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Rethinking Climate Politics in the Vernacular, by Ariel Salleh

The Water Paradigm and a new way forward

Published: 8 Jun 2019

Given the impasse in climate politics, maybe it is time to reframe the problem and start again. One way of doing this is to focus on how global warming is tied into our habitual abuse of water. In fact, it can be argued that climate change will never be rolled back unless the crucial link between local and global water cycles is restored.

People all over the world are coming to an ecocentric awareness of the integral dynamics of water—in human bodies, in plants, in soils, and as an agent of Earth cooling. Grassroots movements are demanding re-municipalisation, although a socialist solution of public ownership is only half the story, because it remains anthropocentric. Alternative philosophies of water are coming from Indigenous peoples, ecological feminists, even unconventional lawyers and engineers. These visions replace the mindset of water extractivism with water commoning. The Water Paradigm overtakes both corporate water marketing and state-managed technological fixes. Key priorities are self-reliance with water for food sovereignty and re-skilling with hands-on care of bioregional catchments.

Here is a synergistic politics that can be at once post-patriarchal, post-capitalist, postcolonial and ecocentric. How so? A good part of the answer lies in uncovering a set of premises that are basic to all four of these movement struggles.

Humberto Maturana once said that we need to understand where our understanding comes from. It is true that even physics and economics are shot through with preconscious cultural beliefs. Contemporary approaches to climate change perpetuate unexamined assumptions—both Eurocentric and androcentric. To unpack these ideological forces and re-embed the climate question in a wider framework of political understanding, we will need to be open to challenges from people’s everyday experience and to think across the given boundaries of academic disciplines. As Marx would say, theory and praxis go together.

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The emergent international focus on water is a great chance to work in an integrated way on climate, in terms of both epistemology and politics. Water flows between soils, plants, air and human bodies, and it is essential to all life on Earth. More than this, studies by Russian meteorologists Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov show that the global water cycle connects with huge atmospheric energy movements known as ‘the biotic pump’.

The problem is that the World Bank and even the United Nations promote an emissions-intensive ‘development’ model along with privatised water management. Today, ten transnational businesses control water sales across 100 nations; they hike water rates, cut services to the poor, and refuse infrastructure repair. Since profits are generated by making a commodity scarce, it is simply nonsensical to put water protection into the hands of entrepreneurs.

As the international economy approaches ‘peak water’, it is critical to forestall more corporate ‘water grabs’, not to mention state-driven resource wars over water. Climate-change strategies cannot be effective without simultaneously restoring local and global water cycles. Current political efforts to check greenhouse emissions are bypassing a key piece of the puzzle, and that in turn dumbs down the public understanding of climate science.

Healthy, functioning ecosystems do much more than provide species habitat, landscape stability, soil quality, flood control and aquifer renewal. As Water Paradigm advocates, from Thierry Uso in France to Maude Barlow in Canada explain it: intact, well-watered ecosystems play an active role in the global heat-energy balance. Yet, under the profit-driven capitalist economy, 130,000 square kilometres of forest are cleared every year, while urban soil is paved over, amounting to a further 52,000 square kilometres of dead Earth. According to Martin Winiecki and Leila Dregger in Portugal, the drying out of soil and air from plant loss results in potential heat of 25 million terawatt hours annually—1600 times more heat than is generated by all the world’s powerhouses combined.

As any campesino (farmer) knows, a tree is a natural solar-driven air-conditioning system based on atmospheric water evapotranspiration; it is free cooling, minus polluting electricity generation. This is because, in evaporation, a gallon of water absorbs 2.5 kilowatt hours of solar energy, so urban areas cleared of trees result in dysfunctional heat plates in the air above them. This disturbs cloud formation in the ‘small water cycle’ that brings local rain, while in the wider atmosphere random heating sets up the chaotic ‘large water cycle’: weather events that increasingly devastate communities with storms and droughts.

By Water Paradigm reasoning, the way to move beyond this self-defeating model of development is by mending the link between local and global water cycles. Keeping water where it falls, rather than following the centuries-old practice of draining land, may even help stabilise the rising sea levels that threaten small Pacific island states.

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UN Sustainable Development Goals 14 and 15 recognise that climate is a complex non-linear system closely entangled with the functioning of water bodies. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change favours reductionist methodologies and silo thinking, tailored by technocrats for administration by policy wonks. This is bad epistemology, but it is undemocratic, too, since climate politics is kept away from people’s own capacities to act in any way other than as consumer-citizens.

The 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals are described as a universal plan of action for ‘people, planet, and prosperity’, to take effect over the next fifteen years. The goals are to be realised by market deregulation and more power to the World Trade Organization; GDP growth through extractivism of fossil fuels and minerals; and innovation and technology transfer from the global North to societies in the South. According to UK anthropologist Jason Hickel, looking at current ratios between GDP growth and income growth of the poor, it will take 207 years to eliminate poverty using these Sustainable Development Goals. Meanwhile, the international economy will have to grow by 175 times, even as it already overshoots the planet’s material capacity by some 50 per cent every year.

Sustainable Development Goal 6a calls for international cooperation and capacity building for sanitation, water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, waste-water treatment and recycling. A parallel ‘clean energy approach’ for climate is described by the United Nations as ‘incubated through the 3 Ds: decentralisation, decarbonisation, digitalisation’. At the same time, achieving this high-tech ecological modernist solution will lead to multiple emissions from energy-intensive mining, smelting, manufacture and transport. But full cradle-to-grave costs are rarely factored in by the transnational ruling class and its ‘green economy’ enthusiasts.

Then there is the ‘virtual’ loss of water embodied in manufactured products exported across continents in accord with neoliberal free-trade ideology. All that is ‘sustained’ here is superficial policy, protected by old customs and habits of psychological splitting, dissociation and denial.

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What has ‘dissociation’ got to do with twenty-first-century science and policy? Ecological feminists point out that institutions from religion and law to science and accounting carry forward an ancient code—one that evolved to serve the world’s first political order: patriarchal domination. This lives on today in the discourses of humanity over nature, man over woman, white over black, good over bad—and land over water.

The pre-conscious order of Western civilisation looks like this:

  • humanity over nature
  • man over woman
  • production over reproduction
  • physics over biology
  • economy over ecology
  • capital over labour
  • mental over manual
  • subject over object
  • mind over body
  • white over black
  • North over South
  • land over water

Historically, women and conquered slaves living under this hegemonic regime became mere objects. Later, men of enlightened reason would theorise nature and bodies as machines operating to mathematical formulae. Land was valued as solid, while life-giving water flows were as problematic as women’s embodied fertility. Historically, masculine entitlement would be symbolised in land title, passed on from father to son, secured from unruly waters by man-made dams, channels and drains to carry ‘waste’ out to sea.

This same conventional wisdom still provides a road map for the life-alienated organisation of capital. Slovak hydrologist Michal Kravčík describes the compulsion to master water through law and engineering as the ‘the hydraulic mission’. For sure, the construction of knowledge disciplines reflects long-established class, race and sex-gendered imaginaries and interests. Today, this is seen in the disconnect between economic metrics and the ecological processes they are meant to represent.

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Following the emblematic struggle of Cochabamba citizens against Bechtel in 2001, visionary South American communities began to take the lead for a while in water politics, with Venezuela and Mexico designing schemes for people’s ownership and control of water services. This is a move towards ‘commoning’, although the Left generally is slow to embrace an ecocentric politics.

In 2008 Indigenous challenges to mining in Ecuador led to a pioneering constitutional clause giving rights to Pachamama, or Mother Nature. Recently, India’s mighty Ganges has acquired rights of personhood, and in New Zealand the Whanganui River crossing Iwi lands has been granted legal standing. Like the New Zealand Maori, Australia’s First Peoples use the word ‘country’ to speak of land and water as one. More than this, ‘country’ implies a source of identity and belonging, a relational way of knowing and an ethic of care. A new academic field of Earth Jurisprudence, also known as Wild Law, is helping to resolve tensions between such ecocentric epistemologies and the reductionist liberal language of rights. That said, the law resides in an abstract world of ideas, whereas Water Paradigm politics ‘materialises’ change immediately.

The Water Paradigm is about working with biodiversity to hold rain where it falls, thus rehydrating subterranean aquifers, rivers, landscapes—and the atmosphere. Money is irrelevant; labour is communal and hands on, using local stone, wood and plants. In Australia, Peter Andrews recoupled carbon and water cycles on his farm by synchronising plant growth, groundwater infiltration and carbon sequestration. In India, Rajindra Singh revived the building of mud swales or johads across desertifying slopes to gather monsoon runoff, while Dhrubajyoti Ghosh would keep the rich metabolism of Kolkata’s wetlands safe from developers.

In post-communist Slovakia, Michal Kravčík has encouraged jobless rural people to re-skill and regenerate food-growing land with small-scale water-holding designs. Other exemplars of Water Paradigm logic can be found in China and Korea. In southern Ecuador, the village women of Nabon are restoring natural fertility to degraded postcolonial watersheds with their own innovative water-harvesting techniques. In Portugal, the Tamera community blends post-capitalist bioregional commoning with ecological regeneration and a culture of sex–gender reflexivity.

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At the Paris climate talks in 2015, alter-globalisation activists agreed to deepen the climate narrative by joining up land and water struggles under the principle of subsidiarity. Historical conditions differ, but there is clearly an international convergence among these decentralising and synergistic moves.

Beyond market and state, beyond dualism, a vernacular science recognises cultural autonomy in ‘other knowledges’. Like Indigenous peoples in the global South, mothers in households of the global North also devise holistic methodologies as they care for natural cycles in young bodies.

Integrative practices like these address the climate–water crisis head on and democratically by fostering bioregional catchments, self-reliant livelihoods, creative jobs, solidarity economies, self-empowerment and spiritual renewal.

As the world peasant union Via Campesina says, ‘our small scale provisioning cools down the Earth’.

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