While we often hear of human kind harvesting the bounty of nature or taking some of nature’s “surplus”, it should be evident that there is no such thing. Material and energy resources are moved about by various natural processes (e.g. carbon cycle, water cycle) and there are various equilibrium points associated with the levels and distribution of these resources on the earth. The action of human beings is not then to “harvest the surplus” but simply to move that equilibrium point to another place (in the resource space) and perhaps to change the nature of that equilibrium (e.g. from a stable one to an unstable one). This understanding requires that we take a very different view of our relationship to the natural world, one in which we are not using what is in excess, but rather always disturbing what is already in process. This also implies a need for deeper and more holistic models of our interaction with the world to be built into the planning and management processes for urban and other infrastructure development.
I was struck by this realization while listening to a CBC Radio program on the Bow River. The Bow River is a small river by world standards (about 1 % of the flow of the St. Lawrence) that rises in the Rocky Mountains and supplies water to a huge portion of South and Western Alberta, in particular the City of Calgary. Water is drawn for farm irrigation, for industrial processes, for human drinking and waste management, for street cleaning and dust control. The uses are impossibly numerous and impossibly diverse. The river is now being impacted by the impact of global warming which is shrinking the glaciers that have fed the river in the spring for many thousands of years. While rainfall will no doubt continue the river’s existence, the full impact of these changes is far from understood. At the same time, the world of business has begun to talk about a market for water – about water trading. One only hopes that such a market (if it is indeed sustainable at all) starts at the point of the impact of such trades on the equilibria on which we all depend, and not on simplistic ideas of total flow and water diversion.