It’s an ironic truth most of us have been advised to heed at least once in our lives: sometimes you have to view a situation from a distance to more clearly see what’s right in front of you. In the case of ‘seeing’ our water resources, that distance was approximately 220 miles, viewed from the International Space Station (ISS) by astronaut Chris Hadfield. Among many fascinating observations in his article We Should Treat Earth as Kindly as We Treat Spacecraft, Hadfield offers several I find particularly interesting:
“It was remarkable to see from space how predictable people are. Our homes and towns are almost all in places with moderate temperatures, and they generally have the same shape—a thinly occupied outer shell of suburb surrounding a densely populated core, all based around a ready source of water… Also visible from the ISS is the fact that all of the really good spots to live are taken. In our 70,000 years of wandering, our ancestors have had a look at pretty much everyplace on Earth, and the first arrivals put down roots in the best locations Now those spots are full; living anywhere else requires modification of the local environment. And that takes energy. The farther we get from the heat/water sweet spot, the more energy it takes.”
When we live in water-centric communities it can be difficult to seriously consider the possibility of ‘running out’ of water. Sure, at times we entertain the idea of ‘roughing it’ with the heart of an adventurer and find ourselves camping for a weekend in the woods, crossing the country in an RV, or even traveling to outer space. We welcome these ideas because we know they are short-lived, and we can always return to ‘normal life’ and bounteous water whenever the romanticism wears off. Or can we?!?
It may seem absurd at first, but what Commander Hadfield points out is that conserving water, food, energy, or any vital resource on earth is no different than the conservation required in any of those ‘romantic’ situations. Planet Earth is, in essence, an ISS, an RV, a tent in the woods… the water resources are finite.
Moreover, what makes the situation on earth direr is that, unlike a short-lived water-limited adventure, the demand for water is increasing as the population and industries grow. The ISS sustains six astronauts, and they always know how many people they have at any one time. Therefore, they know what the demand will be and how best to allocate their resources in order to also conserve their resources for survival. On Earth, we are not sure how to calculate the demand, nor how far the water will have to be transported from the “sweet spots” in order to meet the demand.
So how do we make sure there is, and will be, enough water to go around? The answer is: with awareness of the situation and careful balance, with respect for the systems already in place to conserve water and maximize the efficiency of its usage, by being visionaries who see challenges before it’s too late and act proactively, and with a concentrated effort to evolve our water technology and capabilities in a way that outpaces demand. With an astronaut’s perspective, perhaps we can become better passengers on spaceship earth.