“Looking out the window, I would see the great sources of freshwater,” said Jerry Linenger as he orbited the Earth in the Mir space station in 1997. “Lake Baikal, deeper than deep. The Great Lakes, well-named. The mighty rivers of the world – Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Amazon – defining civilizations, past and present. But still, when stepping back and looking at the big picture, not so much different than our little orbiting space station. A closed ecosystem. Only so many sources of life-sustaining water. And all the creatures of Earth, just like the three of us circling it, all dependent on water.”
This ultimate big picture, seen through human eyes, shows us the beauty, complexity, and fragility of our blue planet. We have developed other ways, less poetic but just as prophetic, to view Earth and the exquisite interplay of systems that sustain our life.
They warn us that the blue planet is thirsty.
Our satellites, our sensors, our computers and our consultants describe a reality so profound that the numbers are impossible to perceive. That more than two billion people are without access to a reliable supply of safe drinking water, and some 4.5 billion do not have safe sanitation services. That 80% of the water humans contaminate is released, without treatment, back into the environment. That in a dozen years, 700 million people could be water refugees.
For all the data, projections and prognostications, all the headlines and the heartbreak, we as a global group still don’t grasp the difference between what we think and what we know to be true. Between our perceptions and Earth’s reality.
We think we can use water like we always have, because it is there, and it always will be. We rely on our senses and experiences on which we have founded our actions for millennia.
In Punjab, for example, Desraj Khai wades through his plantation of poplar trees and winter wheat. He proudly shows me how the water flows freely through his hand-dug canals between the crop rows. Since water and electricity are free, there must be plenty of each, so he lets the well pumps run 24 hours a day, pulling wantonly from the aquifer underground, just as his neighbours do. What he does not see is that groundwater levels are dropping, and could eventually go dry.
Further south near Vijayapura, farmer K.V. Muniraju is facing the fact that his groundwater is gone, possibly forever. But again, senses are deceiving. His crops are lush and his wife tends rows of mulberry plants that will feed a nearby silkworm farm. When his well went dry, he couldn’t afford to dig another and take the risk that it would be dry, too. So he pieced together plastic tubing and rigged a pump to get the black water from a nearby sewage canal into his fields. The reeking liquid bought him time, at the risk of health and habitat, and he saw no other choice.
“If I had had an education, I would not have used wastewater for irrigation,” he said. “ I would not have been so desperate to continue with farming — I would have searched for a different job. Now we are praying that the wastewater flows will last as long as it takes for our children to find other jobs so that they can support our family.”
Muniraju is grappling with the reality that confronts the human family – that north or south, east or west, we share the global commons and the boundaries of a world that is both larger than our comprehension and smaller than our appetites.
We need to make wise decisions before we lose the best options to do so.
We’ve missed crucial cues and profound threats to the stability of global resources – drought, floods, groundwater depletion, persistent pollution by plastics and pharmaceuticals. We are discovering how far we can push the limits of our finely-balanced ecological foundations before feedback loops become disastrous and unstoppable.
At the same time, we are at the bright dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where big data, the internet of things, and artificial intelligence promise to help us solve the most intractable problems. It is a moment when we are beginning to see and listen to the world in ways never before imagined.
We are challenged to align this all-seeing perspective with the confines, demands and distractions of our daily lives. We are dared to jump the gulf between perception and reality, when reality might turn out to be a cliff with precious little foothold. In short, we are called to cope on a greater scale than ever before.
Acknowledging this is the first stage in painting the new “big picture,” one based on fact but which does not deny feelings - that empowers us as a whole and respects us as individuals.
To explore the roots of perception is to understand better how humanity makes choices, or chooses not to make them. It includes how we communicate, whom we trust, and the context of our culture, communities and values.
We can do this. It is not magical, but methodical. We need only summon the will and humility to pay attention, and take heed.
Insofar as we can discern them, we must respect the planetary boundaries, which limit the world’s capacity for example, to lose genetic diversity, absorb carbon dioxide and supply clean water. We must find common cause around the global commons. We must know ourselves, and find ways to make changes that save the planet and make sense to us. We must strengthen and inform the connections that are the hallmark – and hope – of an enlightened species.
Very few of us have had the transformative glimpse of our blue planet from space. Our epic challenge is to find that saving grace upon the Earth, within ourselves.
J. Carl Ganter and Eileen E. Ganter are co-founders of Circle of Blue. J. Carl Ganter is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on the Environment and is recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Award.