The interesting thing about Ryan Sabalow’s recent essay about his grief at the drying of the once-marshy Colorado Delta is that it flips the way that most news media gets stories wrong. Usually, mainstream media is good on the intellectual content but ignores or undervalues the emotional content. In Sabalow’s essay, he gets the emotional content right; the destruction of two million acres of wetlands is a tragic, wracking loss. However, his intellectual argument for how we participate in this destruction misses the mark. He writes:
We’re all reliant on the Colorado in some way.
Ever eat lettuce in the winter? Wear cotton underwear? Watch a Hollywood-produced blockbuster or sitcom? Party in Vegas? Catch a Cactus League baseball game?
You’re why the Colorado is dry.
So am I.
Our fault here is not that we participate in consuming products that are created out of Colorado River water. We, people who live in California, cannot not participate in that. We have no practical means of choosing where our tap water comes from, nor the irrigation source for our lettuces and cotton fabrics. We have no ability to opt-out of this market and the destruction of the Colorado Delta, so we cannot be faulted for participating in it.
If we despise the destruction of our rivers and river deltas, the way we can avert that is to recognize that the value by which we currently allocate rivers is “will the end product create profit in the global market?”. This is not the neutral and inevitable state of the world; it is the default we have arrived at. We could choose another value system and allocate water that way. (For example, we like having two million acres of thriving wetlands above the Gulf of Mexico. Or, we like having salmon runs on the San Joaquin River.)
If Mr. Sabalow wants to carry with him the (appropriate, well-expressed) pain he felt that day and use it to motivate useful work, he can do better than pointing the finger at our indirect culpability. I would rather that he start noticing where that default value (producing profit in the global market) is operating. He can look at analyses with that lens firmly in mind. The PPIC, for example, is thoroughly wed to the use of the current standard (that profit in the global market is the right way to allocate water) and doesn’t do any analysis in any other mode. The Wheeler Water Institute, by contrast, explicitly notes the importance of societal goals and values in their work.
When it is clearer to people that we are not choosing between ‘the inevitable way the world works’ and ‘your fetishistic hippy ideals’ but between two equally arbitrary values, we can start to decide which values we would like to use to allocate water. As we do that, the reminder of the painful costs of our current default is relevant and important.