A vast symphony of natural processes sustains our life on Earth. Recognizing the complex interdependence of nature’s concert reminds us of a simple fact: the social, economic, and environmental challenges we face are not isolated from one another, and neither are their solutions. Tom Friedman drives this point home in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Connecting Nature’s Dots.”
“Droughts make matters worse, but the real problem isn’t shrinking water levels. It’s population growth,” says Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It, in a Washington Post op-ed that points out the integrated nature of our environmental problems. “Excessive groundwater pumping has dried up scores of lakes,” many of which—including Lake Superior—can no longer “float fully loaded freighters, dramatically increasing shipping costs.” Companies reliant on rivers to run their factories or discharge their wastewater have furloughed workers as low flows disrupt normal operations. “Water has become so contentious nationwide,” Glennon continues, “that more than 30 states are fighting with their neighbors over water.”
In addition, while “more people will put a huge strain on our water resources…another problem comes in something that sounds relatively benign: renewable energy, at least in some forms, such as biofuels.” Growing enough corn to refine one gallon of ethanol, for example, can take up to 2,500 gallons of water.
Global food security is also affected. We need the oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, and streams to provide habitat for fish and other marine life—a vital source of sustenance for the poorest segments of our population. Furthermore, wetland areas play a critical role in mitigating the consequences of natural disasters, buffering vulnerable coastal communities from storm surges.
Addressing water scarcity thus requires a complex understanding of the hydrological cycle, its relationship to other natural processes, and humanity’s place in that system.
For years, celebrated environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken has emphasized the interconnectedness of indigenous, environmental, and social justice movements. In his 2007 book Blessed Unrest, Hawken contends that groups as disparate as land rights reformers in the DR Congo and community members fighting to protect the Anacostia Watershed share fundamental values. Grassroots campaigns of a similar bent have sprung up across the globe, all seeking to right humans’ relationships with the Earth, and with each other.
Policymakers in the U.S. and abroad should take a page from Hawken’s book, recognize the natural interdependence of our problems, and design integrated solutions. Otherwise, our strategies to confront the myriad challenges enumerated by Friedman will fall flat.