Water’s New Story by Obi Kaufmann
The big secret about this book is that it is not about what you might think it is about. The State of Water – Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource (HEYDAY, 2019) was always meant to be an interim chapter in a much larger story that will ultimately encompass a six-book series. This overarching design will capture not only the primary subject of my study: the systemic, perennial character of California’s natural world, but will also offer a context for observing and interpreting the forces that define it. I hadn’t originally planned on there being six books. All I have ever known, all I have ever had, is this love – this deep sense of belonging and of identity that has developed from a lifetime of embedding my creative world, my voice an artist, within this universe that is California’s natural world. With the success of The California Field Atlas (HEYDAY, 2017), I was afforded the opportunity to continue my study, barely understanding the prolific depth of my subject. If I could, I would paint a hundred maps a day of nature in California, for the rest of my life and never tell all the story I know there is to tell.
Finding the personal impetus, the drive and the inspiration to continue this journey was not difficult. When I then coupled it with and augmented it with the cry from what I know from my forever-travels across my growing community, the book became inevitable. That cry I listen to and feel so acutely, is the desirous change of some fundamental precepts within the story of how we talk to each other and build ideas around what nature is and our relationship to it. The cry is the revelation that California does not belong to us, but isn’t it the case finally, that we belong to it? And if that’s is how we feel, let’s restructure our relationship with this grand array of ecographies across this most-beautiful-of-all-places to mirror that impulse, and to lead us out from the inevitable collapse of this fossil-fuel fed fantasy.
The State of Water is not about policy-making in that it is not about money. California’s water goes where the money flows. To address core issues of accessibility and reliability, the larger problem exists that both seniority rights and allocations need to be addressed, and my book does neither of those things. The aspect of my book that does approach policy is in my fair bit of writing about conservation – the state’s official policy on water use. We have made great strides in conservation strategies over the past few decades, although we still have a lot of work to do in this arena across the urban sector and certainly in agriculture. Having lived through the historic droughts of the 70’s and 80’s, my own relationship to water spending is like my grandfather’s relationship to money having grown up in the depression: precious stuff not to be idly wasted. Conservation wrapped up in technology, water management, recycling and new strategies of underground storage, replenishment and restoration are necessary implementations but they’re all symptom-treating. The core issue is our relationship to water in the story we’ve built around its capture and its utility.
As an environmentalist, or perhaps more relevantly, a post-environmentalist, I get regularly asked how I avoid engaging in the so-called water wars across California. I have two different strategies there: the first is that I believe we have been sold a set of false equivalencies based in a corporate-serving agenda between rural or agricultural politics, and between urban or municipal needs for growth. The divisive agenda does nothing but pit Californian versus Californian. When you are talking water in California, you were talking about worldview – my worldview is a unifying vision with a human core based on a California character that is not afraid of hard work, and we’ve got plenty of hard work to do… together. The second strategy I have to avoid the water wars is to focus my area of study and to keep it concise. I present my work at every stop along my book tour too many people. I have found that because my subject in this book is potentially a niche subject, most who attend my events are probably, or even certainly, more knowledgeable, and exhibit more expertise in their local water than what I’ve got. I trust and I respect their expertise and so I keep my conclusions simple and broad-based, operating in a philosophy that 1) looks to a future of societal equilibrium with the natural world, working backwards from that and 2) believes that it is not scarcity of water that is the problem, but scarcity of a trust in common story about water and it transcendence (at the core of all living systems) from a mere resource/commodity to something of intrinsic value.
The subtitle of the book is Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource. The understanding that I’m striving for is an applicable analysis of the interface between human water infrastructure and California’s natural water-scape as an ancient living network at the bottom of so many integral ecosystems – if not all of them. What the Precious Resource that I am looking to understand in this book may, or may not be, water itself. Perhaps it isn’t water that is California’s most precious resource but the quality of the human mind, with its capacity to understand itself in a historical context, to shape the reality of the natural world and to tell itself a story to justify that reshaping. And if that’s the case, do we have the capacity to change the change the story to avoid the coming calamitous state of affairs so often predicted by the world media and experts alike? What would that story look like?
While my book on understanding California Water is not about policy, it is about ethics. The ethics that I am interested in emerge as themes throughout the book and I believe there are two of them. The first is political ethics – in this I draw the line between what I right is and what a responsibility is. For every right that we enjoy, as invented under this liberal, humanist regime, the flowering of which corresponded with the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th century, there is and must be a corresponding responsibility. Freedom is not being able to do whatever you want – freedom is showing up for your personal responsibility.
The second, ethical theme in the book is a more subtle and ultimately aesthetic theme, and it has to do with associating natural systems with living systems and attributing to those living systems the right to exist. Ultimately, this is the worldview that my books striving towards -the crux of the larger story that I’m trying. For the most part, contemporary legal systems work as if there’s two entities in the universe: humans that have rights and everything else that does not. There is outlying precedence for particular species to not the exposed to torture, for example, but what I’m talking about is Water, Fire and other natural forces to have a voice in our human world and in our collective narrative. Who speaks for the Watershed’s right to be kept clean, to support its ancient ecosystem and to exist in a normalized fire regime? If we able to change our core story and manifest this kind of ecological democracy, would not our own species realize profitable and sustainable dividends under such a narrative?
The California dream has forever run tandem with, and been subject to the search for abundant and reliable water. The degree to which we have changed the water-scape of California over the past 170 years of our statehood is a transformation so grand, vast and complete, that it will only be matched by the transformation it again goes under over the next one 170 years. As our story changes, our traditions will change, our economy will change, and our relationship with water will change with it and be better for it.
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