Ethical Water: Learning to Value What Matters Most

Reviewed by: Kyrke Gaudreau
Categories: Water
Ethical Water book review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Ethical Water \ Robert Sandford and Merrell-Ann Phare

What will we do when the water runs out? More importantly, how do we develop an ethical relationship with water, nature and ourselves? In Ethical Water, a well-written, provocative and slender book with a strong Canadian focus, these questions are explored by Robert Sandford, the Canadian chair of the UN’s International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’, and Merrell-Ann Phare, executive director of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources. 

The book is divided into two sections. First, the authors outline why we need a new approach to managing water, and second they propose a new ethic for doing so. Sandford and Phare are critical of Canadians, because although “we cling tenaciously to the image we have created of ourselves as a nation of infinitely available clean water, we are undone by the reality that is clearly presenting itself to us.” And boy, is this reality scary. As of June 2011, there were 1100 active unsafe drinking water advisories in Canada, for example. For another, some Inuit women have been told not to breastfeed because their bodies have been contaminated. This kind of news is obviously discouraging, and Ethical Water chides us for passively contributing to the crisis by sitting back and letting the experts manage affairs.

While Ethical Water is a fantastic read, at times it treads on thin ice. Sandford and Phare don’t entirely endear themselves to people who care strongly for environmental goals other than water, be it soil, energy, pollinators or biodiversity. They claim that “by virtue of its scarcity, irreplaceability and broader utility, water demands to be treated differently than ‘natural resources’.” As someone who is passionate about energy issues, I feel this rhetoric misunderstands how drastic and revolutionary it will be for humankind to shift away from oil. More than that, I find it self-defeating to elevate your own cause at the expense of other causes.

It’s not as if we lack justification for an ethical approach to water. And when nature finally pulls the plug, we all go down together, regardless of what the reason is.

A second concern is that the authors have failed to define a coherent conclusion for how we need to respond to our predicament. Many arguments in the book clearly indicate that capitalism and our current world order are inherently counterproductive to building a constructive relationship with water. Sandford and Phare admit that we need to overcome the property rights and libertarian movements in Canada. Yet while the evidence points to the emperor having no clothes, Sandford and Phare seem unwilling to pronounce the emperor naked. This barrier to achieving an ethical relationship is never satisfactorily dealt with.

Likewise, while early chapters advocate for a decolonized approach to water, this becomes almost an afterthought. Sandford and Phare limit themselves to proposing what they term “two-eyed seeing,” recognizing the strength of both Indigenous and Western ways of knowing. It’s not clear that these worldviews are even reconcilable, and there’s no reason to think that we won’t just continue to do what we want when it suits us, only seeing out of the other eye when convenient. Sandford and Phare may have wanted to avoid alienating their audience with an overly radical manifesto, but only time will tell whether this was a strategic first step or a missed opportunity to rally the troops.

All concerns aside, I am grateful that Sandford and Phare are fighting for a better Canada on our behalf. The very fact that Ethical Water takes a principled stance is downright refreshing. Reading it with an open mind will probably make you a better person, and there’s no higher test of the value of a book. 

Prior to releasing Ethical Water as part of Rocky Mountain Books’ manifesto series, Sandford and Phare published an article in A\J about the three essential principles for building resilient water ecosystems in Canada, titled “A New Water Ethic” (37:1, Jan/Feb 2011). 

Ethical Water, Robert Sandford and Merrell-Ann Phare, Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2011, 151 pages

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Reviewer Information

Kyrke Gaudreau is the Sustainability Manager at the University of Northern British Columbia. Dr. Gaudreau completed his PhD in social and ecological sustainability at the University of Waterloo where his research focused on the sustainability assessment of energy systems. He has consulted on various strategic and environmental assessments of energy systems in Canada, and has researched and written about energy systems sustainability in several different countries. 

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