Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Water Week: Water Ethic, what's business' role?

I'm pleased Governor Dayton has opened the can of worms that contains a Water Ethic for Minnesota. I agree that society won't pay for the number of enforcement agents needed to have water suitable for fishing (and consuming the fish safely) and swimming (recreation in and on the water). There's a list of this we can do at this page of the governor's web site. I looked at that list several times this week before I noticed there's no listing for business. We have lists for people: parents, teachers and children, and land owners and farmers, but NO BUSINESS. I don't know why. Business is one of the largest users of water in Minnesota. Mining, in particular, is a major problem these days. Is business exempt from a Water Ethic? Does business only have to meet minimum permit requirements or, as all too often happens, be let off the hook by the legislature to help "create jobs?" That's not likely to lead to a successful Water Ethic and clean water for Minnesotans.

There are several green building programs available, including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the Living Building Challenge, Green Communities and Minnesota's own Sustainable Building Guidelines. Each has provisions for water conservation, managing stormwater, and minimizing or eliminating impacts on water quality. Do Minnesotans really think those who pay for the design, construction and operation of the built environment should be excluded from a Water Ethic? (By the way, where are cities and counties and green infrastructure? Where are the home builders who often complain about added costs limiting the market potential of their "product"?) Many major corporations have already recognized the advantage, and the necessity, of operating ever more sustainably, and making sure their supply chain is sustainable also. Why isn't there a defined role for "business" in our Water Action Week?

St. Louis River, downstream from PolyMet
St. Louis River, downstream from PolyMet
Photo by J. Harrington

An ethical action, as I understand it, goes beyond meeting minimum legal requirements, such as those contained in permits to mine and discharge polluted water. The mining sector is developing a program for "responsible mining" to help make mining more ethical and more legal. Why isn't the legislature insisting that mining operations in Minnesota participate in the development and use of those emerging standards, instead of approving $4 million to defend mining permits for the proposed PolyMet NorthMet project. Business as usual will not get Minnesota involved with a Water Ethic.

The United Nations has adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals and had a report written on how mining is affected by, and affects, each of those goals. There's no mention of that in the listing of what we can do.

Here's a quick explanation of why I'm so perturbed by what I see as shortcomings in the Water Ethic approach. We all know, I hope, that litter is unethical. Have you looked at the roadsides and trails recently? Railroads have recently been noted to be reluctant to share complete information on their hazardous materials procedures with local first responders. That strikes me as relying more on legality than ethics. For too many of us, ethics are important until something more important, such as convenience or money or power, is threatened by acting ethically. That's not right, that's just the way it is. That's why I think we need a transparent process, with all stakeholders, to agree on what we mean by a Water Ethic, and a monitoring process so that we can shun those who choose to be unethical. Here's another reason I'm so dubious about voluntary compliance. We've had a voluntary approach to agricultural pollution since before the 1972 Clean Water Act. Here's the quality report for agricultural waters. As mentioned above, the Minnesota legislature keeps trying to make it less onerous for mining companies in norther Minnesota by reducing water quality standards. Why can't Minnesotan's look to their elected leaders for ethical leadership? Finally, think about how ethical Exxon and other fossil fuel companies have been in response to the effects of and knowledge about climate change. I'm not against a Water Ethic, far from it, but I'm only prepared to relay on it to the extent I see positive changes to some of the hindrances outlined above.

Linda Pastan: Ethics

In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
If there were a fire in a museum,
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow?  Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly.  Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half-imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself.  The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter — the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond the saving of children.

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