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Search for Water! 2/4/2013
Search for Water!
Najib Saab
My friend, the minister of oil in a rich state, is permanently optimistic. He believes that the warnings about pollution, depletion of resources and climate change are exaggerated; and consequently sees no need for modifying the development trends in his country in response to the depletion of resources and the limitations of the regenerative capacity of ecosystems, in an already fragile setting. '' We have the money to purchase whatever we need and is lacking in our country”, he says. “Should we need water, food and labor, we can buy all; this is our sovereign right.”
Now, if his Excellency is reminded of the limitations o growth that are governed by natural factors, and that the natural resources may not accommodate the great many millions of foreign workers who are exhausting the local environment through consumption and waste generation, his answer would be that this is inevitable in order to implement the national development plans. But if the aim of development is securing the well-being of all people, development targets that prove to be depleting the natural capital beyond the ability of regeneration must be dropped and replaced by sustainable development plans. Buildings are constructed to meet the needs of people for shelter, while some development plans are based on first erecting buildings, and then search for occupants to fill them, even if such occupants are borrowed and imported, just to raise the GDP figures.
My friend, the minister, accuses me of adopting Western ideas aimed at preventing developing countries from achieving their ‘legitimate ambitions’, so I remind him that the Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldoun was a world pioneer, 600 years ago, in recognizing that development is governed by the limitations of natural environment. Having ambitions is legitimate, but we cannot subcontract national development plans to international contractors, outsourcing all components, from know-how to material and manpower.
Another friend of mine, a minister of environment, is also an optimist: Whenever he launches a periodical report on achievements, counting numerous meetings, studies and plans, he proudly invites me to attend the ceremony. If anybody suggests that the next report should discuss the actual improvement in environmental conditions during the year, instead of just listing plans and meetings, he asks him to be optimistic and look to the full half of the glass.
Some pessimistic friends, on the other hand, insist on looking to the empty half only. For instance, if a country has implemented a unique project for generating electricity from solar energy, they ignore the positive aspects and say instead that the project is too small and much more is needed. When a factory reduces 20% of its energy consumption by adopting measures to improve energy efficiency, those birds of ill omen will simply attack the company for failing to reach a 40% reduction in one stroke.
This reminds me of a wise comment I heard from GE’s Ecomagination Program. In response to an environmentalist accusing an automaker of deceit for building the cleanest auto manufacturing plant, while still producing in it one of the high-emission cars, she said: “Isn't it better to start by building a clean plant then produce a clean car at a later stage, rather than having both plant and car more polluting?”
Environmental optimists and pessimists seem to be gazing in vain, each at his half of the glass, while speculating and devising theories; yet they all miss the fact that water in the glass is actually decreasing as time passes. Likewise, air is getting more polluted, limited resources are being depleted and climate is changing.
The current Arab environmental situation calls for a third party, neither optimist nor pessimist. We need pragmatists who do not waste time rejoicing for seeing the full half of the glass or grieving on gazing at the empty half. We need practical visionaries who rush to find a tap, a source of water to fill the empty half of the glass and ensure sustainable supply, by also managing demand and reducing the losses. Somebody has to wake them up by shouting: “look for the water”- or as the French say: “chercher l’eau!”
It is high time that we stop simply describing the environmental challenges and start addressing the problems.
Najib Saab
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