As Irene Klaver recounts in her essay, the early Greeks extensively explored these paradoxes of change and constancy; we see variants of these paradoxes in so many aspects of water in our lives today. Economists point to the water-diamond paradox that, despite water’s value, we pay so little for this vital substance. Water is both something wild and civilized, a force that we try to control, yet one that is continually slipping through our fingers. It is at the same time global and local, universal and particular. There is both the great joy of being in water (the “oceanic feeling of oneness”) and the terror of the deep. It is a source of great pleasure, but also of “water torture” and waterboarding. Too much and we drown; too little and we die of thirst. We use it constantly, but instead of being “used up,” it is endlessly recycled.
Given these complex and contradictory qualities of water, it is no surprise then that it is both sacred and profane. From the beginning, humans have gone to the watering hole to dip their cup and drink. We have planted seeds and raised animals and gathered around the table for the communal meal. Terje Oestigaard, in his rich account of the religious significance of water, reminds us of the multiple ways that religious traditions have conceptualized water: as purifier and purified (consecrated); as punishment (flood) and blessing (nourishing rain); as the body of the goddess, a divinity itself with the ability to purify, even as it is contaminated with the untreated sewage of millions of people (as in the case of the Ganges). Oestigaard’s essay, drawing on his fieldwork in Ethiopia and Uganda, delves into the complex theology of water at the headwaters of the Blue and White Nile. The source of the White Nile is seen as flowing directly from heaven—the holiest of waters. In contrast, the Blue Nile is conceived by the local community as not having special religious significance, while the waterfalls and cataracts there are seen as powerful spirits, in need of appeasing, sometimes with blood sacrifice.
Thirsty People on a Watery Planet
This contrast between plenty and water scarcity is being exacerbated by climate change. Al Gore, in his 2007 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, characterized it as “a planetary emergency – a threat to the survival of our civilization.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), likewise noted the “the link between climate and security” has “raised the threat of dramatic population migration, conflict, and war over water and other resources as well as a realignment of power among nations . . . the possibility of rising tensions between rich and poor nations, health problems caused particularly by water shortages, and crop failures as well as concerns over nuclear proliferation.” In this issue, noted water scientist Peter Gleick provides us with an update and report on the many water management challenges we face in the twenty-first century and the very real dangers of water conflicts, as well as the ways in which we can mitigate these threats and reduce the chances of water being a trigger, or weapon, of war.
Waters of War and Peace
In seeking these pools of hope, the paradoxes of water call us to draw on the Greek notion of metis, a kind of artful cleverness, in addressing these political and environmental challenges of our day. In the face of these complexities, we must avoid the problem of over-engineering, or what John McPhee has called “the control of nature.” McPhee, in his discussions of lava flows, the Mississippi Delta, and mud slides, points to this basic problem of the inevitable need for humans to attempt to control nature, in the face of our ultimate inability to do so. Living with paradox requires of us the difficult give and take that stands in contrast to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mandate to maintain the flow of the Mississippi River at Old River Control at the precise and Congressionally mandated balance of 30 percent flowing down the Atchafalaya and 70 percent down the main stem. Historian Richard Campanella recounts these problems of over-engineering in the quintessentially paradoxical city of New Orleans, half of which is below sea level. New Orleans remains an illogical and magical place, its residents engaged in a defiant and dream-like suspension of disbelief in the face of this engineered vulnerability. And there are great lessons to be learned, both from the problems caused by over-engineering, and in the exercise of metis and hopefulness, by the residents of New Orleans.
Swimming in It
Rivers, as I have learned in taking students out on them for many years now, are patient teachers. They flow endlessly, tirelessly, efficiently, the perfectly complex manifestation of the combination of water, topography, and gravity. The peace that “flows like a mighty river” lies not in the stark divide between black and white, but in the countless shades of brown and tan and grey. It is to be found neither on dry land, nor in the deep blue sea, but in the messiness of mud and wetlands, in the semi-permeability of the letting in of some things and the keeping out of others. Peace is in the both-and, not the either/ or. As the authors in this issue show us, to be at peace is neither to surrender nor to try to walk on water; it is to be in the agonistic space between selfishness and selflessness, to be in the water but afloat, to be both carried by the current but also steering the boat, in the ongoing dance between agency and contingency. In the images of the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers at Prescott, Wisconsin, we see this muddying of the waters. Human development, wilderness of a sort, run-off from the farmlands of the Minnesota River watershed, rail and road infrastructure, all combine to create the turbid and fecund mix of human and natural, primeval and modern that constitutes the waters we must navigate, with metis and a thorough embrace of paradox, if we are to create more just, sustainable, and peaceful communities.