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    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

It's (Not) Only Water
November 15, 2012 - 3:42pm

If you listen to the news coming out of New York and New Jersey these days, water is still on everybody's mind.  Not water per se, perhaps.  But certainly the long-lived impacts of water having been where no one particularly planned it to be.  Places like tunnels and electrical substations and the first floors of houses.  It seems that water is becoming an image, synecdochetic perhaps, for nature or the environment or the planet as a whole.

Not that water-as-metaphor is in any way new.  Frau R. (who's much more tied in to poetic imagery than I'll ever be) tells me that water often symbolizes death.  Maybe that's a useful symbolism, combined with the whole "water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink" thing.  Nary a drop to drink, as many public water systems were knocked out.  Nary a drop to drink, as lots of public water was contaminated -- it's tough to boil water on an electric stove until electricity is restored.  Nary a drop to drink because you couldn't even drive to get safe (bottled) water because without electricity the gas pumps don't work -- even if you have enough gasoline to get to a distant store, you may not have enough to get home again.

Part of the public awareness that Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent nor'easter has fomented relates to just how vulnerable, how brittle, how unreliable key public utility systems have become.  What's not yet well understood is how interdependent those systems are (also others key to modern society but not exactly "public utilities").  Single-minded emphasis on efficiency has driven resilience, excess capacity, and much redundancy out of societal infrastructure.  In effect, what we've created is critical societal systems which are rife with points of failure such that if any one goes out, large portions of the system go down.  As do other systems that depend on the first.  And the systems that depend on those.

Water is a useful symbol, in part because pretty much everyone has a strong impression of what water does, how water works.  Pretty much everyone has lessons they've learned about (and from) water.  Two lessons I learned early in life:

  • The water always wins.  Ask any kid from the northern USA who's made dams and channels and ponds to affect the flow of melting snow down a hillside or a roadway.  True, sticks and mud and snow itself are materials more temporary than the reinforced concrete real dams are made of, but nothing's as permanent as gravity+water.  Nothing. 
  • The water doesn't care.  Spend a night on a smallish boat in the middle of a storm -- even a storm far smaller than recent ones.  It doesn't care about me, it doesn't care about you, it doesn't care about the boat.  Water is a harsh mistress.

At least some of the students I run into have a romanticized image of nature, the environment, the world as a whole.  Maybe water -- maybe even just the imagery of water -- can help disabuse them of that notion.

 

 

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