November 21, 2007
We Could Have Such a Beautiful World
Today, November 21, is gray, rainy, and oddly warm for this time of year, which is unsettling considering our increasing knowledge of global warming and the persistent reports of chemical pollution throughout the earth’s systems. The idea, much less the reality of creating a sustainable world, too often seems impossible. In the face of this, I’ve noticed recently as I travel around the country for projects, lecturing, exhibiting and leading workshops that there is a shift towards cooperation, community building and public awareness. With the now increased understanding of our interconnectedness and an acknowledgment of a basic connection between the physical universe and spiritual, many shifts unimaginable ten years ago are happening. On the Snohomish River in King County, Washington, flood control earth berms are being removed to let the river carve its course. That is a radical act! Here in New York City you can recycle organic matter in Union Square or in neighborhood parks, and individuals are creating their own worm bins and finding ways to integrate alternative energy sources or energy saving devices into their homes, plazas, and subway stations. The fastest growing architectural form is green architecture with energy savings, sod roofs, water conservation and alternative building materials. Treating storm water is becoming common practice in communities and is no longer an innovation, as are saving wetlands and restoring creeks.
In 2006, Beijing built the infrastructure to completely recycle its grey water in all its rivers. Currently, both Los Angeles and San Francisco are also in the planning stages to improve their infrastructure. For anyone who lives in these areas this is an opportunity to get involved -- and you are needed. It is an opportunity to begin to reverse the trend of massive engineering solutions that disconnect water systems and head towards integrated sustainable planning. This will be a battle for sure but one worth waging. In Los Angeles, where 94% of the surface water is hard-scaped, the expensive solution is to put water-cleaning facilities at the bottom of the rivers where they meet the ocean, with little or no attempt to clean upstream, recharge or return run-off to the ground or utilize park systems as catchments and cleaning systems. The sustainable solution would be to study all of the available green spaces and to begin at the headwaters of each system to clean the water as it proceeds downstream through integrated systems design using a multi-functional combination of solutions like turning ditches into cleaning systems, making parks into receivers where water is cleaned and stored, greening river banks, uncovering buried rivers and reintegrating the rivers into the city as ecologically-sound biodynamic water environments. There are incredible numbers of ways to do this even in the most restricted and flood-prone rivers. By working together, artists, scientists and engineers can imagine even more new solutions.
With a green bank the river water will improve measurably often making the water cooler and habitable for many life forms. Choosing the right wastewater remediation, one that uses few chemicals and relies primarily on biologic means can return high quality water to the environment. Become an advocate for one in your community.
Although more individuals and communities are taking action, people often talk about how water is the vein, the connector of the planet. Not one major city or nation to date has acted as if this is true. We dump chemicals into the water we all share. We are finding out that the antibiotics we ingest are returning to us via our food, through animals, plants, soil and water, lowering the immune system of our planet. The chemicals used in cleaning agents and cosmetics are creating long-term health problems for millions. These issues and more are at last becoming common knowledge and pressure is building for policies to regulate the systemic contamination of the world’s water streams.
A major topic of conversation currently is whether water is a human right or a human need. If water is a human right then all people have the right to water. If it is a need, then people do not have a right to water without paying for it. This debate is integral to the quality of all life on this planet. There are those who want water declared a need. The World Bank for one, argue that pricing will conserve water and urge privatization of water which means that it can be owned, bought and sold. Indeed many companies are trying to acquire the right to purchase as much water as they can. A clear policy declaring water a human right while pricing high water users appropriately is what is needed. South Africa has such a policy. Everyone receives 20 liters daily of water free and then must pay according to use.
While working on various water projects, part of my attention is diverted to worrying about war, nuclear arms control, international agreements and peace negotiations. War is numbing and debilitating to say nothing of the wanton destruction to the eco system. An unsaid but felt reality is that we are in greater danger of nuclear war than we were 40 years ago. I cannot say more nor hold that notion in mind for more than a second without freezing in terror.
Let’s link and make ecological partnerships for peace. Towards this end, we have a perfect metaphor in water. Water nourishes all. We cannot solve water problems without building community, and without engaging everyone. Some believe that war is the inevitable outcome of a global water shortage yet right now there is enough water for all. Your water is my water, is our neighbors’ water, and is the water of those who live downstream.
In July 2007, I began the research for a project that has been a key inspiration for my past work: sacred water sites. I define these sites that were so designated by the peoples who depended on this water. Their stories lift our mind out of material distractions into a world of inspiration and hope. From this place we can begin to imagine sharing and saving our waters. Although I found a few of these sites in North America, most have been destroyed or appropriated into parks, breweries etc. However In 1993, while visiting the “god’ water in Northern Sichuan, 19 hours north of Chengdu, I learned of many such sites. This was the first glimpse I had had of a depth of knowledge that is possible when people understand that their survival depends upon preserving their water sources. The experience remained in my mind and last summer, I took a week-long preparatory trip with Tang Jun, a Chinese tour guide and Brenda Hood, a Taoist scholar, to research sacred water sites in Western Sichuan. Everyday we found 2 to 4 sites, and learned the stories of many of the sites by talking to monks, nuns and local citizens.
At the first site we found, there was plastic paper under the stones in the stream so we started to clean it but were quickly admonished by an old nun who told us that if we touched the water, we would get arthritis and our animals would die. The plastic was actually placed there as a prayer for the water and was not garbage – these measures protected the community’s drinking water. On the third day of the trip, we went in search of a hot spring in which the Dalai Lama bathed as a teenager. We descended the river bank into a small deep rose colored cave and sat while the warm water poured over our heads as we looked at the roaring river below.
This trip and research is the basis for a book that I’m working on with a team of Tibetans and Chinese. This book will provide a foundation for rural sustainable development, as these water sites are the foundation of these communities.
With peace and joy for the coming year,
Mother Earth Conference
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