Conserving Water — or Maybe Not
In the summer issue of Zoomer, Moses Znaimer’s hip new magazine for mature and over-ripe Canadians – I’m one – is a article by Jane MacDougall on conserving water. Reacting to the fact that water is becoming a scarce resource globally, and that the average Canadian uses a prodigious 329 litres daily, MacDougall lays out six principles for conserving water.
Alas, they’re pretty repellent, and they’re often silly. Half of them involve laboriously capturing water that would otherwise be wasted – the water from your shower, for instance – and using it on your garden. What, in Canada? In December?
And why? I’ve never understood why I should conserve water from a hand-dug well which in 35 years has only once run dry, or from reservoirs that are almost never depleted. Here in Nova Scotia – and on the prairies, and on the west coast, and especially this year – we have so much water falling from the sky that the north sides of our bodies are turning green. If the water I saved from steaming my vegetables could be piped to Ethiopia or Gaza, I’d treat it like gold. But it can’t. So what’s the point?
It’s different in places like Bermuda, where the entire country survives on collected rainwater. (MacDougall doesn’t suggest a rain barrel, an odd omission.) And it’s a different story on a boat.
My friend Trevor Robertson just sailed into Halifax from Australia by way of New Zealand, Cape Horn, the Falklands and Trinidad. His boat’s water tanks contain 180 litres – much less than an average Canadian uses in a day. Alone in the boat, on the open sea, he can make that water last for two solid months. Having sailed more than 140,000 ocean miles, he knows – and owns – exactly what he needs, and nothing more.
Trevor and other long-distance sailors provide a sterling example of just how rich a life one can have without greatly burdening the planet. His wife, Annie Hill – who just arrived from New Zealand by air – has made a philosophy of the low-cost green cruising lifestyle. In fact she’s written a fine book about it, Voyaging on a Small Income, which I’ll be discussing with her in an upcoming Green Interview. In the meantime, I’ve posted on the Green Pieces blog the column I wrote about them in January 2010, when they won one of the sailing world’s most prestigious awards, the Blue Water Medal of the Cruising Club of America.
Sailors like Annie and Trevor are scouts from the sustainable future, ambassadors who already know much of what the rest of us will soon need to learn.
All of which makes a simple but crucial point not only about water, but about any other important resource. People conserve what is scarce and valuable. If there’s a good reason to conserve water in Canadian cities, there’s a simple way to achieve that: ration it, or put the price up. The same is true of oil, or stumpage, or the right to spew contaminants into the air. If you don’t want people to do it, make it difficult and expensive. If you do want people to do something – use transit, say, or eat more local food – make it easy and cheap for them to do the right thing.
And that’s the deeper lesson from Zoomer’s well-intentioned piece about water. We do our best as individuals, but in the end – as Bill Rees said in his wonderful Green Interview – none of us can be green alone. Sustainability is a destination we can only reach together.