Water and Life

I’ve been thinking lately of water as the bloodstream of our planet. The metaphor doesn’t work perfectly, but the flow of water infuses and makes possible all of Earth’s life forms, just as the flow of water through each of us makes our living possible.

The water cycle goes way beyond what we see—clouds, rain, streams, rivers, and oceans. It extends some nine miles into the sky and three miles below the surface of the Earth, in continual movement. The circulation of water and air, endlessly flowing in the ways they must, make the weather that renews the Earth’s fecundity each year.

When I’ve written about water in the past, I’ve tried to be eloquent about the limited amount of the Earth’s water available to us as fresh water. I’ve tried to tell how it is often mismanaged, polluted, and wasted. I’ve encouraged people to find out, if they don’t already know, what watershed they live in and to learn exactly where their drinking water comes from and where their waste water goes.

I’ve written of the dangers of turning water, as important to us as air, into a commodity, the sale of which enriches giant corporations. I’ve said that in Maine, as in India, the mining of water resources for commercial bottling has led to saltwater flow into the porous rocks where fresh water used to be. I’ve told how there are places where people have to pay more for water than they can afford, and that in protest against the attempt to make corporate profits from providing water to the public, some poor countries have now written the right to water into their constitutions.

All this remains important, but now there is more to say. Fresh water, like everything else, only exists within a larger, dynamic context. Mr. Rogers was right when he sang about the body: "Everything goes together, because it’s all one piece." The larger dynamic context for water is weather, and human behavior is affecting weather in a big way.

In the United States, we are aware that Atlanta, Ga., has not had rain and is running out of water. This is true in other U.S. areas as well. In Greece this year, low rainfall made rivers run dry and there were blackouts because hydroelectric generation was cut off. Low snowfall in the Alps left Italy unable to cool power plants as river water fell.

Wildfires have left portions of California charred. This has also happened in the Canary Islands, in Greece, and in other places.

Our Earth is undergoing changes in patterns of precipitation all around the globe. New, more intense, and widespread patterns of drought are emerging. They began appearing in the 1990s and are now being understood as already-present results of alterations in the Earth’s climate.

When water becomes scarce, conflict happens. The fighting in Darfur, which has been called "the world’s first water war," is an outcome of a ten-year drought. In the Middle East, where rainfall patterns are changing, the much-contested walls being built by Israel limits access to water for Palestinians. Much of sub-Saharan Africa, where Earth’s poorest human populations live, faces seriously declining rainfall.
What has all this to do with us?

Well, I never planned to be a prophet. Prophets are not well-received. Jonah tried to flee as far from Nineveh as he could get, but it didn’t work for him, and it’s not working for me.

So I have to tell you this: Our over-consumptive lifestyle, our oversized housing trend and urban sprawl, our dependence on gas-driven cars and trucks, our casual use of foodstuffs grown with petro-chemicals and then processed and packaged and transported thousands of miles, our nonchalant use of petroleum-derived plastics and single-use items, and our heartless war-making drive the climate changes I’m talking about. We need to become aware and responsible in our actions, not only in ways we connect directly with water, but also in ways our indirect connections affect the health of our living planet.

My gospel is that our physical world itself, with all its miraculous complexity, is of holy stuff—and we get to be part of it. I pray for wisdom, to see how things are connected, to be aware of patterns. I want to be open to wider vision, to know how I can love my neighbor as myself even when that neighbor is very distant. I want to preach this gospel and show this love through the choices I make, including how I live my own life and what I work for in the political realm of candidates, legislation, and whatever else comes my way.

Dear God, help us dwell in reverent awareness of the great systems of Creation that make our lives possible. Guide us as we ask how to live in harmony with the patterns that sustain us. Give us eyes that see and ears that hear, minds that understand and hearts that put living in this harmony above all other things.

Mary Gilbert

Mary Gilbert, a member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.), serves on New England Yearly Meeting's Earthcare Ministry Committee and has represented Quaker Earthcare Witness at the United Nations for eight years.