Managing the 'water planet'

For most of history, there were always new lands to discover, explore, and exploit. Resources like water were taken for granted. But an important shift has occurred as we've looked back at our planet from space: We've become more conscious of preserving our rare, blue-green island in the universe.

Australian Antarctic Division/Reuters
A free-swimming robot submarine maneuvers beneath sea ice in Antarctica.

Well before Columbus or Magellan or Lewis and Clark; before Asian hunter-gatherers crossed the Bering Strait; for as long as people have explored, the world has pulled back its curtain and revealed its bounty. 

Expecting another untouched valley or unfished river over the horizon had a profound effect. The American historian Frederick Jackson Turner described the frontier mentality as creating confidence in “a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past.” 

That confidence that there were more earthly paradises to discover liberated millions from poverty and repression, but often at the price of environmental carelessness. A few pioneers left a small imprint, but they were followed by settlers and developers whose practices were often more cavalier. If there was always a newer New World to find and enjoy, why bother protecting the old one?

By the 20th century, the frontier had faded. Except for a few remote jungles and ocean depths, most of the globe is known, claimed, and cataloged. The frontier mentality remains a source of optimistic expectation, but it is evolving in interesting ways.

Over the past half century, exploration has shifted to the scientific realm and to places beyond our home planet. It’s not that we discover fewer things; it’s that our discoveries have less to do with geography. The pace of discovery has actually accelerated in the age of robotics and knowledge networks. The real action is in smarter ways of managing what we already know about.

You can see that in everything from energy to waste to water. New extraction techniques have vastly increased the productivity of oil and gas deposits. Load management is making the electric grid more efficient. Better transportation and marketing sends food produced on one side of the world to the other. And, as William Wheeler notes in our cover story, innovative ways of managing water resources will be crucial in slaking the thirsty Earth’s population of 6.9 billion and counting.

The magic of water is also what makes it a problem: It falls from the sky. Because it is free, it seems to have no value. In wet climates, water is an afterthought and can be a nuisance (ask the people of coastal New York and New Jersey after superstorm Sandy). But if you live in an arid region like inland Australia, northern Africa, Central Asia, or the Great Basin in the United States, you know that water conservation is increasingly important. 

Valuing water the way we value oil, say some resource specialists, may help stop its waste and spoilage. 

Back in the 1970s, the French marine explorer Jacques Cous-teau used to send out fundraising letters with this salutation: “Dear Citizen of the Water Planet.” It was a corny opening line, but it got the point across. We’ve sent probes into space and landed on other planets. So far, nothing compares with our watery, blue-green marble floating in the void. So far, there are no new worlds more attractive than our old one.

That is not to say that we’ve got Earth’s many resource challenges licked. But rather than the age-old pattern of discovering, exploiting, abusing, and discarding Earth’s bounty, people everywhere are learning how to value and protect it.

The water planet is home. Managing its resources in smarter ways is our new frontier.

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