Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Global water governance is based on the hidden philosophy of “normal water”––a finding with important ethical and ecological implications for water management in the Anthropocene. 

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by Jeremy J. Schmidt Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity, New York University Press, 2017, 308 pp.

Is water governance guided by a comprehensive philosophy? Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, geographer Jeremy J. Schmidt answers this question in the affirmative: water governance is based on a hidden philosophy which conceptualizes water as a “resource” to be managed in support of liberal ways of life. Rooted in a particular confluence of early American geology and anthropology, this view of water has attained global dominance through strategies of international development. It has become accepted to the extent that its ethnocentric and utilitarian foundations now seem all but forgotten within the global water governance mainstream. Thinking about water as a resource is commonplace today. Schmidt seeks to challenge this complacency by opening our eyes to the fact that what appears to be “normal” is in fact a normative choice.

The bulk of the book traces the origins and subsequent globalization of the philosophy of “normal water.” Schmidt provides insights into the roots and evolution of the “narrative of abundance, scarcity, and security,” while also discussing the implications of this narrative for water management in the Anthropocene. While the accounts of the thinking of protagonists such as John Wesley Powell, William John McGee, David Lilienthal and Gilbert White are illustrative and engaging, frequent philosophical excursions render the book somewhat impenetrable for readers unfamiliar with the philosophical works of Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Søren Kierkegaard and several others.

If the book is meant to showcase the results of an interdisciplinary intellectual exercise, its purpose has been achieved. However, Schmidt seeks to go further, spelling out the applied implications of his work. What, specifically, are the problems with viewing water as a resource (a very fundamental question)? What are the mechanisms by which alternate place-based approaches to water are being oppressed or marginalized by “normal water?” Beyond recommendations addressed to social scientists (e.g., disrupt the colonial project of water management within academia, relativize existing “stopping rules”), what are possible action avenues for practitioners committed to promoting water justice and equity in the field? Addressing these questions more explicitly and extensively could enhance the transformative impact of the book and make its important message accessible to a wider audience.


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