Water’s Lesson – The Future Favors Development, not Growth

Third in a series of blog posts on water. Click here for first, second.

A Google search on economic growth yields 65 million results – double that of a search on economic development. Whereas politicians and pundits tout economic growth as the panacea of all that ails us, economic development is the way of the future (and present).

What’s the difference between growth and development? It’s not just semantics, but the difference between 10-11 billion people surviving on one planet or having to look for two to three other planets in order to support lifestyles that are hyper-exhaustive of resources and waste sinks. Whereas growth tends to push aside all other considerations for the sake of bigger and more, development is built upon efficiencies and accepts the reality of limits.

Water1As I said in my first blog post on the irreplaceable and life-enabling resource of water, the freshwater supply on Earth is completely stable, having arrived here some 4.4 billion years ago. We have what we have: we can’t order any new supplies of water on Amazon, nor can we expect China to manufacture new supplies. As population continues to increase (currently 7 billion and projected to be 10-11 billion by 2100), the fresh water that exists will have to be shared. Desalination has become a somewhat cheaper process than it used to be, but its overall yield is minimal. Saudi Arabia and Israel – situated in desert climes – benefit from desalination. But for Americans, surrounded by rivers and lakes, desal is not a great solution.

Charles Fishman’s excellent book, The Big Thirst (Free Press, 2011), shows over and again that conservation and decreased use of water IS compatible with economic development. Have you been to Las Vegas lately? The desired destination in the desert gets most of its drinking water from Lake Mead, the big pool of water from the Colorado River that sits behind the Hoover Dam. Vegas gets all of four inches of rain annually. The past twenty-five years, as Lake Mead’s levels have plunged due to drought, Las Vegas has been very intentional about its water consumption. Vegas’ water consumption per capita has decreased more than 30 percent since 1990. Yes, its many golf courses and hotel water fountains betray an extravagant use of water, but Las Vegans have adopted a new mindset: conservation of water is the new normal.

Let’s be honest. Conservation goes against what many Americans have grown accustomed to: wanting what we want (now) without having to accept anything less. It’s all part of the just a little bit more spirit. But, alas, all is not lost. We Americans are an adaptable bunch . . .

According to Fishman, American industry leads the way on smart water usage and conservation. Campbell Soup uses less water today to produce a can of soup than it did five years ago. Coca-Cola, Intel, Monsanto, IBM, and GE have this in common: these corporations realize water availability is limited and are doing (and planning to do) what they can to get by with less water. Their present and future vitality – continued economic development – depends upon water use efficiencies.

Are there any purple water pipes in your neighborhood? Purple pipes signify the presence of reclaimed water or treated wastewater. Some cities in California, Texas, and Florida are saving on potable water via increased use of reclaimed water. Is it really necessary to flush our toilets with potable (drinking) water? In the future when our grandchildren’s generation looks back to review our water habits of today, potable water in toilets will be deemed wasteful (even though appreciated by a number of our dogs). Soon enough watering lawns and plants with drinking water will also be a thing of the past – as will be many of those lawns.

Water is the new oil. The sooner we treat both resources as precious, limited, and belonging to the whole human family – including those coming after us – the better. Economic development, smart and efficient, with a nod to conservation is the only economic activity that will survive as this century goes forward. Our understanding of water is now permanently altered due to climate change-induced drought and population growth. The crucial issue of water use deserves our very best attention and innovative thinking as we go forward.


This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!


2 thoughts on “Water’s Lesson – The Future Favors Development, not Growth

  1. John

    “Desalination has become a somewhat cheaper process than it used to be, but its overall yield is minimal. Saudi Arabia and Israel – situated in desert climes – benefit from desalination. But for Americans, surrounded by rivers and lakes, desal is not a great solution.”

    The USA has plenty of salt water around it and with decreasing energy costs desalination would become more attractive.

    You mentioned Israel, here’s an interesting link

    Israel is going to have 50% of its water demands from desalination by 2016. How amazing is that?

    Of course I agree with everything you wrote. It’s pretty obvious also that water is often under-priced which causes shortages. California and Thailand are both great examples.

    1. Thanks, John – Improvements in desal fall under the category of economic development as opposed to growth. The only thing I don’t like about the linked article is where the desal engineer implies that desal has given them unlimited amounts of water, like the good ol’ days. “We don’t have to fight about water anymore.” It’s good that Israel has a more secure supply of water, but I hoped their desal proponents don’t give the impression that supply is now suddenly unlimited.

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