Saturday, September 27, 2008

Who owns rain?

The idea that anyone “owns” rain struck Bolivians as so outrageous that it fueled a massive “Water Revolt” in 2000. Ownership of rainwater was not the immediate issue, but it came to symbolize everything Bolivians hated about the heavy-handed economic policies imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Latin American countries burdened by poverty and debt were being pressured to privatize their economies in return for much-needed foreign investment. Bolivia’s government, headed by former dictator Hugo Banzer, obligingly gave a subsidiary of U.S. corporate giant Bechtel the rights to commercialize all water systems – including natural and agricultural systems – in water-starved Cochabamba, the third-largest city in Bolivia.

Water bills immediately doubled to a quarter of the average Cochabamban’s salary, with no improvement in the poor service. Bechtel also took over wells that had been drilled – with great effort and with no help from the government – by local cooperatives. Bechtel then installed meters, for which they charged the cooperatives, and started charging for well water that had previously been free and plentiful to cooperative members.

Cochabambans were livid. A citywide protest campaign rallied around resistance to leasing the rain,” reflecting the fear that Bechtel would begin to charge residents for collecting rainwater under the agreement that granted the company control of all water in the city. The protests spread to other cities; the government declared a state of siege and sent in troops to break up demonstrations; a teenage boy was killed and more then 100 people were wounded; the government told Bechtel executives it could no longer guarantee their safety; the water privatization plan failed catastrophically. Today, Bolivia, still poor and in debt, has had mixed success in standing by its definition of water as a basic human right rather than a marketplace commodity. (Sources on Cochabamba: Finnegan 2002; Shultz 2008)

But ownership of rain wasn’t invented by multinational corporations looking to make a buck off of vulnerable Third-World countries. Residents of Colorado and Utah have recently been surprised to learn that what seemed like a great, environmentally sound idea for watering their lawns and flushing their toilets – collecting rainwater runoff from their roofs – is illegal. Why? Because someone else owns the rain that falls on their property.

Unlike land, which pretty much stays put, water moves through a hydrologic cycle – on the ground, underground, and in the atmosphere – and can be reused by many different people. A complex body of federal and state water law has developed to sort out the inevitable conflicts. Western states tend to go by the doctrine of “prior appropriation” – whoever first puts the water to beneficial use and satisfies other legal requirements has first claim to the use of that water, followed by the next user, and so on until the water is put to its maximum use.

Colorado’s constitution grants appropriation rights over all “natural streams.” But Colorado courts’ unique interpretation of this law considers rain to be part of the groundwater and streams it replenishes – and nearly every stream in the state is already over-appropriated. A seemingly reasonable petition by Colorado farmer Kris Holstrom to collect rainwater from her roof was recently denied. She discovered, to her surprise, that the state of Colorado considers her roof a “tributary” to the San Miguel River.

As is often the case, water law struggles to keep up with advances in technology. States and their citizens are grappling with the contradictions between laws that ensure fair apportionment of water rights and individual attempts to develop creative environmental solutions. Policies that forbid people from collecting rainwater from their roofs in a barrel and using it to water their gardens strike many people as absurd. But what about rainwater catchment on a larger scale? In Utah, where it’s also illegal to catch rainwater without a permit, Mark Miller, a Salt Lake City Toyota dealer, had a more ambitious plan.

“He collects rainwater on the roof of his new building, stores it in a cistern and hopes to clean cars with it in a new, water-efficient car wash. But without a valid water right, state officials say he can’t legally divert rainwater. ‘I was surprised. We thought it was our water,’ Miller said. State officials say it’s an old legal concept to protect people who do have water rights. Boyd Clayton, the deputy state engineer, said, ‘Obviously if you use the water upstream, it won’t be there for the person to use it downstream.’”

Eventually city and state officials worked out a compromise with Miller.

“State officials say the Mark Miller agreement could become a blueprint for other rainwater projects. Homeowner projects, although technically illegal, are likely to stay off the state radar screen.” (Sources for Colorado and Utah water law: Hollenhorst 2008; Fitzgerald 2008; Water Encyclopedia n.d.)

The problem of scale is recognized by the state of Washington, which considers rain a water resource of the state. Residents are allowed to collect small quantities of rainwater without permits. The state has currently invited residents to help establish exactly what “small” means. (ENS 2008)

The state of Washington is wise to involve its citizens in working out fair and forward-thinking policies to conserve a valuable communal resource – in contrast to the approach of American investors in Bolivia. Like many other creators of misguided policies, Bechtel and World Bank executives believed that imposing their version of a free market would solve the chronic problems of water supply in Bolivia. They were stunned at the animosity their actions created. Protests and resistance to water privatization have also occurred in Panama, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Trinidad, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, South Africa, Poland, and Hungary (Finnegan). Maybe it’s time for Americans to look to the Third World for guidance about whether water, the most basic of human needs, should be considered a consumer good – similar to, say, an iPod – or a human right.


Environment News Service. 2008. “Washington State Drafts Rainwater Collection Rule” (July 14).

Finnegan, William. “Letter from Bolivia: Leasing the Rain,” New Yorker, April 8, 2002.

Fitzgerald, Daniel. 2008. “Can you own the rain? Make harvesting the resource legal,” (June 27).

Hollenhorst, John. 2008. “Catching rain water is against the law,” (August 12).

Shultz, Jim. “Water in Cochabamba: After the Water Revolt; a Legend With Mixed Results,” excerpt from a chapter in Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization, University of California Press, 2008. Available for download at

Water Encyclopedia: Science and Issues. n.d. “Law, Water.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is the Mystery of the Disappearing Honey Bees Really a Mystery?

A Spring Without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply, by Michael Schacker, presents a compelling case for immediate action on behalf of the honey bee. This thoroughly-documented narrative details the stresses on hives today and includes an in-depth discussion of the practical ways bees can be saved without hindering crop production.

I’d heard about disappearing hives and wondered what could cause bees to fly off and never return. It struck me as highly unusual bee behavior – but I’m no bee expert. Turns out it is unheard of. And not only that, but predators like wax moths and hive beetles, who usually jump at the chance to move in to an abandoned hive, have been observed to hold back for weeks.

Clearly something is wrong.

I’d read about the disappearing bees in France and the debate there over pesticides but since it never made the news in a big way here I assumed it was not anything that concerned the US. Then I read reports about possible confusion of the bees due to cell phone towers or maybe even their orientation to the sun. In short, I read about everything but a possible chemical component. Until this book.

Appalled at what Schacker has written and I’ve gone on to verify, I feel compelled to share this information.

It is clear the bees, who don’t have a robust immune system to begin with, are being pushed to their limit. Varroa destructor mites in the hive leave them susceptible to disease. Hives trucked around the country, following the crops like miniature migrant workers, leave them stressed. The substitution of lower-cost, syrup-based winter feeds leave the honey bees introduce chemicals to their food supply. Residue from a new type of pesticide, Imidacloprid, in the pollen and areas around the pollinating crops also impacts the honey bee.

I have no interest in bashing chemical companies, but the fact remains that IMD had been put into production via Section 18 Pesticide Emergency Exemptions with the EPA. This allows the manufacturer to get the product to market before the mandated testing has been performed. In theory this has valid applications, I’m sure. In practice, this means we have an unproven toxin being applied to our food supply. In the case of Imidacloprid – a neurotoxin derivative of DDT – almond, blueberry, and a host of other crops dependent upon pollination by bees are being sprayed or planted with painted seeds without benefit of thorough study of IMD’s effect.

One could claim the use of such exemptions helps get beneficial products to market and allows the US to enjoy a variety of foods at a reasonable price. Even with this positive view of exemptions, prudence dictates testing for harmful effects to animals and people. But we also know that the testing required for any new chemical or medicine has hoops to jump through that make very little sense. However, in the case of IMD, where bees have literally abandoned over 30% of the their hives in conjunction with pollination of IMD crops, something between no hoops and too many is definitely in order. Quickly.

To satisfy beekeeper concerns after the fact, IMD has been tested. The problem is, the testing has been done at lethal levels. These tests show that bees will avoid anything approaching this concentration. But they’re not encountering this level in the fields. They’re ingesting a number of sub-lethal amounts as they pollinate crops, sip from water pooled in the area of the crops, rest in areas covered with IMD. The net effect to the bee is a growing chemical load. One that is too much for them to carry.

Whether IMD would be as disastrous to the bees if it were the only stressor is a moot point. The fact is that in combination or not, it appears to be the last straw. Bees who ingest bits of IMD over the course of their foraging trip become “drunk” and disoriented. They lose the ability to find their way back to the hive. They don’t die at the entrance to the hive as bees do when they’ve been poisoned by pesticides. The IMD is not killing them outright but it is confusing them to the point where they cannot navigate their way home – and so die.

In France, the evidence and outcry by the beekeepers has been enough to ban IMD. Within a couple of years of the ban, the hives were back to their former numbers. That has been compelling enough to the French that IMD has been banned. Here in the areas where the bee die-offs have occurred (all IMD areas), bees feasting on the pollen of untreated crops have not been affected. With all the advances in organic farming and the premium paid for organic goods, it is worth our time to look into banning IMD, insisting on thorough testing of toxins with a neurological mechanism, and broader implementation of organic farming methods.

Using pesticides on crop pests results in the need for ever-stronger pesticides as the pests develop resistance to the formerly lethal dose. Quitting this escalation now, while we still have bees to save, makes a lot more sense than continuing doggedly on our way, insisting that something cannot be the problem because it isn’t a problem in the lab at a lethal level when we can observe and verify that the newly-introduced variable is the IMD. And even if we’re wrong. Even if what we think is solid evidence pointing to IMD is not actually evidence of the true cause and something else is harming the bees, what is the harm in putting a three-year moratorium on IMD and seeing if Colony Collapse Disorder becomes a thing of the past? It’s not as if we are looking at data from one beekeeper. Or one crop. Or even from one country!

Bottom line, our crops need pollinators and the bees need our help. Now. Check out the steps you can take to give them a hand.


Schacker, Michael.  A Spring without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder Has Endangered Our Food Supply.  Connecticut/The Lyons Press (2008).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Good News: Fewer Choices

I read some great news in the New York Times the other day: supermarkets are getting smaller and offering fewer choices. “After years of building bigger stores — many larger than a football field and carrying 60,000 items — retailers are experimenting with radically smaller grocery stores…. ‘The average person goes shopping for 22 minutes,’ said Phil Lempert, who edits, a Web site that tracks retail trends. ‘You can’t see 30,000 or 40,000 products. We are moving into an era when people want less assortment.’”

Personally, I agree with many of the 106 commenters on the article that “hell is like a big box store” where you can’t find what you’re looking for and there are no employees to ask – and when you do find it, there are a hundred feet of variations, and you are at a loss as to whether there is any meaningful difference among them.

The prevailing wisdom among American economists and policy-makers is that no matter how much choice consumers have, they always want more. But a growing body of research shows that in many cases, people with fewer choices are happier. Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz has cogently explained why in his often-cited book The Paradox of Choice and in an article in Scientific American (see references below). One of the most powerful reasons is opportunity cost: losses have a much greater psychological impact than gains, so the more choices you have to forego to pick one among them, the more the unhappiness of what you’re missing out on outweighs the pleasure of having the item you chose.

Schwartz cites research that shows that more options often leads to less satisfaction or resistance to even making a choice. Lyle Brenner of the University of Florida, for instance, showed that subjects assigned a lesser dollar value to a magazine if they were choosing it from many magazines and a higher value when presented with the same magazine by itself. In other research, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper set up a table at a specialty food store, offering samples of jam and a coupon to buy any flavor. Half the subjects had six flavors to choose from and half had 24. Overwhelmingly, subjects were more likely to actually purchase jam when they had had fewer choices.

The tyranny of too much choice particularly affects what Schwartz calls “optimizers” – people who are not satisfied with a decision unless they have evaluated all the options and chosen the best one. In contrast, “satisficers,” a term Schwartz borrows from the late Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Herbert Simon, establish a set of criteria, look until they come to the first option that meets all the criteria, and stop there, without considering if there are even better choices.

So, here comes a confession. My name is Margaret, and I’m an optimizer (all together, now, “Hi, Margaret” – and, by the way, where's the nearest 12-step group for optimizers?). I lose sleep over things like picking an Internet provider, cell phone plan, and investment options for my meager savings. I would have much more free time if I did not feel compelled to do extensive comparison shopping for electronic equipment, appliances, insurance, and every other big or small household or personal need. Clothes shopping, at least, is less stressful since my daughter suggested I buy all clothes of a similar color. God bless black, navy, and brown – it makes getting dressed in the morning so much simpler.

Another complicating factor of too much choice is the way that humans make decisions. Economists assume that decisions are made “rationally,” by which they mean each person makes judgments that are consistent, according to that person’s values, and that the decisions will predict the level of happiness for that person. But Schwartz’s work challenges the assumption of predictability. And a large body of research shows that there are strong biases in human decision-making that challenge the assumption of consistency.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1981) conducted an experiment that showed that people will make a different decision depending on how the question is framed. Subjects were asked to make a decision about a hypothetical case of a public health program to combat an outbreak of a lethal disease that threatens 600 people. The problem was framed in two different ways. One framing emphasized saving lives. The program would save 200 lives, and without it there was a 1/3 chance of saving everyone and a 2/3 chance of saving no one. Most people chose to implement the program. The other, essentially equivalent framing emphasized losing lives. With the program, 400 people would die; without it, there was a 1/3 chance that no one would die, vs. a 2/3 chance that everyone would die. With this framing, most people chose not to implement the program.

Barry Schwartz argues that there is a “strong correlation between maximizing and measures of depression” and that “overwhelming choice at least contributes to the epidemic of unhappiness spreading through modern society.” He ends his article with some warnings about the wrong-headedness of many policies that are being touted as “what people want.”

“A point is reached at which increased choice brings increased misery rather than increased opportunity. It appears that American society has long since passed that point…. Our society would be well served to rethink its worship of choice. As I write this, public debate continues about privatization of Social Security (so people could select their retirement investments), privatization of Medicare and prescription drug benefits (so people could choose their own health plans), and choice in public education. And in the private sphere, medical ethicists treat the idea of "patient autonomy" as sacrosanct, as if it goes without saying that having patients choose their treatments will make them better off. Software developers design their products so that users can customize them to their own specific needs and tastes, as if the resulting complexity and confusion are always a price worth paying to maximize user flexibility. And manufacturers keep offering new products or new versions of old products, as if we needed more variety. The lesson of my research is that developments in each of these spheres may well rest on assumptions that are deeply mistaken.”

I’m with Schwartz: the American people of the twenty-first century need fewer choices. With all the time that would be freed up by eliminating the need to evaluate meaningless choices, maybe we would have more time to think about what kind of a country we want to live in, what is the best way to relate to the rest of the world, and what kind of leaders we need to take us where we want to go.


Martin, Andrew. “Miles of Aisles for Milk? Not Here,” New York Times (Sept. 9, 2008).

Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers (2004).

Schwartz, Barry. “The Tyranny of Choice,” Scientific American 290, no. 4 (Apr. 2004), pp. 70-75.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice,” Science, New Series 211, no. 4481 (Jan. 30, 1981), pp. 453-458.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Back in 1961, when John F. Kennedy called for the United Sates to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”1 it was a daunting proposal. He was asking us to pull together as a nation. To expend millions of dollars and hours of effort toward a common purpose. To put other national priorities aside and focus on this one monumental task. And he was asking us to do all this without promising a specific tangible benefit.

It’s become abundantly clear that as long as we’re dependent upon foreign sources of oil, our economy is subject to the dictates of nations who don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. We can ration and lower speed limits - effectively slowing transit to a crawl. We can drill offshore and in wildlife refuges – hoping all the while that we don’t cause irrevocable harm to ecosystems already under stress. We can legislate ever more stringent mileage requirements for passenger automobiles – counting on the general public to respect those limits this time rather than flaunting their disregard by flocking to non-passenger classifications of automobiles once again. We can do all these things and when all is said and done, we’ll have invested money in initiatives that have no teeth and wasted time pursuing solutions that ultimately solve nothing.

It’s 2008 and we must again pull together for a common purpose. We must again work together toward a common goal “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”2 It’s time to commit ourselves as a nation to achieving the goal of energy independence. To do this, we’ll have to take a new look at existing solutions and come up with new technologies. Nuclear power must come back on the table. The effective use of wind power, solar energy, lighter-weight vehicles, alternatives to fossil fuels… These are all imperative if we’re to have an economy that responds to the whims and dictates of our own marketplace more readily than to that of other nations.

It doesn’t matter if the ideas come from Republicans or Democrats. It doesn’t matter if the ideas sound like the looniest ideas under the sun. We need to evaluate them all and identify the handful with real possibility. Then we need to get to work for this common purpose – which has immense tangible benefit – because we don’t have a choice. We’ve put ourselves in an untenable position between the real and figurative rock and hard place. We’ve got the argument structured so that it’s a zero sum game where something is lost in order to gain something else. It’s time to change the game and engage ourselves fully in this imperative. We need to put some new ideas on the table and make them work if we don’t want to drill in protected habitats yet do want to drive comfortable cars. If we don’t want to pollute the air with noxious toxins yet do want to keep our interstate commerce running at the current rate.

And we need to do it right now.

Let’s generate serious discussion that leads to a productive outcome. Please add your your solutions for energy independence.

1. Kennedy, John F. “Man on the Moon” Special Address to Congress. 25 May 1961.
2. Kennedy, John F. Address at Rice University. 12 September 1962.