, of course, no alternative plan. Or is there?
Suddenly the most valuable commodity in the world is no longer oil. All the calculations change, even as the energy companies and their investors double down on what surely they hope will be a return to the good old days. Suddenly the communities suffering from the consequences of fracking or exploding pipelines find leverage to fight back against what has been so cleverly packaged as beyond them and essential to the national interest. Ironically, nations like Denmark and Germany suddenly find their support of alternative wind and solar energy systems that provide a stable mix of technologies to hedge against reliance on a single source now brought down in a world of volatile supply, sanctions, and political unrest.
What then is the most valuable commodity on Earth around which a new, more viable, more realistic system of value can be built? As we have argued often before, it is water, the one natural product that every person, rich or poor, from anywhere around the globe, must rely on for life: to drink, to irrigate, to sanitize, and to otherwise support the basic elements of living. The collapse of oil, then, could be seen as a unique opportunity to shift our value system to an alternative based on water, priced by its utilitarian necessities and distributed equitably.
Of course we need energy to grow, not just for growth's sake but to meet the known requirements of a world population that is increasing dramatically by the millions from year to year. If we cannot provide basic living for these, in the form of health, shelter, food, and employment, then we should prepare to accept our responsibility for the unfortunate consequences. It does not take much imagination to envision the outcomes; we see them in the disrupted conditions of poverty, political volatility, and social injustice in those places and among those peoples already deprived of what we take for granted.
If those global leaders at Davos have come to an understanding of hydrologic stability as an evident, valid requirement for the future, then indeed the time is now for the alternative plan that addresses the what and how such a system can be built from the ashes of coal and dirty oil and their lingering consequences that have proven so antagonistic and detrimental to communities worldwide.
Is it possible to construct a new system on the true value of water? What decisions must be made? Do we need new technologies and more money, or can we actually change by using the technologies already in hand and re-allocating existing assets? Can we finance such a change with funds divested from the extraction industry and re-invested in alternatives? Can we move the oil subsidies away from a dying industry to bring the new alternatives to scale? Can we take back the definition of our future from those who see it only as a replication of our past? Can we make (and execute) a new plan?
Of course we can. It is, in fact, already in progress, perhaps not so publicly known, perhaps not so clearly understood, but there are amazing examples of a kind of progress based on a sharpening vision of the future. What can it be? It is a world built around the movements and cycles of water, and the ocean sits at its center.