As we look to the future of economic development we must work hard to protect our water resources from private takings.
As we look to the future of economic development we must work hard to protect our water resources from private takings.

Saving Ourselves

by / Aug. 31, 2015 10am EST

There has been a lot of talk in this publication and elsewhere about how the Great Lakes are going to provide us an opportunity to be winners as climate change darkens the planets horizons. The problem is that most of this talk is focused on a kind of economic development myopia that concentrates on privatizing and commodifiying the waters.  

Hardly anyone is talking about conservation, protection, and making sure that these water resources that make up fully 20 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water are conserved and made better for future generations. That conservation strategy, and the research and investments that promote that kind of visionary strategy, is indeed our sustainable future. Instead there is talk about how to economically exploit our “good luck” at being located where we are, on the edge of this water wilderness—so that we can extract it and sell it like an old growth forest to the Asian pulp companies. They argue that we can use this water to continue to expand the consumption economy. They demand ”do it now” and guarantee that this privatization is the way that we will rise above the ashes of civilization.  American exceptionalism New York style. With this strategy we can be the “shining city on the hill.” It is nonsense.

Now come two important stories in the Buffalo News, emanating we are sure from certain sectors of the “economic development” community that are represented by lawyers, bankers, developers, and Wall Street gangsters. The articles from Sunday and today focus on finding ways to take advantage of our fresh water resources. “Can the Great Lakes Become an Engine for Growth Again” and “How can Water Rich WNY Tap into Fiscal Opportunity“ are blatant calls for exploiting our public resources for private gain. A problem with the argument goes to how much gain stays local and how much goes to out of area corporate pocketbooks. 

Water “product” professionals ranging from Nestle to water dealers in California and China have to be licking their chops over this potential initiative to sell off and privatize our most valuable public resources. Remember that in addition to the almost one fifth of the worlds fresh surface water, the Great Lakes are used by almost 90 percent of North Americans depend for drinking water. This makes us unique and it demands that we find ways to become the best stewards of this resource possible. Nestle can sell it around the world and not care about most of us unless we open our wallets, but our future and the future of generations of earthlings to come will depend on our conservation and cleanwater strategies.

Our society is constantly barking out “do something now.” One of the problems is that good ideas get submerged by the loud chorus that dominates the mainstream media that work for corporate stakholders that want to extract wealth from our community. This has led to a lot of missteps and misunderstandings about what people are thinking about and actually doing. For instance, in our area, we do not want costly urban sprawl on our Outer Harbor no matter whose nests get feathered.  Citizen answers to what to do now with our money on the Outer Harbor have been largely unheeded as decision makers continue to insist the the highest value of public land is to sell it to private interests. While it is true that the demand for public access seems to be driving some of the development decisions. there is lots of room to better serve the public. Water conservation and public access have to be priorities. The jury is still out on what the ultimate Outer Harbor development scheme will be but we are not optimistic. We do not want to trade public access so that small puddles of private wealth can be extracted. We are not ignorant of the consequences of inappropriate development. 

This idea of privatizing our critical and fragile water resources for a few companies in order to bolster some short-term measurement of a local economy is a real perversion of the concept of a blue economy. We are sure that when we listen to the people that came up with the original concept of  “blue economy” (water-dependant local businesses), including myself and Buffalo Niagara RiverKeeper, we do not mean “water extraction for industry” or commodification of water for private profit. It is our water. That privatized version of taking the commons for the profit of the wealthy is the lump sum of the ideas that are being pushed by a narrow sector of the so called business community. And we know that this pressure is coming from Albany and Wall Street, far from the shores of the Niagara River and the Great Lakes. This kind of commodification pushed by private business interests would do great economic harm to the vast majority of people that live and work here and will continue to wreak havoc on our local economies. Today, industry is pretty much gone and the toxic legacy that is left and that we all live with has to be a reminder of decisions that were made without a future in mind. Today we are all continuing to pay for this legacy in dirty water, unremediated toxic dumps, health issues and costs, and climate change.  This is costing us out of pocket. The ultimate total of taxpayers costs of this historic development legacy will exceed trillions of dollars. Meanwhile the polluters have vanished, the trail is cold, and the inheritors are living in luxury in some castle in the sky. Taxpayers, individuals, and small businesses that live here now try to scratch a living and have a great financial burden to bear because of economic choices that have benefited a few at the long term expense of many. 

Instead, the originators of the “blue economy” concept talk of water dependent “local” businesses that include recreation, tourism, research, heritage, and the fundamental lifting of the working class to opportunities to both enjoy a quality of life and more broadly participate in an economy. This is called building a strong local economy.   The designs of the Buffalo News quoted privatized development thought engineers would rather convince us that extracting our resources and trickle down whatever is left in the puddles of wealth on our growing but innovative and engaged population is best for us. It is not good for us, and we will resist having our wealth and our future stolen.

Jay Burney is contributing editor for environment and ecology for The Public and a founder of GreenWatch.