Essays from "How To Change The World"
While enrolled in "How To Change The World" at Wesleyan University, we were asked to write a number of short essays on topics such as Common Goods, Climate Change, Women's Empowerment, Global Disease and Poverty - so I thought I'd share some of them here.
IS WATER A COMMON GOOD?
Water has become a sought after resource in areas of the world stricken by drought in this age of anthropogenic climate change. Citizens of Sao Paulo face the worst drought they’ve seen in 80 years and, according to the New York Times, they may run out of water by mid-November. And what is their reaction? They are hoping for rain (Friedman 11/04/14). This lack of water is due to destruction of resources that were once part of the commons (forests that have been cut down, wetlands that were turned into private farmland and rivers that are being funneled into man-made reservoirs) coupled with global warming patterns that dry the land and keep the hoped-for rain at bay. Faced with these tragedies, the people of Brazil respond with what Hardin calls ‘psychological denial’; while Hardin described individuals denying truth for personal benefit, it seems that now we have nation states rejecting the truth in exchange for short-term economic stability.
Water as a privatized commodity has been common practice in developed countries for years now, but it has not always been thus and even in recent years, the morality of taking water out of the commons has been questioned. The recent water crisis in Detroit, where thousands of residents had their water shut off because they couldn’t pay their bills, became an international talking point. From a capitalist standpoint, it seemed pretty obvious: people aren’t paying their water bills, so shut their water off until they pay. And perhaps if this had been a short-term small-scale issue, no one would have disagreed; but when the UN called it a ‘violation of human rights’, bigger questions were brought to the table. If water is a human right, then why should people be paying for it at all? Why is running water not treated as part of the commons?
The people of Bolivia in 2000 took to the streets when their state-owned water company was sold to multi-national corporations and their water bills increased by 35%. They were so successful in their protests that the government declared a state of emergency and the deal was overturned, reverting ownership of the water resources back into national control. However, the government was left without any chance of receiving international loans or assistance to invest in their failing water system and so the people of Bolivia still suffer. After cycling through the leviathan approach to the invisible hand and now returning to the leviathan, perhaps Bolivia needs to investigate the merits of Yochai Benkler’s so called ‘penguin’ (7). Is there a cooperative, innovative and sustainable way to approach bringing water resources back into the commons? The leader of Bolivia's uprising, Oscar Olivera, called water "a common good - a human right, not a commodity... It is collective property" (Guardian 07/19/06). When faced with the current and upcoming climate crises, we must ensure that common goods like water do not get denied to the impoverished. Perhaps we need to take to the streets to reclaim our common goods.