Just a few years ago I might have focused most of my attention on the liquid water that we are most familiar with, lakes rivers and the groundwater. Just yesterday, however, I was reminded of one of the most interesting changes that climate change is causing. The atmosphere itself holds, at this point, more than 4% more water than it did just twenty years ago. Moisture in the atmosphere allows the air itself to have more mass, more ability to hold energy and when storms do happen, there is far more energy and moisture to rain down on the earth, or ocean below. In large part, the massive storm events are the result of more energy storage capacity aloft and an ever-more destabilized atmosphere.
Bigger rains continue to flush ever more material downstream. Just as water can be considered a universal solvent, so too it can take on character of what it flows over or through. we saw this week the flooding that is both averted and exacerbated by levees and dikes. We may think that we have a handle on what to do with the steadily intensifying storms, but there is little we can do to stop them. The best course of action is to minimize our energy use, conserve resources and plant trees. It may be late enough in the game that we need to be planting the trees of a few hundred miles South , but even a tree that only survives for a decade has done some good.
As I may have mentioned before, it was water that gave me my start down the road to environmental ethics. In the late sixties, the river that flowed past our backyard, the Fox, was a colloidal suspension. To get a reasonable idea of what it was like, mix a bit of lemon juice with some milk, then add a bunch of green food coloring. One morning I was lying on a rock and my foot slipped off the rock and a single toe just touched the water. At that moment, the whole book, Paddle to the Sea, flowed through my memory and I could sense that each and every drop of water between my toe and the continents of the planet were one. In that instant, I resolved to ride my bicycle around the Great Lakes, to discover for myself their true size. Many years later, I followed through on that commitment and bicycled around all five lakes in eighty days.
For over a year before I left on the bike trip, I studied the hundreds of hazardous waste sites, major pollution problems at each particular spot, a bit about local politics of polluting industries and the reactions different local groups had the the ecological consequences that developed from giving commercial enterprises free reign over “their own business”. On wonderful poster that helped get me started was published by Pollution Probe, a Canadian group http://www.pollutionprobe.org/ Part of the reason so many remain unenlightened about pollution issues is the utter lack of good information that is available. Pollution Probe works diligently to change that. Now, at least in the U.S. companies are required to self report what chemicals and compounds they release. You can find polluters in your area through what is called the Toxic Release Inventory, or, TRI. It makes it infinitely easier to understand the toxic threats to one’s community and family if they take the time to look that information up. One neighboring commercial enterprise lists over one million pounds of toxic releases annually into the environment just two miles from my home. This is the sort of information that can really get you thinking about how to develop a more sustainable lifestyle that takes some of the burden off our natural systems. In stark contrast to forty years ago, companies seem to tolerate the TRI pretty well, even though it requires a bit of work to compile the data. When I first became interested in environmental issues the corporate lawyers were screaming that they should not be required to release information like this because it could be “used by corporate spies”, or “divulge trade secrets”. As we learn more and more about pollution generally, we find that trying to understand the relationships between what we used to think of as separate systems, thge air, land and water are actually an integrated whole. Quite often what attempts to clean up one medium of transmission from the environment to humans just leads to another resource being degraded. Cleaning up water to put pollution in the air, removing pollution from the air and then having a solid waste disposal issue, or even trying to reduce landfill use through incineration which then creates air pollution. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. Pollution prevention is the only reasonable way to stave off the effects of further degradation.
Since the beginning of time, fresh water was essential to human health and survival. It is unlikely that we will be able to exist without it in the future. This being said, there seem to be more and more demands placed on this precious commodity and before long there will be many times more demands placed on what will always be a finite resource. Water policy has been the topic of many dozens of books. The way we see water determines to some extent how we see ourselves. After all, we are mostly made of water and as much as you are what you eat, something can be said for the fact that we are all also what we drink. The relatively recent phenomenon of bottling water and shelling out several dollars per pint for the stuff only serves to put us on our guard against further erosion of our relationship with this life giving fluid. Finding ways to protect fresh clean water demands our immediate attention. Learning how to keep that water safe from the increasing assaults from modern human activities is paramount if we are to have something left to share with our children.