Water and land are common resources. In terms of Common Law, that means that they belong to the people, all of the people, all of the time. Governments, which come and go like leaves on the wind, can license land use and water use to individuals and corporations for common good and social purposes, but they can’t alienate them from people without breaking their own constitutions. This is one reason why shale bed methane fracking is a bad idea: it removes usable water from the commons, forever. It is also why the illegal theft by white ranchers of water rights from Indigenous peoples in British Columbia, with the collusion of clerks in the provincial government, delegitimizes our government. These are not legal definitions, and I’m sure lawyers would be all over them with their sonographs and micrometers, but they are ethical ones. In the Okanagan today, these issues are being played out on a grand scale, and what is at stake is the world. Here’s what 55% of the water use in the valley looks like:

Hayfield (Investment Holding Property), Orchard, Vineyards, Okanagan Landing

Here’s what 5% of the water looks like:

Golf Course at the Rise, Vernon

Here’s what just 2% more, or 7% of the water use looks like:

House, Vernon, BC

7% of water use takes place inside structures like this.

Here’s what 25% of water use, or about half of the combined agricultural and golf course use of water looks like:

Outdoor Domestic Water Use

(Shown by the bushes, trees, hedges, lawns, and so forth, which it supports.)

Here, however, is a part of that 25%…

When You Steal All Bird Habitat and the Water That Supports It, You Have an Ethical Responsibility to Support the Birds

Farms won’t. They spray stuff that is poisonous to birds, big time. Either that, or they kill starlings by the millions. Yes, they do.

Here’s another part of that 25%…

Green Zebra Tomatoes in the Kitchen …

just before being squeezed into juice.

Here, on the other hand, is the kind of landscape that wins government approval for domestic outdoor water use …

… and this …

Rockscaping, It’s All the Rage

By reducing outdoor watering to near zero, space can be freed up to preserve agriculture, while allowing the construction industry to build space for more people to move to the valley, in increasingly dispersed subdivisions in increasingly dry landscapes.

Do you have that? Here’s an ethical problem: A family with a couple kids, both working at minimum wage service jobs on a golf course which caters to wealthy tourists and the housing construction industry, is encouraged not to use water in their yard to grow potatoes and tomatoes to feed their kids, but must go to a grocery store instead, to buy food at high retail prices, to support both a retail food and transportation industry and wealthy farmers sitting on land and infrastructure wealth in the millions. They wind up at the food bank. Do we want a society in which there are, structurally, two classes of people, those with rights to public water and those who must pay those rights holders? I don’t. Agricultural water should be given to the people, not just to a certain class within the people.

Rooster, IPE, Armstrong

Is this how you increasingly feel?

Here’s another ethical problem: At some future date, programs at home water reduction are entirely successful, the trees planted throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s are all dead, and there are no birds anymore, except in books read to school children, which advocate protection of rare endangered species, such as robins and waxwings. Do we want a society in which the only animals on the planet are humans and the domesticated animals they keep for pleasure (dogs, cats, and gerbils) and the others that they pen and slaughter (cattle, horses, chickens, lambs, and so on.)? Really?

Not Wanted on the Voyage?

Because that’s where we’re going with the construction of a class system based upon alienating common water rights, which belong to all people and all species, for certain temporary social structures, which change like the wind. The solutions aren’t simple. The solutions to ethical dilemmas never are. That’s what makes them ethical dilemmas. That’s why we have universities and departments of philosophy. That’s why we have churches and other places of worship. In fact, if the solutions to ethical dilemmas are presented as simple, you can be sure they’re wrong. This is hard stuff.  For God’s sake, it matters.

Earth, Human Version


2 thoughts on “Ethics

  1. I don’t think you have the whole story, Harold. No one is advocating against people growing green zebra tomatoes. It’s the wasteful use of water on lawns that we are trying to change. Often this is the result of simple misunderstanding of best practices: overwatering, or trying to grow green lawns with water-hungry grass varieties on property where the topsoil has been scraped off. Check out the Okanagan Xeriscape Association for a positive vision of low-water landscaping, or the “make water work” campaign on Okanagan Waterwise. We can do a lot better on water without having to get tangled in ethical dilemmas.

    • Hi, Anna,

      totally agreed, as usual, but the practical facts of the matter are also that in Vernon, a) rockscaping is strongly encouraged, b) dead lawns are encouraged, c) many people are letting their rowan trees die, and bird food with it, d) there are few birds outside of backyard environments, e) domestic water usage is priced to discourage any outside water use at all, at rates far in excess of those given to agricultural users, f) many agricultural users are holding the property for development, g) no young people can afford land for farming, and h) so on. The trouble is that we are already in an ethical dilemma, and it has to do with providing space, and that includes water access, to our young people. My hope is that we can all work out a new agricultural paradigm that sees unused or underused agricultural land made available to young farmers, the current model of farming, dependent upon a capitalized and retail-based model, transformed to a more inclusive one through innovative models of water planning, new crops and waterless crop areas explored, natural water flow systems utilized at almost zero cost rather than just being used at their end points to recharge lakes to subsidize the current model, and so forth. My feeling is that if we are not talking about ethics, we aren’t dealing with the issues, not to mention the elephant in the room, which is that the Syilx have a legitimate moral and political claim to this land, its products, and ultimately its water, especially here in Vernon. Yes, planners can ignore the ethical dimensions and leave them to some hypothetical future and do good work on the local government level, as you are doing, but as a writer, a citizen, and a member of an agri-cultural community stretching back to the beginning of civilization it’s my place to say that we start planning for the future right now, right here, and that means opening up the ethical can of worms to encourage thinking leading to a situation in which whatever plans are being made are being made in ways that foster the best resilience, dynamism and inclusiveness, not just for the continuation (and perhaps entrenchment) of the current state of affairs but for an independent and resilient future with the full resources and flexibility to move in whatever directions it needs to without having to battle limiting social, personal and political barriers along the way. We’re not there yet. On a practical front, the methods used for discouraging lawn watering also discourage not only vegetable and fruit production but any thinking that there are legitimate ways of using water. If that is an issue for you, I would hope that we could have conversations as to how the water reduction programs in the valley can be rejigged to separate the two issues. Until then, the ethical dilemmas remain. They aren’t invented. And they aren’t frivolous. They are exactly the thing that all citizens of the valley should be talking about and which should be the business of the legislatures in Victoria and Olympia. The land IS ethics.



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