The Great American Water Crisis, Privatization, and how Faith Communities are Fighting Back

Like many others, I’ve been convinced for a while that the sustainable management of energy and water consumption must become top political priorities for society, and Christian churches should be instigating the conversation.  Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.

Just yesterday I overheard a commentator on K-Love (a national Christian music radio station) announce the “great news” that the U.S. has recently become the world’s number-one producer of oil, and has increased this production three hundred percent in recent years due to advances in technology such as that afforded by hydraulic fracking, which enables us to extract hard-to-access deposits of fossil fuels.  For him — and I guess for Christian radio? — this is good I suppose because energy prices can remain low, people will keep relying on gas-transportation, and the U.S. economy will continue to grow.

Despite the short-term benefits of this boom which mostly go directly into the pockets of the biggest shareholders, the reality of the water crisis, peak oil, climate change and other environmental issues seem to severely call into question how this could finally be interpreted as good news.  While there are indeed significant advantages to increasing domestic energy production, especially that of natural gas, the concern is equally that we seem to be doubling-down on an addiction that is bound to cause more harm than anything else in the long-run.  And it would be one thing if our country was simultaneously taking the necessary preparatory and infrastructural steps to transition into a post-petroleum age… but we simply are not.  Instead, we seem utterly preoccupied with secondary, partisan pettiness.

On the one hand, it’s hard for me not to be cynical about this; but on other hand, who can blame the radio guy?  Have most church leaders and Christian thinkers even tried to understand and communicate the connection between the gospel message and real world problems like this one — a problem that requires out-of-the-box imagination and learning from what experts are telling us about peak oil, globalization and geopolitical constraints?  Sadly, they have not.  Too many cannot even fathom such a connection, as they remain captive to a soterio-centric version of Christianity.

Here’s how the latest issue of Sojourners Magazine characterizes the water problem:

Corporate raider T. Boone Pickens made billions as a Texas oil baron, but he’s betting that the real money will come from mining “blue gold”—water. Pickens owns more water than anyone in the U.S.—he’s already bought up the rights to drain 65 billion gallons a year from the Ogallala Aquifer, which holds the groundwater for much of the Great Plains. Almost all the Ogallala water—95 percent—is used for agriculture, but Pickens plans to pipe it down to Dallas, cashing in on the hotter-and-drier weather from climate change. (The result, according to an Agriculture Department spokesperson: “The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm.”)

Pickens isn’t alone in his new role as a water baron. Multinationals such as Nestlé are buying up water rights, siphoning lakes, and selling our most precious resource to the highest bidder. Slick advertising has seduced many Americans into the mistaken belief that (expensive) bottled water is “purer” or “healthier” than tap water—and led to the annual consumption of 9.67 billion gallons of bottled water, with underserved Latinos and African Americans having the highest rates of bottled water use. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that by 2030 nearly half of the world’s population will inhabit areas with severe water stress.

As this article goes on to explain though, “the [actual] good news is that faith-based, consumer, labor, and other community organizations have teamed up to fend off many attempted takeovers to keep their water under local public control, for the health of the poorest and the strength of the whole community.”  To see examples of this, read the full story here: http://sojo.net/magazine/2013/11/great-american-water-crisis.

It also sounds like strides are being made in a manner consistent with peacemaking rather than social justice ideology as discussed in the previous post, so that deserves praise as well.  Let’s hope we can learn from these groups who are putting their faith into practice in creative and forceful, loving ways.

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