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Water After Borders

David Rankin VP Programs

I had the chance to offer a few remarks at the “Water After Borders” summit at the University of Illinois at Chicago a couple of weeks ago.  This “summit” was, at least in my view, a kickoff for a new “Freshwater Lab” where students of the humanities are engaged in solving freshwater problems.

For more on Water after Borders, see- http://www.waterafterborders.org/

Thanks to Rachel Havrelock, Nicole Krause and the other conference organizers for their work and asking me to play a small part.  

My remarks follow:

This next session is what makes a summit different from a conference.  Conferences are one directional-the speakers and panelists talk to you. At a summit, you-the attendees-participate in solving a problem.

In your programs, you’ll find a list of working groups, each targeting a real problem and led by one or two subject matter experts.  I can’t take the time to introduce all of the fourteen leaders recruited for today’s summit.  I do know most of them professionally, several of them very well, and am meeting several today for the first time.  All of them are experts at what they do, will introduce themselves, and have been briefed by the organizers as to how to run their sessions.  Their jobs are to generate border-spanning actions- a list of new things to try, grist for the mill of the Freshwater Lab being launched today.

Find a session that is of interest to you, go to the room number listed and offer your perspective—especially if you are not a lawyer, a policy expert, a scientist or an engineer.

The most valuable people in this room are the humanities students, the community leaders, the designers, the space-makers, the artists, and the broadly educated who see with different eyes, hear with different ears and live in different worlds than those of us who are burdened with so-called “deep expertise”, years of experience, too long of a history on these topics.  Humanities-driven critical thinking is a trump card! We need you.

We need new, critical thinkers who can see the solutions we can’t; who know the people we don’t; and, who will do the work when we’re gone.

Please work to identify new actions that will advance solutions to the issues you’re discussing.  New can mean- new things to do, new people doing them, new impacts (even if the actions are tried and true), and new ways to get across the borders that separate us.

Let me say a word or two about borders and what this summit aspires to do with them.

Borders are negotiated compromises.  They are artificial divides.  Borders are the monuments we leave when we tire of trying to solve a big problem. They are fictions whose importance is directly proportional to the problems we have not solved.  They are human.  Water does not respect these human fictions.  This summit, and the work you are about to do are steps in overcoming those divides.

The re-emergence of harmful algae in the Great Lakes is a border problem.  For those of you who see past the border that separates the US from Canada in the middle of the Great Lakes, and who see past the borders that divide grower and landowner, wholesaler and retailer, fertilizer seller and drinking water provider- go help solve the problems that emerge when our food, fish, and drinking water systems collide.

The twin problems of not enough drinking water and too much storm water are one border problem. For those of you who see past the borders between rain and runoff, between flood and drought, between wet basements and shrinking drinking water supplies- go help the groups trying to unpack how water moves in unwanted ways in urban settings.

The fractures between the human communities that depend on water, and the waters that depend on human communities is a border problem. For those of you who see past the borders that divide the creator from the creation, that separate those less wealthy and from those more healthy, that divide what is and what might be, go help the groups exploring how faith and justice communities can promote better stewardship.

Finally—I was taught to say finally because it gives the audience hope—thanks for the work you’re about to put in.