Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book Fourteen: Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to do About It by Robert Glennon

There are no shortage of crisis situations facing our world, yet nothing seems so elemental as water. It is such an integral part of our daily existence that it can be hard to understand how deep our dependence on water really is. That we need to drink water is understandable, but that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef will make you look at that quarter pounder a bit differently.

Of course, concern about water is as ancient as life itself. In the United States water disputes have influenced settlements and governance, as any good Western movie will show you. More recently we've dealt with acid rain, but with the plethora of water bottles showing up on store shelves, do we really have a water crisis?

Robert Glennon's well laid out argument first establishes that there is a crisis and then offers suggestions on how to address it. The argument that there is a water crisis is becoming easier to make, in no small part thanks to Glennon's ongoing work in this area. Major media outlets are also now pointing out that the concern for water is not just an issue for other parts of the world, but the United States as well.

Glennon's strengths in this book are many. First, he lays out the arguments by telling stories and backing them up with facts. We not only see numbers, but more importantly we see the people impacted by the numbers. Glennon understands that this is not simply an environmental issue, but a human issue. Plus, he is not interested in browbeating naysayers into submission; he clearly wants to attract people to his way of thinking. While he does not suffer fools kindly, he assumes the reader is an intelligent person with an interest in understanding the issue at hand.

Second, Glennon is well organized in his presentation, something many people passionate about a subject forget to consider. He breaks the book into three sections ("The Crisis," "Real and Surreal Solutions," and "A New Approach") and he keeps them separate. When presenting the information he lets the data speak for itself, sometimes showing his hand toward the end, at other times leaving the reader to their own conclusions.

Third, Glennon knows that rational people can disagree. He refuses to demonize those he may disagree with, instead looking at their arguments and refuting as he sees fit. Several times throughout the book he acknowledges that there is no easy solution to a problem and that two opposing views both carry valid arguments. In other words, this is a scientist who understands in reality we do not have all the answers. He also does not expect everyone to adopt an extreme point of view and shows himself as a passionate, if not radical, water enthusiast. Toward the end of the book he notes his mother-in-law takes "navy showers" (get wet, turn the water off and soap up, and turn the water back on to rinse) -- he prefers the more wasteful but also more pleasant full shower treatment.

Finally, one of Glennon's surprising strengths is his sense of humor. While he never loses sight of the seriousness of his topic, he can rarely resist a good laugh; as a reader it is surprising to find yourself laughing at a "heavy" book. When discussing the race for a more powerful show head (with costs hitting $6,000) he cannot resist noting that Kohler, although their ad features a product with seven heads of water, "none...get the female catalog model's hair wet" (40).

His ideas for solving the water crisis are intentionally wide ranging. Sure, he wants you to turn of the water when brushing your teeth, but he also wants to talk about pricing models, buying water rights, using government incentives, and stimulating alternative waste technologies, just to mention a few. In other words, we cannot solve the water crisis by simply taking shorter showers, but it is a start. Glennon offers input to Congress and local and state governments, and offers a website for the reader to get water-saving tips (

As his subtitle implies, this is a book about the water crisis in the U.S., not the world. To see him apply this thinking to worldwide issues in water would be equally helpful, but this book is simply not that place. Instead, we get a well reasoned presentation of an issue with clear and reasonable ideas on how to address the problems, all with a well written and humorous style, which make this a must read.

Reading Challenges

This book took a bit more time than most, but it was so well written I did not find it too hard to get motivated for. I was, not surprisingly, a bit tired some nights so any reading can be tough, but nothing too bad.

Next Up

George Saunders' "Pastoralia," a novella and some stories. Saunders is another reader for the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series at Hope College this year. He is a MacArthur (genius grant) recipient so of course I have high hopes!

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