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Pathfinders: Water, Water Everywhere...

Since Pathfinders last wrote about the curious incident of the jet stream in the summertime (September 2010) a consensus has begun to form like a dark storm cloud across the faces of climatologists. With the arctic now warming at twice the speed of the rest of the world and largely failing to refreeze in winter, the sharp difference between arctic and tropic temperatures is disappearing, and with it the thermodynamic differential that creates and powers the polar jet stream. It is now increasingly believed that this loss of differential is what’s causing the jet stream to slow down, loop, meander drunkenly and stall for weeks on end, which in turn is causing extreme weather events every year in the northern hemisphere. If you are stuck inside a northerly loop you’ll get drowned, drenched, frozen or flooded, while in a southerly loop you’ll be fried to a crisp, even if you live in Alaska or Siberia. Expect more of the same, plus frequent North Atlantic hurricanes and storm surges battering the coastline. The jet stream may even disappear altogether for months at a time, effectively including the UK in the Arctic Circle and further accelerating Greenland and tundra melt.

It’s not the fault of humans that we did this. Nobody could reasonably have predicted it. Had the world turned socialist in the time of William Morris the following century would have been vastly different, not least in avoiding two world wars, but we would still have industrialised and therefore might still have caused global warming by accident. The difference is, we would have started to do something about it by now. But not capitalism. Thanks to its obsession with private as opposed to common property, its byzantine system of related and conflicting sectional, national and class interests has paralysed it in the face of a universal threat. Unable to pursue any common goal, it commonly scores own-goals. Today they’re no further forward than they were at Kyoto twenty years ago. In fact many countries have retreated even from the ‘commitments’ made then. Carbon emissions aren’t going down, they’re rocketing. In the recent Romney vs Obama TV debates no mention was made by either side of climate or environmental issues, even though hurricane Sandy was at that moment knocking ten bells out of New York. Nobody’s even trying to look as if they’re trying.

This year’s word, according to pundits, is ‘omnishambles’, one of many linguistic jewels gifted by the talented writers of BBC’s political comedy The Thick of It. Nowhere is the omnishambles of climate change more obvious than the ‘problem’ of water, the theme of this issue. It simply beggars the imagination how the world’s most abundant renewable resource could have been mismanaged so badly that it is expected to become a major, and perhaps the primary cause of future wars. Blue gold indeed. We evolved in the stuff, we’re made of the stuff, and 70 percent of the planet is covered in the stuff. Yet even in the UK, where we are often inundated with the stuff, we are regularly threatened not with deluge but with drought, because water companies prefer to allow reserves to leak away rather than spend shareholder dividends on repairing pipes. Meanwhile we are told to act ‘responsibly’ over our individual use of water, and while the stuff continues to fall out of the sky the meters are being fitted in our houses. We should object strenuously, like Inuits faced with an igloo-tax and being told they’re responsible for depleting ice stocks in the arctic. This is a non-problem, created by capitalism. Our personal ‘responsibility’ has got damn-all to do with it.

If we abolish capitalism and its paralysing sectional conflicts, we could solve this water ‘problem’ in no time. In the first place, water is renewable. There is as much today as there was in the Middle Ages, or the Devonian period. Thanks to our atmosphere it doesn’t evaporate into space. The only real difficulty is that most of it tends to fall in the wrong place, so as the (article by Horatio) points out, it’s not a question of shortage of water but of pipes. Humans have been laying pipes since Babylonian times, so the engineering is not difficult. And if the water for whatever practical reason can’t be made to go to the people, then the people will have to go to the water.

In socialism, where there are no national boundaries or private estates, the laying of pipes would not be confounded by political questions of ownership, nor would populations migrating from dry areas to wet ones have to worry about passports or title deeds. Without any clever technology we could socially ‘engineer’ the Earth, even if it means depopulating the tropics and half of Africa and India and crowding everyone into Canada and (increasingly) Greenland. In fact, at the rate the poles are heating up, we’ll soon be able to colonise West Antarctica as well.

This leaves aside entirely the question of whether people would want to move, and such cultural considerations should not be flippantly dismissed. But such drastic large-scale house-moving operations may not even be necessary if emergent technologies are developed, in particular desalination. A recent report in New Scientist (20 September) describes the problem of supplying water to the 80,000 strong Navajo Nation of Arizona, who are scattered across a huge area of what, before 20 years of unrelenting drought, used to be fertile grassland and is now a desertified hellhole. But the Navajo don’t want to leave their reservation, for historical and in fact pre-historical reasons – the Navajo language is one of the most ancient on Earth, probably Mesolithic and possibly related to old Chinese, Basque and Etruscan. If anyone’s got a right to say they’re staying put and staying together, come what may, it’s probably the Navajo. So now they regularly have to drive hundreds of kilometres to fetch fresh water. Laying pipes over an area the size of West Virginia is an ‘economic impossibility’, while concentrating everyone in a small area of desert is culturally unacceptable, unless the Navajo take it into their heads to build a new Las Vegas and Navajo theme park. There’s no rain even in monsoon season and the aquifers are 120 metres down and full of salt, arsenic and uranium. Needless to say there’s no electricity either. In these circumstances even socialists might be tempted in despair to consider that the Navajo are being a teensy bit bloody-minded. Instead, the University of Arizona has come up with a scheme to use solar energy, with which the Navajo are over-endowed, to power a durable and low-maintenance, off-grid water desalination system. Millions of poor worldwide, without even the modest political clout that the Navajo can muster, will not be so lucky.

Socialists believe in encouraging people to take personal responsibility for resource usage, but as well as and not instead of society-wide responsibility. Capitalism, being systemically incapable of taking responsibility for supplying even the most basic human need, will instead try to confuse us with some blackmailing guff about our own ‘environmental footprint’. On such arid and hypocritical reasoning we should not fail to pour cold water immediately.