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

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Assistant

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Maintenance Assistant is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?