16 Dec 2009

Living on the edge

Addendum: I wrote this before I even thought of the post on groundwater yesterday, but it's totally appropriate!

Humans are good at exploiting their situations, pushing up to the limits of constraints on their way to maximizing their consumption of benefits.

Thus, we see how people may spend as much money as they have, store as much as their garage holds, drive as far as the tank allows, write to the end of the page, etc.

It is the same with water resources. If we have a lot of water, we use it lavishly; if we have very little, we conserve it -- to the last drop.

The trouble comes when our habits of consuming to the margin run into a change of circumstances, when the margin actually recedes and leaves us hanging, like Wile E. Coyote. At that point, what was once fine, ok, acceptable -- even sustainable -- no longer works. The relevant question is not whether we can go back to the good old days or wish that things will change; the question is "what are we going to do about it?"

The obvious answer is cliche: we need to... change our tune, go back to square one, reset, look somewhere else for the cheese. Of course that's difficult, but difficult is easier than impossible, and it's impossible to make a desert into an oasis, bring rain in a drought, or remove the extra millions of people that are competing with you for that resource that's suddenly so scarce.

So we need to face the facts, consider our options, and make unpleasant, but necessary, changes. Although change may be costly or uncomfortable, it's preferable to certain doom.

Does this idea apply to water users worldwide? To Somalis in drought as well as Canadians afloat? Yes, indeed. That's because everyone, everywhere pushes their activities to the limit, to the margin of available constraints.

So, what's to be done?

If you are past the limits -- of water use, money abuse or thinking obtuse -- you need to pull back, until you stand on solid ground, where things can continue indefinitely, sustainably.

If you are at or before limits, then you have the luxury of time -- time to consider and implement a plan for a good or bad tomorrow. If you plan and the bad tomorrow arrives, you can adjust -- with less pain, cost and delay -- to the change in circumstances. The cost of that planning will be more than repaid in the benefits from a quick and clever response.

Bottom Line: It's never too early to pack your parachute, but it can easily be too late. Ask Wile E. Coyote.


  1. What you write about here is something that I have - for a long time - thought of as a fundamental problem of the gospel of efficiency. While efficiency is generally a good thing (especially for a good that we are trying to conserve), it means that there is an ever-smaller amount of leeway for reduction when necessary.

    I can imagine a scenario similar to what happens with budget cuts (forced efficiency, if you will) - services tend to suffer as options have to be made as to which ones to cut or minimize, and when a failure occurs, the calculus changes from "how quickly can we fix it" to "should we bother fixing it".

  2. @Umlaud -- I agree. It's something I recently started to think about. Do we need to be *that* efficient in water or banking, eliminating all those little inefficient agencies (or banks!), in favor of bigger, more efficient organizations that will use resources more efficiently, to the limit? You see where I am going there...

    (Oh, and don't forget drip vs. flood irrigation!)


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