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Democracy and Water Ethics

The 4th of July is a reminder (in the United States) that democracy cannot protect itself any more than rivers can prevent a dam. For me as a self-identifying environmentalist, the 4th of July is a reminder that environmental values depend on a governance system that acknowledges and respects those values.

Democratic governance is pretty good at representing the core values of everybody but there is always the danger that the majority will disregard the interests of the minority. That's why we hold certain truths to be self-evident: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And just to be clear about what that means, we have a Bill of Rights (in the United States) and at the global level there is a United Nations-endorsed set of fundamental human rights.

Democracy, in other words, is not a stand-alone value. Democracy is intertwined with and depends upon these other values and ethical principles. For example, consider the social value of "equity", which is built around the ethical principle that "All people are created equal" and therefore should be treated equally and have equal rights. When we start tampering with that equality ethic by limiting voting rights of certain segments of the population (blacks, immigrants), or impose rules based on race or gender, we are endangering the value principle of democracy which means government controlled by all the people.

If we think of democratic water governance, whose votes should count? Which water stakeholders should be represented? When water is commodified and traded in water markets, it's a lot like buying and selling votes. If you have money, you can have influence.

The conservationist, Aldo Leopold, urged us to consider Nature as part of our community of ethical concern, implying a larger concept of democratic water governance. If rivers could vote, would dams be built? Yes, if the decision depends on majority rule; the rivers would be outvoted by humans; but no if the fundamental rights of those rivers were acknowledged.

The value of values and ethical principles is that they help us to wriggle out of our own misleading practices. Democracy works when all the stakeholders can participate, and when the basic rights of everyone are held as sacrosanct.

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