Terence Blacker: Pause to reconsider our lives

Share
Related Topics

Emitting a mighty belch, nature has grounded us. Our busy plans, large and small, our vaunted technologies, our governments and economies have all been made to seem rather puny beside that quaint and old-fashioned thing from the geography text-books, a volcano. Beyond the misery for some and the inconvenience for many, this moment of cold turkey for a society hooked on aviation offers a brief moment of reflection while we wait for the aeroplanes to fly once more.

Bang on cue, a report from Engineering the Future, an apparently respectable working party set up by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has revealed that "virtual water" embedded in the products we import is having a disastrous effect upon the most drought-stricken countries in the world. "We must take account of how our water footprint is impacting on the rest of the world," says one of theauthors, Professor Roger Falconer.

Water footprint, virtual and embedded water: if you sense already that these phrases contain new reasons for us all to feel bad about the way we live, you are right. The idea behind measuring virtual water is that the water which a UK consumer sees every day is a mere three per cent of actual usage.

Embedded in every product is the water which has been used to grow its ingredients and produce it. If the report is to be believed, the embedded water in a pint of beer is 130 pints. A cup of coffee costs 140 litres of virtual water, the making of a T-shirt over 2,000 litres. A kilogram of steak runs in a 15,000 litres, 10 times the amount needed to grow a kilogram of wheat. Two-thirds of the embedded water which we use as consumers is from imported goods.

In the relaxed, pre-volcano world of the past, these figures would be laughed out of court. If a virtuous British environmentalist sipping a cup of Fairtrade coffee in his Greenpeace T-shirt is committing some sort of eco-crime, then truly, it would have been thought, we are all as guilty as each other and there is nothing much to be done about it.

It is useful, though, to be reminded of the power of nature. None of the uncertainties surrounding climate change apply to water. We know that a billion people right now have no access to clean drinking water. We know that Western consumers demand vegetables, fruit and flowers from countries, like Kenya, where water is scarce. The government's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, has said that the global demand for water will have increased by 30 per cent over the next two decades. With a 50 per cent increase in energy demand and a similar increase in the need for food, the result, according to Professor Beddington, will be a perfect storm of crisis.

Around the world, the use of desalination plants, which are heavy on energy, is on the increase. Where there is access to fossil water, a non-renewable resource which has been sealed in aquifers deep below the earth's surface for thousands of years, modern technology is extracting it.

At this moment of pause, is it not at least worth asking whether it is entirely responsible for Britain, a country where it rains for much of the year, where inhabitants are profligate with water, where conservation is still a minor priority, should be cheerfully importing goods which make dry, impoverished countries even drier? How much more serious does the situation have to become before businesses are obliged to look at their supply chain and consider how water is used, and from where?

Of course, there are economic arguments – the Kenyan economy is dependent on the roses, sugar-snap peas and beans that would normally be arriving at Britain's airports – but human activity is susceptible to change. All the short-term political arguments in the world cannot alter the fact that we are being rather too relaxed about the earth's most important resource.

Reports are issued, technological breakthroughs announced, but in the end, as events in Iceland have shown, nature will follow its course. It may be sensible for those in the privileged West to consider a little more self-reliance, and possibly even self-restraint.

terblacker@aol.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Pay between ?110 - ?130 Day: Randstad Education Cardiff:...

SAP Deployment Manager

£480 per day + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Deployment Manager-Ta...

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Consultant

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Urgently seeking a Dynam...

Test Lead - Financial Reporting - Banking - London

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Test Lead, London, Banking, Financial Reporting, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Are we politely looking the other way when it comes to Kate, the ever-shrinking Duchess?

Grace Dent
 

The daily catch-up: art of the unapology, a bet on UKIP and printer ink molecules

John Rentoul
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game