Friday, June 20, 2008

Cutting Down the Last Tree, Selling the Last Drop of Water

Cover of Jared Diamond's book CollapseI'm finally reading Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In it, he chronicles the historical and archaeological record of lost societies such as Easter Island, the Anasazi, the Maya, and the Vikings of Greenland. He also looks at how some societies have come back from the brink of environmental collapse, such as Iceland, and (in the part I have yet to read) what may become of our world today, particularly as things are playing out in Haiti, China, Montana, and Australia.

A recurring question in the book so far is, How can a people let the degradation of their land go so far that their society collapses? This question becomes even more specific: How can someone cut down the last tree and not realize that it's clearly not a good idea?

I was reading the book on a plane today on my way to Portland, Maine. When I arrived I picked up a copy of the local daily, the Portland Press Herald, and on the front page was a story called "Critics gear up for vote on Poland Spring deal." Basically, Kennebunk, Maine, is on the verge of signing a contract to sell the water from their aquifer to Poland Spring (that bottled water brand with the green label, which is based in Maine, although the company is now owned by the international food conglomerate Nestlé).

According to the Herald,

The proposed deal with Poland Spring would give the water bottler permission to draw up to 250,000 gallons per day from district-owned land in Wells.... Poland Spring would pay the water district a per-gallon rate that is twice what the district charges other commercial customers. The payments are expected to total $250,000 per year to start and could grow to as much as $750,000 per year...
It seems Poland Springs is experiencing 10 percent growth in sales per year, and they need more sources of water to meet the demand from people around the country who have to have water encased in plastic.

The Herald goes on to write that the water district superintendent "said the additional income from Poland Spring would help the district address a $5 million deficit and meet the rising costs of energy and water treatment chemicals."

This reminds me of the discussions that are starting to happen about "sharing" water from Lake Superior with the southwest and other dry areas of the country that have become so built up, despite lacking certain necessities of life (like water).

And with our cash-strapped city governments, if someone just coughs up enough money, we'll sell our last drop of water and cut down our last tree. Then, later, someone else will wonder how we ever could have been so short sighted.

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