A Feature Review of
Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2014
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Myes Werntz
As I read Christiana Peppard’s timely and thoughtful Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis, Texas is currently turning toward its long, brutal summer. Last year, despite ample rainfall, a number of growing regions throughout the state made the news because of what, to many, had seemed to be an impossible question—that drinking water from the aquifers beneath the cities was running short. As Peppard points out, fresh water—an unsubstitutable feature of every ecosystem —remains less than 2.5% of all available water in the world, and yet, it is treated as an endless commodity. But just the same, fresh water—one of the invisible, most taken-for-granted aspects of creation—is taken for granted, harvested at unsustainable rates worldwide. It is how to think and act about this global necessity that Peppard proposes to unpack in her volume.
Peppard opens her book with the assumption that ethics must be done from a place of specifics. Universals, while useful to think about the parameters and starting-points of ethics, must be aware that they are made concrete in specific contexts and lived realities. This acknowledgment of context is made clear in discussions concerning the environment, that what is assumed as bountiful in the developed world is not necessarily the case in the developing world. As she details in Chapter Two, women, girls, and children will be disproportionately affected by increasing water scarcity over the coming decades, with those living in developing and equatorial regions affected even more so. Because, as she writes, “the water disputation facing the Sahara desert or the Tibetan plateau is simply not the same as that in Brazil or Seattle” (35), the contextual needs of various areas must be at the forefront of our ethical discussions, lest we be dismissive of the inequities in play with water distribution.
In describing water, however, a fundamental disagreement remains as to whether water is a fundamental human right or an economic commodity. As evidenced by the rise of the bottled water industry, there remain conflicted visions over how to best think about and use water. The resource is presently cast as both a commodity and as a symbol of sustainable living. Drawing on Catholic social teaching, Peppard casts water, theologically, within the “right-to-life” debates, viewing water as one of the “goods of creation” which is meant for universal use (58). For true human development to happen, fresh water must be something which all people have access to. Insofar as the social teaching tradition speaks of the value of subsidiarity, localism, and preferential treatment of the poor, water must be something dealt with at local levels, with preference given to those whose development and lives are at risk. This truth must, Peppard argues, pervade our thinking about agriculture as well, altering how we think about the mode of agriculture production. If fresh water is not unlimited, and ordered toward sustaining creaturely life, then the kinds and number of plants grown must be given thought as well. When taken together with other complex political and social issues surrounding water, such as hydraulic fracturing, geo-political conflicts over water, climate change, and soil erosion, it becomes increasingly clear that the fate of creaturely life in the coming decades will hinge on how people think morally about water’s nature and use.