The Blue Planet’s Lifeblood: A Finite Flow
It is impossible to enter “Water: H2O = Life,” the exhibition opening tomorrow at the American Museum of Natural History, and not feel excitement at its possibilities. You walk into darkened space where a tumbling aqua-lighted waterfall seems to descend from the ceiling; letters projected on its turbulent surface spell “water” in multiple languages.
This is affecting and clever because the seeming cascade really is formed of water in its vaporous state. And you cannot pass through that curtain of mist without taking some notice of water’s extraordinary qualities: Like few other substances on earth, the show points out, water can exist as a solid, liquid and gas at everyday temperatures and pressures.
By the projected words you are also quickly made aware of water’s power to flow beyond national boundaries. The exhibition — created by Eleanor Sterling, director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the museum, in conjunction with the Science Museum of Minnesota and other science museums — is also meant to have a global reach. It will travel to South America, Asia, Australia and other locations in North America. Its objects include a meteorite from Australia (containing 15 percent water), live Southeast Asian mudskippers (彈塗魚 fish that carry water in their bodies as they slither onto land) , a pipe fragment from Mexico used to irrigate fields some 1,500 years ago, and a display devoted to the environmental impact of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest concrete structure. And given the exhibition’s concerns with environmental education, there is also much here that will attract younger visitors, who may not always be prepared for immersion into the watery realm of environmental debate.
But the exhibition also inspires considerable frustration. It presents a free-flowing flood of data and has an overly insistent and predictable message. That message is, admittedly, a virtuous one, because water, the exhibition points out, is not a renewable resource. What exists on earth now is the only water we will ever have, and less than 1 percent of it is available for human use. In 27 countries, most in Asia and Africa, convenient water is unavailable to half the population; meanwhile many rivers there are polluted with sludge, and even the Ganges, the sacred river of India, harbors harmful waste.
Problems of access, purity and misuse have been aggravated, the exhibition suggests, by the very innovations meant to ameliorate them. During the last 50 years 47,000 large dams have been built around the world, supplying 20 percent of the world’s electric power. But dams disrupt wildlife, block migration routes and displace human communities. In addition, the show says, “most irrigation dams deliver less water and are less profitable than expected.”
Industrial activity has caused other ecological disasters. A stark room contains models of tufa towers — unearthly pillars of limestone — left exposed at Mono Lake in California, after water was diverted to Los Angeles in the 1940s. A children’s game suggests that the melting of Arctic ice from global warming is making life hazardous for polar bears. And aquatic animals, we’re told, “make up about 60 percent of all endangered species in the U.S.”
Industrialized society (particularly in the United States) bears the brunt of the blame. How much water is used daily per capita, for example, in different countries? A display shows that 151 gallons a person per day are used in the United States for “domestic and municipal use,” 118 gallons are used in Britain and just 10 in Ethiopia. Then, a game-show-like quiz on video screens asks which beverage takes the most water to produce, including water used to grow and process the plants: coffee, orange juice or tea? The answer: coffee, one cup of which contains 74 gallons of “virtual water.” Cattle farmers are even more water-profligate because of all the grain used as feed: 600 gallons of water are poured into the average hamburger.
But if modern society creates problems, don’t count on technology to solve them. Consider desalination, which makes seawater potable. Though its “environmental costs,” such as “marine organisms sucked into intake pipes,” are difficult to quantify, the exhibition says, they “may be serious.”
“What Can We Do?” asks one panel. The only people who seem to be living in aquatic harmony here are nonindustrialized cultures: a diorama of the Tonle Sap, a lake and river system in Cambodia, shows homes floating atop pontoons on a freshwater lake; inhabitants celebrate the water and its plentiful harvest of fish.
The premodern becomes the model. Instead of dams, the exhibition suggests using wind, solar and tidal power. If desalination is necessary, reduce damages, the exhibition says, by using wind power, as is done in Perth, Australia. At the exhibition’s end, video touch screens give advice for environmental fixes around the house: Don’t pour cooking oil down the drain. Replace old water-wasting toilets.
All of this may seem to come out of an environmental commonplace book, offering a familiar mainstream vision. But had the exhibition looked at its subject more closely, it might have broadened environmental understanding rather than simply followed current doctrines.
First of all, comparing water use is more complicated than just adding up daily gallons per person. At the exhibition water is being treated as the absolute measure of value, the main factor used to assess activities. But this makes for skewed comparisons. United States residents may waste some of those 151 gallons a day, but “domestic and municipal use” covers a lot of ground, including commerce and invention. It would be surprising if “domestic and municipal use” were even remotely comparable in an undeveloped country.
And do wind, water and solar power really have the pastoral qualities they take on here, so only their virtues are recognized and not their costs, while technologies like desalination receive short shrift? The mining and manufacturing required to create, say, solar panels, surely demand substantial resources; and the quantities of power required mean more research is needed for large-scale use.
There is almost a romanticizing of the premodern here, which makes solutions seem much simpler than they really are — a bit like the working model of a PlayPump shown here, which pumps water as a wheel is spun. In sub-Saharan Africa about 700 of these turning wheels have been installed as manual merry-go-rounds: Children play, and water pumps. Neat. But if they are an answer, it is only to small-scale problems.
What about Western modernity and technology? Are they culprits, as the exhibition so often implies? Sometimes, surely, but there are also unmentioned examples of premodern activities that have altered environments with as much finality as a modern dam. Some historians have suggested that misuse of irrigation systems by ancient Southwestern American Indians salinized the soil, turning it barren. Failures to rotate crops or excessive clearing of trees may have altered the terrain of the ancient Near East. Meanwhile today’s technologically advanced societies are so hyperconscious of environmental effects that their enterprises have the potential to become the most efficient and least damaging.
Many of the exhibition’s implicit assumptions allow little room for such considerations. The usual suspects are lined up and familiar prescriptions offered, as if a morality tale were being recounted. Other forms of environmental villainy and accomplishment are not fully acknowledged. The notorious draining of the Aral Sea in southwest Asia, for example, is called an “irrigation story” caused by farmers growing water-hungry cotton in the middle of the desert. Unmentioned is that the problem began in the Stalin era by Soviet demands for cotton. Tyranny rather than foolhardy farmers created the disaster.
Stranger still is the recounting of the ecological catastrophe that ravaged almost 8,000 square miles of marshland in Iraq. The exhibition says Iraqi troops poisoned the marshland and diverted its water supply “during the Gulf War of 1991.” But actually the destruction occurred after that war, when Saddam Hussein brutally crushed a Shiite rebellion. Marsh reclamation began after 2003, we are told, “when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed,” a curiously passive description that fails to recognize what happened or credit the forces that made reclamation possible.
Given the international reach of this exhibition and its potential influence, such errors and omissions are troubling. By stripping these events of context, the exhibition also makes it seem as if environmental issues existed apart from history. Unfortunately, these and other weaknesses make it too easy to dismiss valid environmental concerns.
I left the exhibition in a strange state, both enlightened about water and the creatures who dwell within it, but rebelling against the rigid conceptual shape into which it has been poured. I ended up caring about water a lot, but convinced of a lot less.