Water – The Ultimate Fixed Asset

The first in a series of three blog posts on water.

Ninety-seven percent of the world’s water supply is salty sea and ocean water. Of the remaining 3 percent that is fresh water, most is frozen (estimates range from 68 to 83 percent). That means over 7 billion people, and myriad plants and animals, share the relative small amount of fresh water that sloshes around. The planet’s water supply – established some 4.4 billion years ago – is absolutely stable. No new water created, none disappearing – the fresh water that exists today supported the lives of multicellular organisms, plants, and dinosaurs long before the arrival of Homo sapiens.

waves-wallpaper-nature-sea-ocean-water-freshness-hd-ocean-water-hd-desktop-wallpaper-Although there would be no life but for water, we absolutely take water for granted. We do the same with the oxygen content of the air we breathe, readily available wherever we might amble upon the green, brown, and blue planet. Water is different, both abundant and scarce, depending upon circumstances and location. We modern-world, well-to-do types simply turn on a faucet and sweet, potable water discharges. I was born in 1961 in Minnesota and I’ve yet to live a single day in the United States when potable water was not available to me on demand.

In the late 1980s, I lived in the South American country of Peru, serving as an intern pastor in a small pueblito called San Antonio de Pomalca. Located in the Sechura desert, the residents of the village retrieved water daily from a well. The folks of San Antonio de Pomalca knew two things about their water supply: it wasn’t unlimited and it needed to be shared.

This type of simple wisdom flies in the face of what has been a driving force in the United States ever since the early 1980s: unlimitedness. Whether water, energy, creativity, resources, or the all-you-can-eat restaurant buffet (an Americanism, different than the Swedish smorgasbord, meaning sandwich table, where variety is valued over endless supply) – we’re encouraged to go for it – don’t hold back. And why not? The spirit of “just a little bit more” is the driving force behind numerous American achievements and accomplishments, beneficial to you, me, and many others throughout the world. But when the spirit of just a little bit more goes too far, blatant inequalities and unjust inequities are often the result.

A good number of Americans born previous to 1961 grew up in domiciles without indoor plumbing or central air conditioning/heating. Maybe you’re one of these folks. You probably don’t take clean, running water for granted. You’re thankful for it because you remember a time when you didn’t have it.

Author Charles Fishman tells us that the twentieth century was the golden age of water. In his book The Big Thirst (Free Press, 2011), he attributes the significant increase in life expectancy in the United States – forty-eight years in 1900 to seventy-five years in 2000 – in large part to enhanced availability of clean water. He says that water became “unlimited, free, and safe” – meaning we didn’t have to worry about water. We could take it for granted. And we do.

The golden age of water, however, is coming to an end. Climate change and related drought, population increase, and heightened competition for water usage are combining to wake us up to the reality of water as a fixed, and not unlimited, asset.

The challenge: can today’s generation of Americans adjust to limitedness? Limitedness calls for conservation, efficiency in usage, and sharing. The values supporting these practices go against the grain of the way many of us are accustomed to living.

I’ll have two or three more blog posts to follow on this very topic. There’s a lot to talk about: desalinization, bottled vs. tap water, market forces on the price of water, gray water in your toilet (yup), among others topics.

By definition a fixed asset is tangible property central to the operation of a business, not traded or converted into cash. Water is central to the business of life – we do best to appreciate it, cherish it, and share it.


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!



Bursting the Bubble of Excessive Economic Growth

Did you catch Boyhood? Watching Ellar Coltrane’s character, Mason, grow up is pretty cool – except when he gets his long locks trimmed at the insistence of an abusive step-dad. To simply see the physical growth and changes in Mason happen before your eyes (even at a lengthy two hours, forty-five minutes) is almost worth the price of admission. Toward the end of the movie, as Mason reaches young adulthood, we anticipate other changes in his person – not so much physical, but emotional and even spiritual.

A girl or a boy grows for 15-20 years and then reaches a state of physical maturity. In the adult years, physical growth ceases and the continued development of one’s character, spirit, and psyche prevails. Borrowing inspiration from the teacher of Ecclesiastes, there is a time for growth and a time to refrain from growth. In a finite world growth is necessarily limited. Development, defined as elaboration or maturation, deals with internal structuring and happens within the bounds of external physical limits. In my book, Just a Little Bit More, I critique the culture of excess that chooses the value of fast growth over slow and continued development much more often than not.

Economically, the long-term growth beginning at the dawn of the industrial era (early 1800s) and the short-term growth since the post-World War II era have significantly blessed millions of the world’s inhabitants, lifting them from poverty to prosperity. The ingenuity, sweat equity, and persistence of inventors, entrepreneurs, and millions of workers have made this beneficial economic growth possible. None of these, however, played the primary role as have the fossil fuels coal and oil, the cheap energy sources powering the geniuses and the grunts. As I stated in a previous post on this topic, gasoline boasts the energy equivalent of four hundred person hours of work. Yes, we’ll still have plenty of oil for some time and it will accomplish many things at the behest of human creators and doers. But, it is a non-renewable energy source and its externalities of pollution and carbon emission are unsustainable in a finite world. Beyond that, its ubiquity (and new lower price!) lures us into a false sense of security: we feel the economic growth we are so accustomed must continue on ad infinitum. For it not to continue as we’ve known it would be cultural and societal ruination, or so we think.

steady state 3

Other options do exist. A steady-state economy is one such option. It’s not socialism or Marxism or a forced recession, but economic sustainability. A steady-state economy at its core is an economy of stable resource usage and consumption. Enough is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (Berrett & Koehler, 2013) is an excellent resource for understanding the issues of a steady-state economy. The 19th century is over; we can no longer operate with a mentality that assumes an endless frontier of untapped resources exists solely for our economic exploitation. Dietz and O’Neill claim that, in our current day, technological optimism – the belief in the power of technology to overcome limits to growth – gives us a false sense of separation from the environment. The economy and our way of life are not somehow unconnected from the natural world; we need to adopt an economy that suits the needs and limits of the planet. Sixteen percent of the world’s population – those living in developed nations – accounts for 78% of the world’s consumption expenditure, while 2.7 billion people, 40% of the world’s population, live on $2/day or less. If we think “economic growth” is going to lift a majority of these 40% out of grinding poverty, we’ll have to pick up a few more planets on eBay or Amazon, because this current one won’t be enough neither in terms of resources nor waste-holding capacity!

A stable population is a necessity for those who advocate a steady-state economy. World population: today, 7 billion / 2050 estimate, 9.3 billion. US population: today, 316 million / 2050 estimate, 400 million. The US population continues to increase even as the US fertility replacement rate is 1.8, below the rate of 2.1 needed for a developed nation to maintain its population. Because of immigration, US population continues to grow. Even so, conversation on the feasibility of a steady-state option is a necessity especially as world population continues to increase. Smart economic development and sustainability must increase and the acceptance of growth at all costs must decrease.

Did you catch President Obama taking credit for the recent economic growth in his 2015 State of the Union address? The very next day Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was counteracting the president, claiming the credit for his own political party. While members of both parties childishly bicker as to the generation of economic growth, and blindly tout its merits (it helps them to get elected), the world and our place in it desperately need a leadership they are not offering. The truth is that our society is thoroughly wedded to economic growth as a way of life and being – and it’s creating an increasingly complex dilemma:

             We rely on economic growth to generate jobs, yet continuous economic growth undermines the very life-giving and life-supporting systems of the planet. What in the world are we going to do about it?


My book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is available at http://www.blueocotillo.com and wherever books and ebooks are sold, including Amazon.



Inexhaustible Unlimitedness

I like listening to guest commentators David Brooks (The New York Times) and E. J. Dionne (The Washington Post) on Friday afternoons during their segment on NPR’s All Things Considered. I am usually in the car – the 5:00pm hour is when they grace the airwaves of Austin’s NPR affiliate, KUT – and if Denise (my betrothed) is in the car with me she knows that the seven minutes of exchange between the “conservative” and the “liberal” commands my attention. You can drive astutely while listening to the radio, but not while playing with your phone – an apt example as to the limitedness of our ability to multi-task.

David and E. J. don’t call each other names – it’s NPR, not Fox News – but they had a spirited discussion on the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling (April 2, 2014); the five-to-four decision abolishes the biennial limit of $123,200 that individuals can donate to federal candidates and national political party committees. Even though they disagreed on the ruling, both made valid points as to what it will mean for future elections. Brooks: The current situation is not good with “all the underground money, [and] all the candidates deciding that they have to go directly to the special interests to kiss up to them.” The decision points us in the “right direction.” Dionne: “The number of people who hit that limit that you described, all giving to congressional candidates, was 591. So this court has empowered a very tiny number of Americans to exercise even more power than they already have. It’s a terrible decision.”

While both make legitimate claims, Dionne is right (as he also states in the discussion) that the ruling follows in the path of the court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. In today’s America, “free speech” is becoming costlier and costlier. Market values – all things bought and sold – infiltrate an arena (political democracy) that runs the risk of being captive to only the highest bidders.

Both rulings give further assent to the spirit of unlimitedness that has dominated American society since the late 1970s (what I call the short era of excess). The unlimitedness credo was articulated by George Gilder in his 1981 bestseller Wealth and Poverty: “The United States must overcome the materialistic fallacy: the illusion that resources and capital are essentially things, which can run out, rather than products of human will and imagination, which in freedom are inexhaustible.”* Gilder’s sense of stretching the boundaries—for positive gain—is admirable; dreaming, envisioning, and reaching for the stars makes the supposedly impossible attainable. But, not so fast – history is chock full of examples showing that the ignorance or disregard of limitations breeds corruption, social injustice, and economic chaos. Complex derivative securities and credit default swaps helped lead to the economic derailment of 2007-08. Yeeeaaahhh, the formulation and implementation of those financial products was a great and glorious moment for the unlimitedness of human will and imagination.

Because we worship unlimitedness in matters financial and economic, we now somehow think that fewer boundaries in the political realm is the better way forward. Forgive my limited will and imagination, and redundancy: Yeeeaaahhh.


* George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty: A New Edition for the 21st Century, Regnery Publishing (2012), p. 315.