Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Book Review of "The Great Lakes Fake Water War"

Review by Wayne Lusvardi

"There is no potato law, or Coca-Cola law, [but] there is water law." - Jim Olson, environmental attorney battling Nestle Co. water bottling of Great Lakes water

Peter Annin, a journalist with Newsweek and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources is worried about who is going to win the purported water war for the Great Lakes. In his new book, The Great Lakes Water Wars, published by the environmentally activist Island Press, Annin tips his hand early in the book as to who, and what, frightens him:

* Subsidized farmers
* Dry land farmers
* Private bottled water enterprises
* International entrepreneurs interested in exporting was in super tankers to Asia
* Sunbelt water agencies with endless Romanesque-style aqueducts diverting huge volumes of water
* Urban voters in Chicago and elsewhere and their bickering politicians
* Small towns like Lowell, Indiana that could morph into suburbs like those surrounding Los Angeles after they "grabbed" water from Owens Lake or the Colorado River

The above interest groups Annin identifies could pretty much serve as a proxy for the constituencies of the Republican Party. In short, Annin is suspicious that the Business Class is going to win a highly contrived water war that might lead to the Great Lakes ending up like the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan - an inland sea shrunken to the status of a lake and eco-wasteland resulting from Stalin's central planning in the 1950's.

Annin's paradoxical solution to such an apocalyptic scenario for the Great Lakes is "The Compact," an international agreement for water diversions which he is pushing on his website at In other words, centralized government control over the Great Lakes is the solution - despite that such a solution was what ruined the Aral Sea. Centralized regulation and planning is advocated by Annin despite that as of 2006 no agency figures exist as to how much water is consumed in the Great Lakes Basin or whether there is need of such a managing body. The author proudly claims that the Great Lakes contain enough water to cover the lower forty eight states with 9.5 feet of water! Annin even admits "there is no shortage of Great Lakes water," only a shortage of water management (p. 11).

Annin's perspective is reflective of what is called the Knowledge Class which deals in the production and distribution of knowledge. It is comprised of journalists, media, academics, environmentalists, educators, non-business lawyers, and government bureaucrats, of which Annin is one of its literal and figurative "water carriers." Sociologically speaking, the Knowledge Class is characterized by: anti-business ideology, a tendency to identify its class interests as reflecting the general welfare of society, and a dependency for its livelihood on government payrolls or subsidies and foundation grants. The Knowledge Class has an interest in the distributive machinery of government, as against the production system.

It is thus no surprise that on the book jacket The Great Lakes Water Wars is given accolades by many prominent representatives of the Knowledge Class such as law and environmental professors and former government environmental resource managers who claim it to be the "definitive book" on Great Lakes water. The greatest threat, in the eyes of those in the Knowledge Class, is that somehow Lake Superior is going to turn into Lake Coca-Cola (to paraphrase the quote at the onset of this review).

What The Great Lakes Water Wars seems to be angling for is the eventual establishment of a governing body over all the lakes that could regulate and redistribute all its resources according to its enlightened knowledge of the general welfare. This would entail an extra layer of government that would piecemeal out the benefits from the water resources as it, not existing Federal, state or local governments, sees fit. In sum, Annin's book appears to be a manifesto for the establishment of a water czar and inter-governmental bureaucracy to run the Great Lakes.

This may or may not be a good thing depending on which class perspective forms your worldview. But if the Public Choice school of economics has taught us anything it is that no social class or agency or public interest group has a corner on the public interest.

Water policy and management is mainly driven by cliques and cabals of elitist experts who claim superior insights drawn from the Knowledge Class. Their claims to superior insights of how to manage Lake Superior, or any of the other Great Lakes, are typically spurious and self-serving. We shouldn't believe any of them. No water czar or bureaucratic entity has sufficient knowledge or selflessness to make policy for others, especially unchecked by the balancing of the courts, legislatures and executive levels of government.

Peter Annin's covertly politicized book on the Great Lakes is well-written and has all the elements of successful award-winning journalism:

* A magnified sense of the apocalyptic (the "desiccation" of the Aral Sea as analogy for the Great Lakes)
* A claim to represent the welfare of the masses against the Big Cities and the sprawling suburbs
* The demonization of Big Business (Nestle Co., water entrepreneurs, etc.).
* The implied claim of a quasi-religious legitimacy for those elites who aspire to make water policy for the masses (quotes from the high priest of environmentalism Aldo Leopold and a consciousness of the "old-growth forests as ecological talismans of the people," and the "Sacred Sweet Water Seas").

The title of Peter Annin's book The Great Lakes Water Wars is a metaphor for a class war over the resources of the Great Lakes couched as an environmental catastrophe about to happen. The book is an important one and thus it must be viewed with a critical eye to see if it holds water.