Water and capitalism - a citizen's tale
Invest in growth but go live on another planet
I have friends with money who occasionally discuss with me how they should invest it, because I write about land-speculation and resource depletion, railing against population growth, in absolute contrast to their professional investment advisers. I tell them they should invest it in all the things they are morally against. The old adage that 'money is the root of all evil' can also be switched around: "Evil is the root of all money." They should buy land in the path of environmentally destructive, overpopulation-facilitating, new roads and railways. They should invest in coal, uranium, agribusiness, and they should invest in water. Then they should leave this planet and collect their dividends from somewhere safe.
About fifteen years ago I published an article in the Weekly Times (which was buried on about page 70) about how continued population growth in my state (Victoria, Australia) would lead to water scarcity and cause the city to draw water from the country. I was right then and I am right now: it is going to get worse. Seeing the fulfilment of my prophesy has taught me a lot about the economic and social system most of us reading and writing in English live within. It seems to be no different from the political systems which have brought official third world countries down, despite what we are constantly told by the media and mainstream environment groups about being rich 'first world' citizens living in a democracy. Not a natural capitalist or even endowed with much spare cash, I have never been able to bring myself to invest in my country's downfall, or I might have bought shares in water, as well as in property development, coal and uranium.
I did, however, invest in permaculture. With the help of a friend who was doing a permaculture course, I planted an orchard and began cultivating a vegetable garden, the better to survive the financial crash which we both thought anyone with remotely sparking synapses should be able to see coming. (That was in 2003 or 2004).
A few years later, the confluence of the rising tide of population and declining rainfall was used by the Victorian government as an excuse to raise the price of water and drastically reduce its supply to suburban homes. "We've all got to get used to the reality that the climate is drying and the population is growing", the government said, as if the pressure of population had nothing to do with their invitations to come to Victoria and their redesignation of every part of the state as a region in need of immigration.
Vale Victoria the "Garden State"
Before 1992 Victoria was called, "The Garden State". This term was actually embossed on licence plates. Then came the shock merchants. First a conservative (Liberal) government dominated both houses of parliament, led by Mr Jeff Kennett. It rammed through severe changes to land-use planning, removing many rights from citizens about what could be done to the state and their neighborhood and amalgamating and renaming local boundaries in a confusing way.
Kennett tried to boost population numbers but only succeeded in stemming the flow to Queensland, a state then known for its cheap land. But he literally paved the way for overpopulation by normalising the removal of democratic barriers to intensification of development. After Kennett, in 1999, a Labor Government dominated Victoria, led by Mr Bracks, a Catholic.
Mr Bracks out-did the conservatives, teaming up with a slew of developers and engineers and the mainstream media (which sells real-estate all over the planet and funds life-style and home-improvement programs on t.v.) to transform Victoria into a kind of single-industry real-estate economy. Like a kind of smiling, evil genius, he actually convinced Victorians that their population was falling, instilling a fear that perhaps they were all going to go extinct, yet, at the same time, convincing them that Victoria needed more houses for the growing population. Bracks and his side-kick, Mr Thwaites, having started off a population-juggernaut, suddenly jumped ship and left the State in charge of their back-seat driver, the Treasurer, Mr Brumby.
Brumby racheted up Victoria's population growth to extremes it had never reached before, giving rise to this arcane remark by Ms Danielle Green in Parliament on 16 April 2008:
"(...) it is now expected that the population growth predicted in 2001 is actually going to be here in 2020 rather than in 2030. (...) - it is like 1 million people coming around to your place next Sunday and expecting a sausage at a barbecue."
From being able to water whenever you felt like it, now - because of the 'big barbecue' the government had scheduled without consulting the rest of us - you could only water twice a week between the hours of 6 am and 8am. This is the time when nine to fivers are on their way to work and shift-workers are sleeping. At the same time we hit mid-summer with scorching heat that turned leaves to crisps and caused the native trees to drop their branches. Along the Murray Darling River system, our major food-basin, ancient red-gums that had survived European settlement until then, were giving up the ghost.
Victorians became obsessed with water. Australians became obsessed with water. Not only was water restricted, but you had to 'invest in' - hell, you had to buy - new trigger-devices so you could turn your hose on and off like a gun, whilst you held it, or run the risk of arrest. I bought a couple that were supposed to fit any diameter hose, only to find that they didn't fit my hose. Taking them back to the store would have cost me a fortune in petroleum (the price of which was also rocketing up) so I worried instead.
I had a very small metal tank (pictured at the top of this article), but every time it rained I gathered the water in baths and buckets, with the sense that my life-blood was slipping down the drain. It was never enough. Fruit fell off the trees before it ripened and it was all I could do to stop the trees themselves from dying. How I hated the government and idiotic Victorians who prattled on stupidly about 'saving water' instead of running out of town the contemptuous and well-paid 'economists' and politicians who were preparing Victorians for the idea that they should pay up to 5% of their incomes for water in the future because of Victoria's population growth.
The logistics and hygiene of water conservation and use were confusing and tiresome. If one 'saved' water by brushing one's teeth using a glass of water instead of running the tap, should one then pour the rest of the water glass onto the tomatoes or should one use it to rinse the sink. If you took a quick shower and saved the water at the base of the shower, how long could you leave it until you used it? Could you use it on the vegetables? One could spend hours in the hard-ware shop choosing ribbed hoses to connect to the washing-machine and laundry drain-pipes, only to find that the joints would leak under the house. "It's all guess-work," the shop-assistant said, shrugging her shoulders.
Tension in the suburbs
Tension rose in the suburbs. We were reported to the police for 'wasting' water after someone turned our front garden hose on for a prank. This happened twice, until my nervous mother disconnected the hose and hid it. A friend’s wife picked him up from day surgery and, as they entered their driveway, he pointed to a neighbour who was hosing her four-wheel drive down in the street, and complained somewhat groggily of how he himself was unable to keep their garden alive. His wife then went up to the neighbour and accused her of water-profligacy, and not only that, on her use of a SUV in a time of imminent petroleum depletion. The two neighbours dueled verbally on the footpath and things have never been the same between them again. In another case a man succumbed to a heart attack after he was attacked by a passer-by for hosing his garden (with tank water as it turned out.)
The money required to purchase and install a large tank was a huge outlay for me. I kept the radio turned off in order to avoid the government's incessant dishonest moralising about "Saving water for future generations" when I knew that it was touting for immigrants simply to boost the price of water and land, and scheming to divert water to agribusiness.
My new tank
Eventually, however, I 'invested' in a large tank. I had intended to install it myself but discovered, to my consternation, that it would not fit in the place I had meant for it to go, which had a down-pipe in situ. I thought about the problem for months, and how I might connect it to other down-pipes, but the problem overwhelmed me, so I thought I would have to call a plumber. Only because of the construction down-turn, was I able to get one to come. I was amazed and impressed by the comparative grandeur of the system he designed. First he tilted the gutters on my large tin roof so that all the water converged at a single point. He then connected that point to a pipe that went down into the ground, then up into the rotund plastic reservoir perched picturesquely under the loquat tree. He then ran another pipe out of the big tank, underground, then up again to the little tank, which would take the overflow. It crossed my mind that a series of short pipes between the tanks would have used less material and not have required three men to dig pits, but I was too glad to see the plumber to argue with him.
The joy of capitalism
I was riveted by my new water-wealth. Suddenly I was experiencing capitalism at its rawest. Shakespeare's 'gentle rain that falls, unstrained', [Portia's speech inThe Merchant of Venice, in case you had forgotten] had triumphed until then, but, now that I owned the means of production, this suddenly changed. I could collect the stuff in vast quantities. If the drought continued long enough, I could sell glasses of it to passers-by as they struggled up the hill in the heat. Water became a source of fascination. I found contemplation of the habits of piped water fascinating; the fact that it will run up-hill so reliably, as long as it starts higher than the final destination seemed magical. I couldn't wait for it to rain to prove this to myself. Luckily we soon had an exceptional downpour and the big tank half-filled up in one afternoon. It rained for several days after that. I spent a lot of time tapping the big tank to work out how much water was in it. I felt that soon I would hear water coursing down the out-pipe to my little tank. Each time it rained, I pressed my ear to the out-pipe where it surged up like a serpent from the ground, awaiting a percussive modulation as the water flowed through it to the metallic tank and splashed to meet the somber mosquito nurseries within. The big tank seemed bottomless; there was no overflow. I began to wondered about blockages and air pressure.
The Woes of capitalism
Then, one awful night, I heard a new sound like a massive waterfall outside the bathroom. The rain was smashing down on the garden and forks of lightening alternated with deafening thunderclaps in a kind of infernal disco. I raced out in my pyjamas with a torch. Water was gushing out of the tank like a volcano, roaring down the side, forming a river in the front garden which was flowing under the house. I grabbed a ladder and climbed up the side of the tank to peer into the fountain, with the locat tree clawing at my head and face, and mosquitoes dining off my ankles and arms. The tank was full to overflowing. More aghast than anything that I was losing all this water, I ran about in the rain looking for bits of hose and gutter to use to divert the fountain from the big tank into the hole in the top of the little tank, but nothing worked, and the fury of the storm eventually chased me back inside.
The torrential downpour continued over several days. The plumber came after it stopped. The sand at the base of the tank had eroded and the tank was leaning over to the left. The plumber diagnosed the problem in the fact that the height of the outlet pipe exceeded the height of the inlet pipe. I tried not to even think about the oddness of a plumber making such a mistake. The only thing to do was to drill a new hole and insert the outlet pipe lower down. If I allowed him to empty the tank (all 2,500 L) he would be able to straighten it, but not before. But I knew that if I emptied the big tank we would immediately enter a drought. There was no danger of the tank rolling down the hill and killing anyone. I suffered at the idea that, due to its angle, the big tank's capacity would be diminished by an amount approximately equal to the capacity of the little tank, around 500 L.
Downturn: Reservoir capacity reduction
As a water capitalist, I had been counting on having at my disposal about 3000 L. I despaired at the idea of being reduced to only 2500 L. It was like Scrooge McDuck being told that his millions would stagnate, devoid of interest due to a mistake on the part of the bank, which would cost him more to rectify than it was worth.
The irony is, of course, that I will not earn any money from this water I have supposedly invested in. I paid, all up, somewhere in the region of $2,500 to connect the new tank. I will be paying more for water. I will not be selling from my garden for a profit; it isn't big enough. I only want to be able to supplement my diet in times of hardship, or, if necessary, trade with neigbours. The only people who will ever make a profit out of my water are the tank manufacturers, salespeople, those who transported it, the pvc pipe manufactuers (Mr Pratt, the pipe-manufacturer who helped the Victorian government to market the piping of water all over the State) and the plumber. When I planted my orchard there was no problem with using tap water. Now, simply to keep the trees alive, I had to get a tank. Even the water I have saved, I once would have had for free.
Corporate trolls under bridges and farmers walking off the land
One of the greatest evils of this age is speculation on water and its privatisation. It reminds me of the early kingdoms, which were not tidy little territorial blocks, but rather positionally advantaged perches and fortresses at crucial passes. Perhaps one of the first positional advantages exercised was when a tribe upstream diverted water to exert pressure for favours from a tribe downstream.
Such is the situation of the water capitalist, who buys up water then speculates on it, taking it above the purchasing power of most ordinary farmers. And the infrastructure merchant, who pipes the water, adds to the insult to injury by charging farmers fifty and a hundred thousand for the pipes and pumps to bring the water onto their land. No farmer can farm without water. At this point the capitalist offers the farmers money for their land, which is cheap since it has no water and they have no bargaining power. PlugThePipe farmers are in this dire situation and the Victorian Government is in public private partnership with the corporate group who are taking the incumbent farmers' water from them.
Your garden may be all that stands between you and starvation as we enter permanent economic contraction
In all seriousness, the situation of the suburban gardener who cannot get enough water to keep his plants alive, is of great importance in these times of financial hardship. We need to slow down the economy to cope with petroleum depletion and so as to avoid increasing greenhouse gas production. People who once relied on income from full-time jobs can no longer count on this. The corporations and firms engineered the situation where people became absolutely dependent on their providing work for wages. They encouraged policies that ended in us giving up food-gardens and they pushed to commodify water. They urged governments to increase population so that the price of land for housing they invested in would rise exponentially.
Big Business and Government must return water to citizens
Now, at the very least, the world of business that so transformed our democracy, owes workers land for food-gardens. Huge changes in land-use planning will be needed to restore the capacity for the bulk of the population to supplement their survival by growing food. Big business and government should resile from promoting population policies which further increase demand for land and water.
It has now been raining solidly for two days. This afternoon I went for a walk in the rain in the bush for two hours and got thoroughly soaked. On the way back I passed three well-dressed suburban children who were running back and forth outside their home filling a variety of receptacles from the stormwater flowing in the gutter. It will be good practice for when they grow up and have to carry water for kilometers from the water-merchants. Or perhaps they will become water merchants themselves and no-one will any longer remember that time when water was almost free – as indeed, were we. (Big sigh)
Oh, come on! We've got to fight this harder!