A freshwater expert and author answers questions
What work do you do?
I work through a creation of mine called the Global Water Policy Project to promote the protection of rivers and other freshwater ecosystems. My goal is to generate ideas and inspiration to change the way we use, manage, and think about freshwater.
How does it relate to the environment?
Water is the basis of life and the blue arteries of the earth! Everything in the non-marine environment depends on freshwater to survive. Because we haven’t managed water wisely in the past, many freshwater species are at risk of extinction. And because we’ve used water too profligately, a lot of rivers now run dry before they reach the sea, and a lot of groundwater sources are being depleted.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I mostly read, write, and think. That may sound boring, but I love what I do! When I’m not pounding out books, articles, or research papers, I’m traveling to give a talk somewhere or heading over to Mount Holyoke College to teach — a course on (you guessed it) international water issues. I also do a fair number of interviews with journalists, because their stories get the issues out to the public.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to devote my life’s work to the environment. I thought about environmental law, environmental science, environmental writing. I studied geology and political science in college and then resource economics and policy in graduate school. In between college and graduate school, I had the good fortune to receive one of the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] Science and Mass Media Writing Fellowships, which landed me in North Carolina at the Charlotte Observer newspaper for a summer. With the help of great editors, I learned more about writing and loved working on science and environment stories. I nearly bagged graduate school to stay with journalism until an assignment tested my aggressiveness and I realized I had limits to how far I’d go to “get the story.” All for the better. After finishing at Duke, I headed to California to work with a small policy research consulting firm, where I was thrown into water work. I wrote a handbook on water conservation for the U.S. EPA, and I was hooked. Three years later, I headed to Washington, D.C., to join the Worldwatch Institute, where I took my water work global. Worldwatch and I were a perfect match, and I stayed there for 11 years. I left in 1994, moved to Massachusetts, and formed the Global Water Policy Project as an umbrella for the new things I wanted to do.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Dozens — but most of them are listservs like Planet Ark that I think I’m going to read in the next day or two but don’t. Yep, need to file them in a Reading Folder and clean up that inbox.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
I interact with lots of great people — it’s one of the best parts of my work. Scientists, activists, policy people, journalists, students. For sure, much of my work is solitary (the nature of writing), but I have also had great collaborative projects with great people. I wrote my recently published book, Rivers for Life, with Brian Richter, who directs the Sustainable Waters Program at The Nature Conservancy — one of the most synergistic partnerships I’ve had. A few years ago I went to India and Bangladesh with Paul Polak, the head of International Development Enterprises, to see the great work they were doing to spread affordable irrigation technologies to poor farmers. Most recently I coauthored a chapter called “Boosting Water Productivity,” for Worldwatch’s State of the World 2004, with Amy Vickers, author of the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation — a bible in the water conservation field. I serve on a number of advisory boards, which also puts me in touch with wonderful people at great organizations like American Rivers and the Environmental Leadership Program.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Hollis, New York — and I grew up on Long Island. Today I live in Amherst, Massachusetts.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
It must have been my first emergence from water — my mother’s womb — because I feel like my love and concern for the environment has been in my bones since the beginning. Sounds corny or at least improbable, but I think it’s true. Stories about Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching fire fanned the flames and reading Henry David Thoreau deepened the passion. A trip to Walden Pond when I was about 12 sure did solidify things.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I’m not sure it was the worst, but one of the most difficult moments for me was meeting with villagers and NGO representatives in the “disaster zone” of the Aral Sea in 1995. After hearing their stories and requests, I felt despairing, like nothing we visiting “experts” could say would respond adequately to their plight. Certainly nothing would bring back the Aral Sea, which had already lost about two-thirds of its water.
What’s been the best?
Can the worst also be the best? I think it can. Because while waiting for my turn to say something to the Aral Sea gathering, it occurred to me that all I could honestly offer was a feeling of hope — and that Mono Lake in my home country provided a good example. And so I told those gathered the story of Mono Lake — how a small committed band of people could make a difference against the odds, and begin to return the lake to better health. The Aral Sea problem, of course, was far larger and more complex than that of Mono Lake — but the message of hope seemed important. When I finished talking, I looked around the room to see if my message had come through the translation — and all the smiles on their faces told me it had.
What’s on your desk right now?
A stack of papers on watershed protection for a project I’m working on with researchers at Stanford University — plus a calculator, family photos, unread journals, a stack of unfiled business cards, and — of course — a glass of water!
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
The way the Bush administration has been circumventing sound science to serve its political agenda.
Who is your environmental hero?
Rachel Carson tops my list.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
What’s your environmental vice?
Like most Americans, I create too much carbon dioxide. I drive my car too much — in my case an average of 8,800 miles a year. And I also fly on planes a lot — just about all of it for work purposes (we usually vacation in beautiful New England), but still it gives me a carbon-intensive life.
How do you get around?
Size 10 AA feet, an Ironhorse bicycle, and a 1998 Toyota Corolla.
What are you reading these days?
Fiction: Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen.
Non-Fiction: Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft; I’m always reading water books; and I just started Gus Speth’s Red Sky at Morning, which he gave me last week when I was down at Yale to give a seminar.
What’s your favorite meal?
I love fresh pasta with homemade pesto. We collect the basil at our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in August and September and then make enough pesto for the rest of the year.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Yep, I’m sure I qualify. We get three newspapers a day: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. I rely on a few Internet listservs for daily environmental and water news updates.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I’ve had the good fortune to see lots of beautiful and interesting places around the world, but maybe my favorite place is the Fort River, which runs through Amherst, Mass., on its way to the Connecticut River. I walk with my dog Toby along it several times a week. The day before yesterday, the river was at flood stage after heavy rains — and a beaver was running it, two kingfishers were skimming along the surface, migrating geese were passing, red-wing blackbirds were singing in the tall grasses — and it was grand.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
No lawn watering! Everyone plants climate-appropriate grasses, shrubs, trees, and flowers that require no extra water and no pesticides. If you live in the desert, love the desert landscape! If you live in the East, love a brown lawn in late summer — it’s supposed to turn brown and it will turn green again all by itself when nature says it’s time.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be president in November?
John Kerry. I think a majority of voting Americans will realize that this country cannot afford another four years of the current administration. I just hope enough of them are in the states that count.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Informing the public about how bad and damaging the Bush administration’s policies are for the environment and for people.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
We are not articulating clearly enough a vision of positive change that the public can get excited about and work toward.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Billy Joel. Alison Krauss and Union Station.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Six Feet Under (though we have to borrow or rent it since we don’t have HBO). Among network TV shows we can watch, The West Wing.
Identifying a favorite movie is tough — we just rented The Fountainhead, a 1945 movie version of the Ayn Rand novel. Rand did the screenplay for it, and it was fantastic. I also got hooked on Donnie Darko last year. And then there’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Casablanca, of course.
Mac or PC?
What are you happy about right now?
Our friends just adopted a little girl and I’ll be seeing her for the first time tomorrow.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Begin every day asking what thing you could do differently that would be good for the environment and good for you, too. And then do that thing. If it feels right and good, do it the next day, too. You might start tomorrow, for instance, by not buying water to drink out of a plastic bottle.