Water, civilisation and science

From the very beginning of community living, water has been at the heart of where we can live, how comfortably we live, how abundantly we live. Water moves around the planet in abundance, billions of tonnes of it float around in the skies, an unimaginable amount of it moves around in the seas, as living creatures we are made of water more than anything else, and it is one of the strangest substances in its chemical and physical properties, a wondrous world of uncertainty.

Because it does not always move where we want it to move we carry out vast operations to make it work for us. We control rivers, build dams, create huge reservoirs, we manufacture huge numbers of containers for it of all shapes and sizes, and waterways and coasts have been critical to the development of countries around the world and to the success and failure of campaigns of war and negotiations of peace.

London’s sewage system with pipes and pumps probably did more to improve the health of the population than any medical services, any other science. England’s Estuaries were key to the capturing and exploitation of what became colonies, massively increasing the power and authority of Britain.

But water can get expensive when it runs short, and the latest overuse of water in the South Eastern ‘half’ of the country means we have to do something before we start to lose rivers and wildlife and the standards of easy ‘cleanliness’ we have become accustomed to.

It is not that there is not much of it, everywhere in the UK there is a substantial supply of water, but people, agriculture and industry all use water and at the moment we are using in one half of the country more than we get.

We could pipe the water down from the north where there is plenty to spare, though it would be different water, with different minerals and different things living in it, which might cause a few problems in the ecosystem.

Or we could just use less and or recycle more.

If we chose the technology route and built more dams, more transport pipes, even desalination plants, the issues would be simple, not complex. Being simple is not the same as saying easy. What I mean by simple is that the goals can be pretty well defined, the routes to achieve those goals can be assessed and the progress to achieve those goals can be safely monitored. Some unknowns exist, like levels of rainfall, but we know what the unknowns are, probably, excepting of course the possibility of Yellowstone Park blowing up and that kind of thing.

With the kind of technology approach suggested then the thinking tools we would use are well known too. There are the creative solution finding tools like Synectics and TRIZ and there are many analytical tool kits for assurance of quality and efficiency.So we use reasoning and creative thinking and although in intuition plays a part in the end the decisions and the reasons for the decisions can be put down on one sheet of paper.

If we choose the other route, which is to engage the public in water saving measures then we enter a world of complexity with deliverables which are much more uncertain. Our intuition might suggest to us that the solutions could be much cheaper, if only we would take showers instead of baths all would be solved? There is also the fill the kettle less, use rainwater for watering the garden and maybe flushing the loo, and stop paving over our gardens because the rain  then just runs away and doesn’t soak in. All these diverse options will save some water, but then we should use reasoning to ask, how much? And how successful will they be? And are there any counter measures for other things going in the opposite direction? Like growing our own food might mean more use of water than, say, growing food in a factory controlled greenhouse environment, or even out in the fields where they are storing water for use in underground chambers.

So we can and maybe should stand back and ask which thinking skills should we use to decide which general approach to use?

The answer must be all three of them. We need reasoning to check numbers add up and make sense, but we need intuition to check that the numbers we are counting truly make sense and are not for some kind of hidden self assurance.

Our intuition might suggest that politicians are likely to go for the safer option of low cost ‘public initiatives’, so when they fail to deliver they can blame the public. If they build desalination plants or big pipes across the country and then we get a 5 year rainy period they would be blamed for making the ‘wrong’ decision even though it was only wrong because of things they did not  know, the risk assessment is always an assessment based on the best knowledge at the time.

The solution via public behaviour change is only right if it works, and as a ‘progressive’ programme of action it can be tried, monitored and then other pathways chosen if these seem to be failing to deliver.

This is a perfectly reasonable set of use of thinking skills where one set, say intuition is allowed to rule for a while, but checks built in so that when the data might suggest a switch then reasoning takes over. The danger then is that the well known ‘cognitive dissonance effect’ takes over, in simple terms, we don’t like to admit we got it wrong and the more effort we put into something the more we hate admitting it.

If we fail to plan and deliver this way to something which at the moment seems like a progressive risk then it later might become a catalytic risk, where we have to take more expensive and drastic action because we have left it too late for anything else.

So, let’s stay with the take showers and garden butts for loo water, but have a clear plan if that fails within 5 years.

I have written this at length to indicate how the 3 different thinking skills of creative thinking, reasoning and intuition can be used against one of the problems we face, and how it is the context that drives the choice of process, how complex it is, how catalytic or progressive, how collaborative the action needs to be and how close we are to needing to act substantially, how much time we have and how much we have committed to actions so far.



About Graham Rawlinson

I now have 5 books published as Ebooks http://amzn.to/iOyowj. They feel like part of a life's work, somehow all the different jobs I have had in my life, from postman to psychologist to facilitator of inventions and running a food business, they all build into a way of loving life, the ups and the downs. I hope you like the blogs I write, and then like the books I write. I hope you will want to take some time out of your life to share some thoughts with me. For that, I thank you. Graham
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