Our current economic system has us stuck in “money thinking” where everything valuable has a price and what doesn’t get measured in dollars isn’t valued. But there’s so much in our world that is valuable regardless. If we rethink our wealth in terms of air, water, the biosphere, we are rich indeed. But that also means stewarding this wealth.
Take water, for instance. What if we think of water as our currency? Having clean water to drink would be our wealth. We could use that clean water to grow crops and generate a different kind of wealth: food. If we pollute the water, we’d be squandering our wealth. If we waste water, we’d be literally watching our currency go down the drain.
If we saw water as our currency, we’d think about things differently. Let me give you an example.
Seeing the Watershed
Among the Coast Salish people (the tribes that live around the Puget Sound in Washington state) the closest connections between villages were among those within a single watershed. This system of waterways, creeks and rivers from mountain to sea, provided not just water but connection and food. Those who lived near the shoreline caught fish, while those who lived in the forests hunted deer and those who lived up the mountain collected berries. All up and down that watershed, the food was shared so that everyone had a wide variety of things to eat.
This got me thinking about my own watershed. What does it look like? How does it work? What is my relationship to it? We all need water, so we’ve situated ourselves in relation to water in some way. What exactly is this relationship?
I live in the foothills of the Coast Range on the western edge of the Willamette Valley. Here in the Chehalem Ridge just above 1000 feet, sometimes the cold rains of winter fall as snow.
On either side of our property are little creek beds that are dry most of the year, but turn into torrents when the snow melts. The water rushes down the slope, then disappears underground. A few yards down the hill, it gurgles up again, pouring out of a gopher hole.
The two streams converge into one creek at the bottom of our property. Over the years, the water has carried down silt and debris that gets caught in the neighbor’s fence. It’s now piled up to the point where it forms a little waterfall when the creek flows.
The creek continues down through my neighbor’s yard and through a culvert under their driveway. That’s as far as I can see it. I’ve often wished I could fly like a bird and follow this stream down the hill.
For down the hill it goes, all the way to the foot of Bald Peak, where the Tualatin River flows by. On chilly fall and winter mornings, you can see the fog that forms in the Tualatin Valley from the moisture off the river. The Tualatin meanders east until it reaches the Willamette River. The Willamette, in turn, flows north to the Columbia River, the border between Oregon and Washington. From there, the water flows on out to the Pacific Ocean.
That’s my watershed. And what state is it in? How well are we maintaining it? What is the condition of the water?
What is the Health of Our Wealth?
As I watched the creek flow during a recent snow melt, I realized this could come in handy in an emergency—a source of water for the neighborhood. But then I remembered that the farmer sprays the field just above us and those chemicals have seeped into the water. So, while it may look clear, even this innocent-looking stream is not clean.
If we measure only money, spraying the field makes sense—you get a better crop yield and make more profit. But if we measure well-being, the picture is more complex. In the debit column there’s not just the cost of the chemicals, but the loss of clean water as well. If you multiply that by all the creeks and all the fields down the hill, you no longer have water that is safe to drink.
Our currency—water—is unusable in this state. Basically, we’ve damaged our wealth. So we spend money to process and clean the water so we can drink it. But that doesn’t help the water that flows down the mountain and into the river. What about the fish? What about the plants and animals all along these waterways? How do they get clean water?
When we think in terms of money, we get one picture. But when we view our wealth in terms of water, we get a very different picture.
Rethinking My Role
With this new picture, I realize I’ve been taking water for granted. I turn on a faucet and water comes out. I don’t have to work for it, I don’t have to think about it—it’s just always there.
But now I do think about it. Our house was built with inefficient pipes and it takes a while for the water to warm up at the kitchen sink. I used to just run the water until it was hot enough to do the dishes. Now I realize I’m just watching my currency flow down the drain. So I take a dishpan out to the garage and fill it at the sink next to the hot water heater.
Filling the dishpan closer to the water heater is a small gesture, but it’s a beginning. Maybe it’s the beginning of a conversation.
What is the state of our water wealth?
If you’re interested in exploring this idea of alternate measures of wealth, check out Arthur Dahl’s article Global Systems Accounting Beyond Economics on the International Environment Forum.
Photo by Dylan Luder