Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever – Book Review

BlueFuturePublished in late 2013, Blue Future is the latest in a series that includes Blue Gold (2002) and Blue Covenant (2007) by Canadian water-activist and former UN General Assembly President advisor (2008/09) Maude Barlow. For over two decades, Maude has been working to raise awareness about the global water crisis and was a  prominent leader in the campaign to recognize access to water and sanitation as a human right that led to its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly on July 28, 2010, with the acknowledgement that access to water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.

Deepening Crisis

Despite this victory for the water justice movement, the crisis is worsening. According to UN figures some 800 million people lack access to clean water and 2.5 billion people do not have access to a toilet. By 2025, it is expected that two-thirds of the world population will be living under water stressed conditions, a situation that is exacerbated by climate change, disruptions in the water cycle and increasingly devastating extreme weather events.

In “Blue Future” Maude Barlow provides a comprehensive account of the global water situation and the way forward if we are to avert a global water catastrophe with mass starvation, large scale migration and escalating tensions and conflicts over access to water resources. Her proposed solution path is based on four pillars:

1) The implementation and fulfillment of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation represents a fundamental obligation for governments across the world to fulfill. This is not a question of charity or CSR.

2) Water resources must be protect, conserved and managed as a “common” that belongs to everyone and for the benefit of all – including future generations.

3) Water is an essential element to allow life on earth and biodiversity to flourish and is essential to ensure the health and resilience of the ecosystems. Our failure to properly manage watersheds and water resources undermines the prospects for human development and progress. Economic development policies must recognize these fundamental laws of nature.

4) Increased water stress can increase tensions, disputes and conflicts over access to scarce water resources. But they can also become a source of cooperation as communities search for solutions for sustainable ways of producing energy and food.

A Crisis of Poor Water Management

Blue Future provides an urgent call for action to address the crisis of poor water management around the world. Modern agriculture is a case in point: it is responsible for  70% to 90% of global water withdrawals for mass-irrigation that are siphoning aquifers, rivers and lakes. Water “mining” is lowering water tables and drying up rivers around the world. The drying up of the American Ogallala  aquifer would destroy $20 billion worth of annual agricultural revenue and turn the region into a giant desert. Withdrawals from rivers by large-scale farming operations reduce water flows to the point that some of the world’s largest watercourses like the Yellow River (China), the Colorado and Rio Grande (USA), or the Murray and Darling Rivers (Australia) no longer reach the sea.

Water Energy-Nexus

The book also provides an fascinating account of the water-energy nexus and the growing impact of our energy policies on water resources, including the consequences of dams for electricity production, the pollution of water from coal powered electricity production, the impact of biofuels, tar sands, fracking, nuclear energy but also from renewable energy – namely large scale solar thermal plants that use water for cooling. By far the largest impacts are caused by coal power plants and biofuels. Ironically, some of the largest coal plants are located in regions that are on the frontline of the water crisis with China accounting for 50% of world production. Biofuels not only represent a threat to food security, they also carry an unfavorable carbon footprint versus fossil fuels and a massive water footprint. Instead of being a response to climate change, corn ethanol represents a threat multiplier that contributes to soil pollution and causes greater water scarcity.

Hope for the Future

Blue Future is ultimately a book of hope. The development of large-scale drip irrigation can reduce water needs by up to 90% and requires a fraction of the energy to operate. Ancient and highly effective solutions like rainwater harvesting can be deployed on a large scale to reduce pressure on aquifers and rivers and compares favorably to the modern practice of water mining. Local, organic and sustainable farming practices can reduce water requirements, improve food security and provide livelihoods. Most importantly Maude Barlow demonstrates that solutions are available. What is missing is the public awareness and the pressure on governments and authorities that will bring about the political will to necessary for their deployment. This story is far from over!

For more about Maude Barlow and her work see the Council for Canadians website.

The Ecology of Commerce – Book Review

EcolofCommerceOriginally published in 1993 by entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken. Ray Anderson, the founder of billion-dollar modular carpet manufacturer Interface, credits the book for causing him to experience a “spear in the chest  moment” that transformed his perspectives on business and ecology. With help from Paul Hawken who became an advisor to Interface, Ray Anderson and his team embarked on a journey to reinvent the carpet business and become the world’s leading corporation in terms of  sustainability. He found that this was not only good for the environment but also good for business: “Profits are up not down, products are the best they have ever been, and the goodwill of the market place is amazing”. This edition of the book contains the Interface story and is dedicated to Ray Anderson who passed away in 2011 at age 77. Here is his TED talk where he describes how reading Paul Hawken’s “Ecology of Commerce” in the summer of 1994 allowed his reformation from plunderer of the earth to America’s greenest CEO:

For Paul Hawken, environmental degradation, climate change and resource depletion, erode the natural capital on which life depends and in turn the economy that nature can support. He provocatively says that: “Business contains our blessing. During all these years we may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking how to save the environment we should have asked how do we save business?”


Are we cutting the branch we are sitting on?

Paul Hawken believes that market forces can help restore habitats and ecosystems by reflecting “externalities” in the price of goods and services. This would not create any new costs but  properly reflect the costs of pollution and waste that are currently borne by society (the tragedy of the commons) to where they originate. Market forces will then reward the greenest businesses in a way that would benefit society and the economy. Ultimately businesses should operate in a way that is inspired by nature (bio-mimicry), move away from the industrial-age linear economic model (sometimes described as “cradle to grave”) and create a circular economy (“cradle to cradle”) to help restore natural capital and ensure the prosperity of current and future generations.

A must read for entrepreneurs and environmentalists alike.


The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources – Book Review

klare01-1339426043978By Michael Klare, the natural resources expert who told us that the disappearance of easy to access and extract “cheap oil” will lead to the development of unconventional energy resources like tar sands, oil shale, deepwater drilling, mountaintop removal, artic oil exploration and that these developments will come at growing environmental and human costs. 

In this easy to read page-turner, Michael Klare argues that growing global demand for natural resources since the Industrial Revolution is now causing a major crisis of resource depletion: easy and cheap to access raw materials like wood, iron, copper, tin and coal, and more recently oil, natural gas, uranium, titanium and other specialized minerals are approaching exhaustion. Michael describes how multinational corporations and governments are increasingly competing in what he calls the “Race for What’s Left” to secure access, at escalating costs, to dwindling resources in increasingly remote locations like the deep oceans or the Arctic. In his view, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico offers “only a preview of the dangers to come”. He illustrates how the race for resources inevitably results in tensions and conflicts – in the Falkland Islands that are contested by Argentina and the United Kingdom, it is believed that the region holds up to 18 billion barrels of oil, or in the East China Sea, or the Caspian Sea, to name a few examples. He warns that this struggle for resources intensifies friction between nations in ways that can lead to armed conflict and that we lack the institutions and global governance tools to properly address these geo-political challenges. According to Klare, our only way out is to dramatically alter our patterns of consumption, something he calls the “greatest challenge of the coming century”.

This dramatic call energy and resource productivity brings to mind two recent constructive and solutions-oriented books by practitioners on how to to reduce the pressure on natural resources through an energy and resource efficiency revolution:

–       Factor Five (see Book Review) By Ernst von Weizsäcker and The Natural Edge Project on how to achieve 80%+ improvements in energy and resource productivity at a profit

–       Reinventing Fire by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute on how America can overcome its oil and coal addiction by 2050 with a 158% bigger economy while saving $5 trillion (2010 net present value) – (Book Review coming soon).

Factor Five: Transforming the World Economy through 80% Resource Productivity Improvements – Book Review

FactorFive(front)largeFactor Five” is the long awaited sequel to the 1997 celebrated bestseller “Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use” by Ernst von Weizsäcker, Amory B. Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. For “Factor Five” Weizsäcker is back with Charlie Hargroves, Michael Smith, Cheryl Desha and Peter Stasinopoulos as co-authors, a team of “early career Australians” who are part of The Natural Edge Project Team that aims to promote sustainable development solutions across all sectors of modern society.



With Ernst von Weizsäcker

With Ernst von Weizsäcker

Factor Five provides a compelling case for dramatically increasing resource productivity (at a profit) but also raises the stakes in a world where the impact of the global community is challenging the planet’s ability to cope. Rather then being fatalistic, the book inspires hope with solutions for a world where energy and resources are in short supply and where the emphasis of technological progress should be on energy and resource productivity, improving economic performance while benefitting the environment. Pragmatic and solutions oriented, the book focuses on adopting a whole-system approach to increase productivity across key sectors (buildings, heavy industry, agriculture and transport) and analyzes the policy, tax & regulatory, and financial aspects that must be addressed if we are to provide “sufficiency in a civilized world”.

The nations, corporations and households that adopt these strategies will achieve factor five resource-productivity improvements and will prosper and enjoy a lasting competitive advantage in an increasingly resource-constrained world.

Innovation waves

Just as “labor productivity” drove competitiveness during the first 200 years of the industrial revolution, economic advantage in the future will depend on resource-productivity where improvements will be driven by advances in sustainability, whole system design, bio-mimicry, green chemistry, industrial ecology, renewable energy and green nanotechnology.

This book represents an essential read for political and business leaders, government officials and anyone interested in sustainability and human progress.