Reviewed by Thomas J Mann
Over fifty years ago Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, The Sea Around Us, and many other books and essays, gave her final speech at a symposium in San Francisco, California. Weakened from years of battling cancer, her speech—called ‘The Pollution of Our Environment’—contained the usual sense of urgency that is so common in her writing. She said, early on in the address, that every good student of earth’s history ‘recognizes that extraordinary unity between organisms and the environment…[and for that reason] that harmful substances released into the environment return in time to create problems for mankind’ (Carson 1998, 231).
Her call unheeded we, with five decades of hindsight, can now ascertain how correct Carson’s warning was. Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes’ The Last Drop: The Politics of Water is a marvelous addition to this ecological warning, a warning which at its core wants to disclose the very many ways nature—and the human place within it—cannot be conceived as some static, discreet, sliceable unit, but rather an ‘interconnected and mutually dependent system in which each part is indispensable to the whole’ (163). What makes this book most useful is the authors’ particular focus on water in relation among humans, the ecosystem, global economic schemes, and its central importance to the ‘constant renewal of soil, rivers, seas and forests and the living beings that they sustain’ (idem).
Gonzalez and Yanes’ book is an accessible, poetic, and powerful indictment of the horrors of neoliberal economic policies and their contribution to the degradation of water the world over. We can distinguish two broad areas of the book, one descriptive and one normative. The Last Drop is primarily descriptive. Seven of its ten chapters are focused on showing the history of water privatisation, water and its relation to global warming, crop growth, man-made disasters, the damaging effects of plastics and pesticides, human displacement, river destruction, dam construction, and global neoliberal economic policies that fuel it all. Indeed, it seems as though neoliberalism and its central role to the horrific globalized privatisation and pollution of water plays an analogous role to water’s ecological centrality.
The authors’ introduction helpfully sets the stage for much of the rest of the book—establishing not only the main themes, but also committing the book (perhaps unsurprisingly) toward a solid leftist political orientation. For example, as the authors write, there are 1.2 billion human beings without sufficient water for drinking and more than 2 billion without water for sanitation. Both of these figures are crucially important to the crisis at hand, for the politics of water is not only about the continual flow of melting glacier water or large-scale dam projects (as devastating and significant as these are) but also about the quotidian, day-to-day lives of human beings without access to drinking water, water to wash themselves, or water to remove human waste. On the other hand, domestic use of water is only 10 percent of its consumption while ‘the rest is divided between industry and agriculture, with the lion’s share (around 65%) going to agriculture’ (4). Industrial use of water establishes one of the most pressing matters the book seeks to address: multinational industry and agriculture—with the help of privatisation efforts backed by governments—both use and contaminate the huge majority of available water, reducing the available water for consumption overall. And yet, the first victims of the water wars (as a deputy director of the World Bank called the potential conflicts of the twenty-first century) will be the poor, ‘desperate people’ who have already seen a gradual degradation to their regions and ecosystems (2).
The beginning chapters echo and deepen much of what is said in outline in the introduction. The first, ‘A Floating Planet’, considers water distribution and water as a renewable resource. The authors remind us—and it is worth remembering—that the aspects of water we are concerned with are not just drinking but also ‘water to wash in [and] water to flush away human detritus’ all of which ‘affects the world’s population in distorted ways’ (11). Distorted because water availability—even among the poor—is highly asymmetrical. Those without water for sanitation or to drink are primarily found in the developing world. But, the authors warn, as lakes dry up and more rivers are diverted for industrial use and displace more people; that is, so long as we ‘abandon the concept of water as a public good’, the water crisis will find itself more widely spread outside the developing world (17). In the important second chapter, ‘How Water was Privatised’, the authors succinctly review the main companies (Perrier, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, etc.) and the policies that led to a depreciation of water as a common good and the popularization of water as an expensive bottled commodity. But bottled water is not the only way water has been privatised. The authors call the general trend away from public services ‘the privatisation trap’ which, they argue, began nearly forty years ago in Britain. Since then, water privatisation—like so many other privatisation schemes—has become a global phenomenon in which desperate municipalities have accepted conditional loans from the World Bank and the IMF ‘which effectively entailed the privatisation of the public sector or at the very least its subordination to private sector priorities’ (31).
In the third chapter, ‘Disasters, Natural and Otherwise’ Yanes and Gonzalez describe the use of water as a weapon. This occurs, for example, in Palestine where the population in the Gaza strip receives less than half of the required minimum 100 liters of water per day even though it need not. Whenever governments have the ability to provide enough water to its inhabitants and do not, Yanes and Gonzalez call it a ‘weapon of domination’ and the ‘cynical use of thirst’ (41). Yet another example par excellence of weaponized water the authors examine is the construction of dams, which entails stripping away local necessities to the hands of multinationals and their government allies. Dams (while certainly not always unnecessary) displace the native populations, release huge amounts of methane gas, and dry out rivers. ‘What is destroyed,’ the authors say, ‘is a complex farming ecology, replaced by cash crops for export, the only justification for the huge outlay involved in these dams’ (56). Dams, draining local rivers, aquifers, and water tables all result from the privatisation of natural water sources, which leads to scarcity for human populations, most notably in urban areas but also in whole countries, particularly in the developing world. As the authors powerfully argue: ‘where water is a weapon, where water is diverted and the ecosystem is fatally disrupted, where water becomes a commodity, the consequences are the same. The death of thousands, the impoverishment of millions, the deepening of inequality’ (62).
Much of the final descriptive chapters (4: ‘A Short Trip Through Amazonia’; 5: ‘Bitter Harvests’; 6: ‘Virtual Water’; 7: ‘Water and Global Warming’) paint a particularly dreary picture for the future of human beings, ecological resources, public goods, and any possible potential to fight back. Industries, from pesticides to genetic manipulation; meat production, cement, oil, iron and steel, aluminum, bricks, pulp and paper, and fertilisers—not to mention dams and other privatisation schemes—have the full force of capital on their side (66). All of these industries and more have vested interests for profit in particularly vulnerable regions. This seems to lead the authors to their most pessimistic prognosis for our ecological and political future. Dams, desertification, erosion, drought, water shortages, and so on are only part of the problem which merely ‘reflect an interruption … of the water cycle’ (117). Further complicating the fragility of things are rising temperatures and evaporation, deforestation, the displacement of local populations, and the run-off of poisons and pesticides into the ever warming rivers (118).
Thankfully, the authors use the final three chapters (8: ‘Ya Basta! Enough is Enough!’; 9: ‘What is to Be Done?’; 10: ‘A New World Water Order’) to offer some solutions and detail a brief history of successful resistance. What is most welcome is the authors’ explanation of indigenous groups’ struggles (and, in some cases, victories) against multinational water privatisation and dam construction. Furthermore, they argue that indigenous or local knowledge of specific conditions could be the basis for a de-privatisation movement, for indigenous or local communities have knowledge about resources that has ‘enabled and will in the future enable adaptions to shifting climatic and soil conditions’ (126). Unlike multinational corporations, which utilize universalistic logics, solutions, and requirements for all places at all times in order to become more trade-friendly, local knowledge about specific areas and conditions address in their turn specific problems that arise under those conditions. ‘Farmers know their soil and their local climate better than anyone else’ the authors write, ‘they are the inheritors of a long collective memory embedded in traditions and local histories that are not mere distractions but enshrine practical solutions to recurrent problems’ (145).
The final chapter is written most overtly in the polemical style of a manifesto, outlining demands against water privatisation, rollback on the number of dams constructed and rivers diverted, an emphasis on local conditions and knowledge of the land and water cycle, and a great suspicion of the market-endorsed forces of accumulation and competition. However interesting the prognosis, though, the reader may still wonder how these solutions could possibly be brought about. Indeed, what might be the book’s most helpful achievement—laying out in full detail the crushing assemblage of neoliberal profit mechanisms in all their force—may have been all too convincing. Neoliberal logic has prevailed for so long and has tightened its grip the world over, in urban and agrarian areas alike. Governments complicit in this logic are the most powerful and have in their holster the most resources and the largest armies. The universalizing tendency of neoliberalism is a mighty force with which to contend, and even if we have strong water movements in the USA and elsewhere (taking on, of course, their own unique, specific local concerns) it seemingly remains hopelessly far away for these movements to connect in a way that establishes genuine solidaristic and policy-making power. Gonzalez and Yanes endorse a full participatory democracy as the primary hope of a water politics movement. Such a movement, for Gonzalez and Yanes, would stress ‘the democracy of mass involvement, activity, engaging growing numbers of people in their own battles, and democratizing the knowledges that will enable them to resist’ (167-8).
This book is a positive, necessary, and timely introduction to the mammoth global problems we will face for some time to come, as well as a useful summary of possible solutions. Despite what could be some of its limitations, the fact that we seem to be so far from the defeat of neoliberalism and because the authors stress its harmfulness and its destructive relation to water so powerfully, their ever-present aim of a classless society, and (as Carson wrote) the ‘wholeness of the [ecological] relationship’, this is certainly a good place to start.
18 January 2017
- 1998 Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (Boston: Beacon Press)