26 Oct 2009

Peter Gleick on Peak Water

Here's NOT* the mp3 recording I made of Peter Gleick's presentation last week at Berkeley (prior post).

His talk was about "peak water" -- a concept that makes sense with oil (when use outpaces new discoveries), but not as much with water (previous post). Nevertheless, Gleick made these useful points:
  •  The demand for water has been expanding at an exponential rate, on the extensive margin (greater population) and intensive margin (more use per person). In these cases, there is less water for everyone as time passes.
  • There is a point where "renewable" water becomes non-renewable, either because groundwater is over-drafted ("mined") or water is polluted (a big problem in China). In these cases, there is less water for the future.
  • Some water basins (e.g., the Colorado River) are fully allocated, i.e., consumption equals total flows. In these cases, there is no additional supply.
To illustrate each of these points, Gleick drew exponential, "peak" and logarithmic curves, respectively. 

While I agree with his analysis, I do not agree with the application of the "peak" analogy, since all of these phenomena are the result of poor water management -- not the physical/economic relationship between oil consumption and exploration. Put differently, we can manage water as a renewable resource (sustainably), but we will never be able to make oil into a renewable resource.

This was also the first time I met Peter. Like many of you who have suggested that I work with Peter and the Pacific Institute, I was eager to explore some options for collaboration -- especially since the Pacific Institute has no economists on staff.

I sent an email suggesting that we collaborate, and I will keep you posted on Peter's reply.

Bottom Line: Although we may not have "peak water," we certainly do have problems with water management, and I am glad that Peter Gleick is working on those problems.
* Addendum: Peter asked me to remove the mp3 of the lecture, and I have complied. (I am not sure if he would have given me permission had I asked, which I didn't, but I have asked now. I will repost the mp3 if he does extend permission. Until then, you will have to do with my summary and/or and ask one of the 80+ attendees what they remember.)


  1. Gleick's claim: "Most economists like to see GNP increase forever."

    This is an interesting statement, and one that I think economists have done a particularly poor job with. GNP is an abstract notion, and the ideas of growth are often intertwined and mixed up with physical growth - leading to ideas about crowding, more landfills, more packaging, more roads, less open space, etc.

    While this can be true, economic growth (higher GNP) means much more. In this country, it has meant people paying lots of money to preserve open space that would not have been preserved but for the wealth of private individuals.

    It has meant better technology to (in some cases) almost completely eliminate packaging (CDs are becoming a relic of the past, replaced by packaging free mp3s).

    Growth should be considered good by most people, despite the side effects of it (pollution, use of resources). The side effects are important, but our ability to mitigate them is often greatly improved with economic growth.

    Those who want to say we have reached a sufficient living standard are projecting their current situation on the rest of society, assuming that preventing these externalities by capping growth will help everyone equally. I think they ignore how growth mitigates these externalities, and they ignore the tremendous effects anti-growth policies have on the least fortunate in society.

  2. Remarkable. Even when you sit in the audience and listen to me, you can't seem to get it right. I'm not going to argue with you about "peak water." Our paper on this subject is clear; the arguments in favor of three separate categories of peak water are also clear.

    Far more problematic. You have posted a recording of my lecture in violation of my copyright ownership of my lectures. Moreover, you failed to asked my permission to record, as is standard practice; you failed to ask permission of the academic hosts of my lecture; and you did not receive any such permission.

    Please remove this mp3 immediately.

  3. I listened to the whole talk because I could not make the lecture. It was nice to have it posted here for us to listen to. Peter, can you give a more compelling reason why it should be removed?

  4. I'd love to hear the speech so I could judge for myself Mr. Gleick's claim that you got it wrong. It's easy to say it without allowing the words to back it up.

    I've liked some of the stuff the Pacific Institute has done, and I'm shocked and dismayed at your tone here, Peter. Don't cry so hard, as you lose supporters like this.

    How unfortunate and childish.

    I have a feeling that this outburst is due to some automatic anti-economics feelings, which I've always found weird. And sad.

    Keep up the good work, Mr. Zetland! Also, your mature tone is very, greatly appreciated.

  5. Many tributaries to the Colorado River have been over appropriated for years ... seasonally, some of them since the 1880's. Tributary aquifers have been mined and have decreased dramatically since the 1960's. Legal remedies have been applied. In the few areas where strict adherence to the water law has been administered, there are viable water markets and with the expected resulting control on growth.

    Without an appropriate Court approved perpetual supply of water for specified domestic purposes, wise counties have justifiably refused new development.

    The dilemma to be addressed was not supply; it was acceptance, obeyance and administration of the Law ... thout shalt not steal !

    The Law created real markets, with real prices and provided finality in the wars between the "have-nots" and the "haves".

    By now, your readers know that Gleick's statemens (assuming he made it), ... "Colorado River - There is no additional supply" ...

    Simply is NOT TRUE.

    WaterSource/WaterBank waterrdw@yahoo.com Retired Water Rights Analyst

  6. I agree with you that "peak water" is not as good a concept with water as with oil. I personally don't think either makes sense unless you talk about prices. I think there may be 500 years worth of oil and gas under the Gulf of Mexico alone, it's just that the consequences of burning it are pretty horrific and the costs might not be bearable. Whereas, we know that there is plenty of water waste in agriculture and industry. At a 10x to 20x increased cost of water to urban water users, it would make all the sense in the world economically to ration off water use permits, just like carbon emission permits, between various classes of users to free up wasted water from agriculture (via conservation and efficiency) and direct it to cities. Only those nasty institutional barriers stand in the way!

  7. To Josh and Damian,
    You are welcome to read the chapter my colleague and I wrote on the subject, at http://www.worldwater.org/www/data20082009/ch01.pdf. Free.

    Recording and posting someone's lecture without asking permission violates the most basic rules of courtesy. Not to mention the legal rules of copyright. I give lectures all the time; I regularly sign releases. David didn't ask. Is this a big deal? Maybe not. Maybe this is just the difference in our ages and understanding of what intellectual property means. After all, some people think it's fine that Google was going to digitize all books and pay authors nothing. Some people think it is fine to download music or films and pay musicians and actors and film makers nothing. In this case, no money was involved. Just basic rules of behavior. Oh, and I love economists. But shouldn't economists, especially, understand about markets, pricing, and intellectual property? Don't lecture me.

  8. Peter, it's no lecture from me. It's a disappointed former fan.

    As for lectures, was there a price to attend? Also, if you are willing to offer the chapter out for free, why not the lecture on the chapter? I'm not enamored with your voice like, say, I am with Ella or Mercedes Sosa. It's the idea I'm after when I look at your stuff.

    Also, if you were so stung by the copyright infringement (which, although I don't see it in this case, I understand, in general), why take it out in this public manner? And, why harangue a guy for other issues? It just looked bad, man.

  9. @Peter -- I apologized for violating your rights. Am I forgiven? Now can I post it? Is there something I am missing?

  10. No. Please do not post. Call it "pique water."

  11. I agree with Gleick ... his intellectual property is his, and when/where necessary said property is protected by law !

    His info is no big deal ! So far, he chooses not to defend on of his major points "Colorado River - There is no additional supply" ...

    Shows what he really knows ... ?

  12. "No. Please do not post. Call it "pique water.""

    Econ. lesson regarding both rational thought and some behavioral economics:

    The marginal utility of actually looking up your work on this, due to your intransigence and your poor selling ability, just lost out to whatever Yahoo! will let me look at on their front page when I log off from my email account. I'll just let others' speak for/against you.

  13. The peakiness of 'peak water' is indeed an outcome of management. But there is a peak... if you plot water availability over time. It tells us that water will be increasingly harder to come by if we continue with business as usual. Like peak oil, it is a frame: both are meant to highlight unsustainable resource use and encourage innovation. In the case of oil, innovation is in seeking alternative energy sources; in the case of water, it is to use it differently. In any case, why define 'peak' by its association with 'peak oil'?

    Many water stores, however, are non-renewable, at least at the human and even societal time-scale. The Ogallala aquifer, for example. The peak oil analogy is fine here.

  14. "It tells us that water will be increasingly harder to come by if we continue with business as usual."

    So if we pump the same amount as we do today, and the recharge rate remains the same, then water availability will decrease. In other words, if we are causing overdraft, and don't change anything, then overdraft will continue, and we will either deplete the aquifer or we will stop pumping as much as it becomes too expensive.

    This seems pretty obvious, and I fail to see why a peak analogy helps to understand that this is an unsustainable practice any more than the plain facts. If that's all that it implies, fine, but I believe making the analogy makes things worse -- I think it implies the same conclusions that Peak Oil does.

    Many economists, including me, think the Peak Oil idea is ridiculous. I spouted off a bit about it here.

    My problems with the theory apply mainly to the assumptions of how society will behave after the oil "crash". Because we are talking about single water aquifers "peaking", this is irrelevant.

    My other problems are with the assumption that world oil production can be treated like a single oil field. Again, peak water folk are not saying this. So, no criticism here.

    So what is left for the analogy? To imply that overdraft is unsustainable? Agreed.


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