Early human hunter-gatherers had no knowledge of Earth beyond the narrow reach of migratory movements and observations of local weather patterns. Resources were usually plentiful for the pickings.
Before the sixteenth century no human had circumnavigated the earth. But by the twentieth century we had moved into all parts of the planet and even landed on the moon.
Since then, technological and scientific leaps have occurred at an even faster pace—parallel to population and economic growth, globalization, consumerism, fossil fuel use, environmental degradation, and global climate change.
Looking back, we know that we have not always been the best stewards of our environment, while making huge strides in medicine, arts and sciences, philosophy, entrepreneurship, and the social sciences.
Being the dominant force of change on the planet, we have at times chipped away at the humanitarian and ethical base of society—accentuating differences and inequalities among and within nations and unleashing countless wars and conflicts.
In the wake of global climate change and environmental stress, we are witnessing severe storms, droughts, floods, the displacement of vulnerable communities, the growth in environmental refugees, and freshwater scarcity.
The latter is associated with the increasing privatization and commodification of water, which is a basic human right and the very foundation of our survival.
In spite of our amazing ingenuity, we have been slow to learn from past lessons or comprehend potential impacts of our actions on future generations.
Many factors are in play: political differences, greed, economic inertia, and the difficulties of bringing together a wide range of national interests, sectors, groups, and individuals dispersed across the globe to act collectively.
From a scientific point of view, there is solid evidence of accelerated global climate change after the industrial revolution and increased fossil fuel use. Technical details and recommendations to address the problem are well documented.
The challenges to implementation are more structural. One key dilemma is how to address global and national economic production modes and energy, transportation, trade and consumer policies, including entrenched interests.
Politically, another major problem is getting nations to cooperate globally, i.e., not only to sign declarations but to put aside self interest towards the common good and welfare of society.
Other institutional, ethical, and financial challenges persist, i.e., climate justice, poorer nations’ access to climate change adaptation technology, as well as the question of who bears the disproportionate burden of global climate change, and who pays for the costs.
From an ethical point of view we humans are responsible for our actions on this planet and for the protection of our eco-systems. At this point there is no other planet we can migrate to, even though some may show interest in colonizing Mars.
Since there is no viable exit strategy from earth, humanity has to grasp the real (not theoretical) implications of climate change, resource scarcity, and endangerment of species.
Water is a case in point.
Glacial melting, population pressure, overuse, and pollution of surface water and aquifers and droughts have intensified the difference between the water haves and have-nots of the world. Rising oceans are also inundating coastlines and displacing communities.
The situation is especially critical in arid and water-stressed zones, where agriculture, industry, and urbanization pressures have exacerbated surface water and aquifer pollution and depletion.
With increased scarcity, demand for bottled and the price of clean water has risen. The proliferation of the billion-dollar global bottled water industry—in the hands of a few corporations—reflects water’s commercial value.
The price of clean water is prohibitive for many poor communities in developing countries, where women still bear the main burden of walking ever-increasing distances to fetch water.
Competition among users for water, the displacement of many low-lying communities, and the encroachment of drought-affected residents into other areas are also provoking social, political, and ideological conflicts.
Unless we address fossil fuel use and the fall out of glacial melt, rising sea levels and water shortages, we are likely to experience greater poverty and inequality, mass migrations, global insecurity, and further conflicts.
The moment to move on all fronts is now: we need to stop wreaking havoc on ourselves, our livelihoods, and the welfare of future generations. No more reading of reports, no more endless debates and meetings, just concerted action!
Dr. Camille Gaskin Reyes is an adjunct professor at the Center for Latin American Studies in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. She specializes in development policy and practice in Latin America and the Caribbean with special emphasis on sustainable development, natural resource, and water management as well as urban planning and municipal development strategies.
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