25 Nov 2013

Can a community save itself?

In response to my review of his book, Ralph Pentland emailed me this:
Your breadth of experience(s) and diversity of views gives me hope that someone from your generation may someday find the missing pieces to the water policy puzzle.

If you weren't aware, I wrote the 1987 Canadian federal water policy. Some still call it a text book policy, and it might have been in the world of 1987. But that world rapidly changed with climate change, endocrine disrupting chemicals, globalism, competitiveness, deregulation, the hollowing out of government etc.

When I had a chance to do something similar in China 15 year later, our team started from the opposite end - by spending the first quarter of the project trying to figure out where the world and China's place in it were heading. That likely made more sense, but we still drifted back to fairly traditional solutions.

With the book, we tried a bit harder to understand the relationship between citizens and the political process - starting from the assumption that both citizens and their governments are trapped on an unsustainable path that assumes GDP must always increase exponentially to infinity.

The book assumes we can only get off that path once citizens realize they will ultimately be both healthier and wealthier (broadly defined) if they put natural security first, insist that their governments better harness market forces to the goal of sustainability, and find some way to bring about a renaissance of democracy - hence the long chapter on Magna Carta Natura, fiduciary duty, public trust etc.

By next year, I am sure I will have figured out even that won't be enough - so I am pleased to see someone in the next generation searching for Plato's perfect but elusive water policy "form".*
In response, I wrote this:
I agree with your assessment. It's amazing to me that water failures are so easy to trace to poor management, which is easy to trace to indifference (I was 3 years in the Netherlands, where people are NOT indifferent to flood safety but let their farmers get away with murder wrt water pollution.)

I don't know what' going to open the floodgates of policy reform/implementation, but I think you've put your finger on it -- impacts on personal wealth/quality of life.

Not sure if that will be too late...
Can anyone give a good example of citizen engagement that has improved water policy?

* His reference to Plato is timely. I wrote this recently for TEoA 2.0:
An idealistic vision of water management imagines that there is some set of statistics, projections, values and implications that a czar could use to direct water to its highest and greatest use. This vision fails, on three big accounts: from a lack of adequate data, in the difficulty in understanding how those data affect flows that create different values for different people, and from the unconscious or manipulative way that some people with responsibility for interpreting and responding to the data (or lack thereof) may put water to uses that suit them more than the people they supposedly represent. can fail from inadequate data, misunderstanding the different values that people assign to the flows described by data, or mismanaging flows due to an unconscious or active bias that favors the manager's vision over the community's interests.

We have a long history of discussing these problems. Plato presumed the existence of a philosopher king who would rule wisely. Many people say that outcomes are the will of god. Political economists and philosophers have written about the fairness of making constitutions that treat citizens as interchangable in terms of the power and subjugation. And then there's the reality.

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