Category Archives: Environment & Nature

Using Our Water Responsibly

What could be more crucial?

Water. It’s one of the most basic compounds known to humanity, and also one of the most necessary for the survival of nearly every form of life. It powers not only our individual bodies, but provides insulation for the planet, energy for our civilizations, and food for people, both indirectly and directly. Simply put, no other substance could be more basic, universal, or important for our survival than water.

So why is it used so irresponsibly? Many people have yet to realize it, but our societies, especially those of very developed or developing countries, use or pollute colossal amounts of water, even in the simplest day-to-day activities. The real problem I want to focus on though is the area of life in which the modern world uses water most freely (and oftentimes, irresponsibly): agriculture.

Now, I’m not going to try and argue that the world as a whole needs to cut back on agricultural development. Of course this is good and necessary, especially in our modern technological society. But there are many practices in this crucial field that can help reduce the titanic amounts of water we pour into it.

But first, how much are we really using for these things? Here are a few examples: A pound of corn requires about 108 gallons of water to grow. The same amount of cotton uses 713 gallons, cheese uses 600, and a pound of beef takes 1,799 gallons of water. Now, there is the argument that all these figures exist in a vacuum (that is, they seem like significant numbers, but there’s little to compare them to in order to put them in perspective), and this is somewhat true. Perhaps comparing this to the amount of freshwater remaining for us will help.

The main source for American agriculture (which is centered in the Midwest) is a huge underground “sponge” of rock called the Ogallala aquifer. This aquifer supplies around a third of America’s farming, with around 14 billion gallons of water withdrawn yearly for farming and another 330 gallons or so taken out for other purposes. At this rate, it’s estimated that we’ll have drained this aquifer down to nothing with 190 years or less. Some estimates even hold that the US will face severe water shortage issues with 50 years. The Ogallala aquifer isn’t refilling either. It’s filled with what is sometimes called “fossil water,” meaning that the water was deposited there millions and millions of years ago and is hardly being replenished at all.

So what to do? The biggest problem facing modern agriculture is that it has become tied to a hugely outdated system of ideas that were established in the 19th century Industrial Revolution. Many good things came of this development, and the economic strength and stability of agriculture was vastly improved, but all of this came at a high cost to the environment in the form of ecological destruction and use of huge quantities of natural resources. While we may have had an excuse during the Revolution for the new pollution and contamination, we’re no longer blameless. It’s crucial that agriculture, especially in the developed and developing worlds, is responsible and efficient. We can do this by watching how much water is used in irrigation, what kind of irrigation we use, restriction of pesticide use, and so many other innovations. The time to seize the future of our water supply is now. Time is short.

Note: A great resource to use if you’re hoping to understand the water crisis better and get a better grasp on how much water we use is the National Geographic Freshwater webpage, which is where these statistics came from. Also, if you can get your hands on the April 2010 issue of that same magazine, it’s a special edition on the water crisis and a fantastic set of articles. Some books I would recommend are Blue Planet Run and Water Consciousness, both of which offer a lot of insight into this subject (and BPR has a lot of fantastic pictures too!).

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The Dragon’s Breath

Most people would agree that the future of the environment, and the way we treat it, are some of the most important issues we face today. How we handle today’s environmental issues will affect how tomorrow’s world will operate.

Many Americans are (thankfully) pretty conscious about environmental risks and the consequences of a failure to care for the Earth. But part of this awareness arises from the mistakes that our nation has made in the past. During the Industrial Revolution, America and other Western nations were blazing new trails of industry and commerce, coming up with incredible new technologies like the steam engine, or the use of electricity for energy. This came at a high cost to the environment though, dealing a blow to American soil, water, and air.

Now, China’s obviously made it past Industrial Revolution standards – at least technologically and industrially. But at the same time, their impact on the environment is colossal, not just for their own country, but for the world in general. As a rising nation in the world, China has an obligation not to burden the environment as they ascend in global power. And they’re doing a pretty bad job at holding to that obligation.

I won’t absolve America from guilt for this either. The average American contributes vastly more to global warming than the average Chinese. Really, this is part of the problem! America isn’t in much of a position to insist that China be more environmentally conscious, especially in light of the somewhat tense relationship between the two countries. As was put in another article (a review of a book on this subject, and my inspiration for this post), “A seventy-a-day smoker riddled with lung cancer isn’t really in a position to lecture a younger man to stop smoking, especially if he’s trying to steal his nicotine patches.” America really has little authority to tell China to clean up.

On the other side though, American pollution doesn’t claim the lives of 700,000 people every year, at least not directly. China can’t say the same. And while America still has a lot to learn, China has the benefits of experience from other nations making mistakes during their periods of industrialization. Now that countries like Germany, France, the US, and Britain have all had their screw-ups during industrial development, China has a lot more to look back on and avoid.

The real problem here is that China is unlikely to cut back on pollution, out of a deeply rooted philosophy of pragmatism. As China has risen to power in the world, keeping up with other nations like the US economically has been of primary importance. When weighted against things like water pollution or the difficulties of the peasantry, economic strength and vitality has always come out on top. That’s the side of China that most of the West sees: a rising power that has seemingly conjured economic and military might out of nowhere. What many people don’t see is the heavy toll this mindset has taken on the Chinese people.

I’m planning to write more on this later, so stay tuned! If you didn’t before, you should definitely check out that article I mentioned earlier. For now, 再见!

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