Robert Glennon is one of the nation’s thought leaders and commentators on water policy and law. The recipient of two National Science Foundation grants, Glennon serves as an advisor to governments, corporations, think tanks, law firms, and NGOs looking to solve serious challenges around water sustainability and planning. Glennon is the author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It, which has become a go-to resource for environmental policy stakeholders nationwide. Unquenchable received a Rachel Carson Book Award for Reporting on the Environment from the Society of Environmental Journalists. He is also the author of Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters.
In 2014, Glennon and two co-authors collaborated with the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution to explore solutions to broken federal and state laws that are contributing to worsening water shortages in California and other Western states. Their groundbreaking report, Shopping for Water: How the Market Can Mitigate Water Shortages in the American West, received widespread national attention and is viewed by many as a game-changer for water policy moving forward.
Glennon is a sought-after speaker and analyst, helping reporters and the public understand the current water policy landscape and what we can do to build a sustainable water future. His speaking schedule has taken him to more than 30 states as well as to Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East.
Glennon contributes regularly to national print media including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. He has been a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Here and Now, On Point, Talk of the Nation, The Diane Rehm Show, and C-SPAN2’s Book TV. He has been a commentator for American Public Media’s Marketplace, and he was featured in the 2011 feature-length documentary Last Call at the Oasis. Glennon is a Regents’ Professor and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of Arizona.
Introductory framework interview
The cities of today are transforming quickly, because to continue as we are, makes their development unfeasible in a sustainable way. Many and important are some of the challenges we currently have, whether they are: social, technological, economic. environmental, security, immigration, employment, training and transit of thought, among others, which makes cities around the world have to prepare as best as possible to meet these challenges.
The presence of some of these challenges, whether related to climate change, natural disasters, depletion of natural resources, among others, is causing us constant concern. It can be easily appreciated, as more and more intensively as ecological, environmental and energy challenges go hand in hand.
In this context, the Circular Economy acquires great importance as one of the greatest exponents of the resilience of cities, since it represents a new model of economic and social development, which identifies a series of processes of our economy in relation to production, consumption and recycling of the products we use, in order to respect and repair natural resources, the renewal and reuse of products and their components.
In the article an “Approach to the concept of the Circular Economy” it was said how the circular economy is a serious attempt to find a sustainable economy that is able to reduce, reuse and recycle different products in a clear imitation as nature does. By its very nature, the circular economy is reparative and regenerative, at the same time it seeks to ensure that products, components and resources in general maintain their usefulness and value at all times. This concept distinguishes between technical and biological cycles.
Its main objective is to change the way we behave and what we have traditionally been to produce, use and throw away. It is therefore a new model of economic and social development, which identifies a series of processes in our economy in relation to the production, consumption and recycling of the products we use, in order to respect and repair natural resources, renovation and reuse of products and their components.
In this way, the circular economy offers an alternative to the current production model, based on a linear value chain that generates waste at all stages, from the extraction of raw materials to the generation of waste, through the manufacturing phases, distribution and consumption. The alternative is to extend the useful economic life of materials and resources as much as possible, minimizing the generation of waste.
What is aspired is to have a harmonious development with nature and the environment, minimizing the impact of the use of natural resources and its lower cost. It is, in short, the search for the staging of a new approach and paradigm of our economic activity that also respects social and environmental standards.
In the same way in the article: “A holistic and strategic vision of the Circular Economy in the cities”, was said as It is necessary to analyze how the circular economy is affecting the process of economic, social and political development, since the circular economy is also a concept that has to do with the economy, which interrelates with sustainability, whose mission is that the value of products, materials and resources (water, energy, …) remain in the economy for as long as possible, and that the generation of waste is minimized. All this through the implementation of a new economy, circular – not linear – based on the principle of “closing the life cycle” of products, services, waste, materials, water and energy.
It is, therefore, a complex challenge with many interrelations that puts on the table a general restructuring of some of the areas of Community policy, an issue that will affect the revision of the European Development Strategy, in addition to its adaptation to many EU directives: energy efficiency of buildings, programmed obsolescence, reduction of plastic, water, fertilizers, ecodesign, among others. At the same time, its development will provide the fulfillment of the fight against climate change, the Paris Agreement, the Covenant of Mayors of Energy, the objectives of economic growth and job creation, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (ODS).
The fact that less than 10% is circular, which is offered by the first evaluation report of the Circular Economy, commits all the actors involved in the development process, whether economic, social and political, to closing the circularity gap, in order to in this way, to prevent and defend the environment, as well as to achieve a more egalitarian society.
It is fundamental, how the circular economy is affecting the process of economic, social and political development. Hence the need for Institutional Governance to incorporate a sustainable / resilient development process into the strategies of Governance, which defines and addresses the circular economy, from a broad perspective, but at the same time strategic, since as can be easily verified how the circular economy is closely related to other keys to development, as well as many other challenges.
Finally, it would be desirable that this new thinking that represents the circular economy (preserve and improve natural capital, optimize the use of resources and promote the efficiency of the system, through systemic thinking, Introduction a las escuelas de pensamiento also acquire systems of innovation, beyond the economy, capable of extending the principles that inspire it, to all the challenges / components of cities, in order to that has an adequate fit in our system of economic development and job creation that guarantees the deployment and effectiveness of it.
In this model of society, it is essential to unite the whole community of a global nature through the realization of a systemic approach, where the parties and the whole, innovation and collaboration are fundamental. It is, in short, the search for the staging of a new approach and paradigm of our economic activity that also respects social and environmental standards.
Challenges related to this article
Context of the interview with Mr Glennon
Interrelations of the challenge of water and energy management in the circular economy
In this context, of economic and social development, and in order to analyze how the circular economy is affecting the process of economic, social and political development, we try to find some interrelations of the challenges of “Water Management” and the “Energy” in relation to the Circular Economy, all within a new system of innovation, which requires a common vision among different scientific disciplines, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary attitudes, in addition to the acquisition of a social and political innovation.
For this, we have a world expert in the challenge of Water and Energy Management, as is Professor Robert Glennon, so that we can get into the complexity of this new innovation system, where ideas, data and knowledge can be combined to meet our challenges.
Analysis of the situation
The cities of today are transforming constantly and quickly, because to continue as we are makes unviable their development in a sustainable way. Many and important are some of the challenges we currently have: social, technological, economic. environmental, security, immigration, employment, training and transit of thought, among others. The presence of some of these challenges, whether related to climate change, natural disasters, depletion of natural resources, as well as water scarcity, among others, causes us constant concern.
On the other hand, some others, such as the challenges related to security, immigration, pollution, cybersecurity, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence … to say some of them, are already surpassing us all, as these challenges can not be addressed if it is not from a strategic approach of a global nature.
On the contrary, the structures of the current economic, social and political model are far below technological development. The increasingly social dimension of poverty, the need to incorporate into the traditional research model broader innovation systems that encompass other actors, the fragmentation of knowledge systems, the need to modernize many institutions all the type, which makes necessary a change of paradigm and model of society.
The Circular Economy as one of the greatest exponents of the resilience of cities, since it represents a new model of economic and social development, which identifies a series of processes of our economy in relation to the production, consumption and recycling of products that we use, in order to respect and repair natural resources, the renewal and reuse of products and their components.
But above all, the circular economy is also a concept that has to do with the economy, which interrelates with sustainability, and whose mission is that the value of products, materials and resources (water, energy …) stay in the economy for as long as possible and minimize the generation of waste.
Hence the need to address a definition of the circular economy, “from a broad perspective, but at the same time strategic,” since you can easily see how the circular economy is closely related to other keys to development and challenges, such as sustainable growth, climate change, pollution, energy, natural resources, water, social agenda and innovation in productive processes, among others.
Water and energy in the Circular Economy
The economy is the science that studies the processes of extraction, production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. The concept of economics encompasses the notion of how societies use scarce resources to produce goods with value, and how they carry out the distribution of goods among individuals. The science of economics tries to explain the functioning of economic systems and relations with economic agents (companies or individuals), reflecting on existing problems and proposing solutions.
For its part, the Circular Economy offers an alternative to the current mode of production, consisting of extending the useful life of materials and resources, minimizing the generation of waste. It is, therefore, to implement a new economy, circular, non-linear, based on the principle of “closing the life cycle” of products, services, waste, materials, water and energy.
Mr. Glennon said on occasion that “a 60-watt incandescent bulb lit 12 hours a day consumes 2380 liters of water a year,” so now we do not talk about water shortages, but in the next few years, we’ll notice.”
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and represents a greater threat than cities, societies and the environment have to endure. From extreme weather events, which threaten food production, to rising sea levels, which increases the risk of catastrophic floods, the effects of climate change are unprecedented worldwide. If drastic measures are not taken without further delay, it will be much more difficult and costly for cities to adapt in the near future.
The consequence of all this is climate change, which affects us and will affect us much more if we do not take urgent measures towards the development of a sustainable life, which requires not only an energy transition, but also an adequate transition in relation to the management of the Water.
An adequate education in water and energy management by all the key actors of the development process would facilitate a more sustainable and inclusive urban development by our societies.
Innovation systems should be based on concepts, but also on processes and tools, since they depend on many actors: researchers, scientists, technicians, businessmen, financiers, development agencies, politicians, users, citizens. All these actors act in different contexts and levels and, in general, do not have the same interests and ambitions.
For this to develop successfully, this innovation system must be part of a medium and long-term development strategy that is linked to the problems, challenges and objectives of this development process.
When it comes to finding solutions to problems related to current challenges, the sum of knowledge from the triangle of knowledge and institutional governance is missing. Many of the challenges are essential to unite the whole community of global character through the realization of a systemic approach, where the parts and the whole, innovation and collaboration are fundamental.
The United Nations has long addressed the global crisis stemming from inadequate water supply and the growing demand for water to meet human, commercial and agricultural needs. There is enough fresh water for everyone; however, due to the poor state of the economy or poor infrastructure, millions of people (mostly children) die from diseases related to inadequate water supply, hygiene or sanitation.
Many of the war conflicts around the world are related to water, energy and climate change, which is becoming increasingly complicated in many parts of the world for food production, which hinders economic, social and economic growth. politician. We need an ethic that makes possible a better, more just and inclusive world that takes into account many people who are in a worrying situation around the world.
The great challenges that we face on many occasions, do not have a direct and simple solution. There are many interests at stake and not all economic and social partners, and institutional governance itself has the same interest in solving the problems we currently have. The same policy developed by the different levels of government in many cases becomes a brake that hinders the achievement of objectives.
In the process of evaluating public policies related to economic planning and the employment process, we find that it is normal for projects, programs and actions to be evaluated, but in almost no case are the policies that make such programs possible.
The change towards Sustainable Development, constitutes an important transition of thought, whose main objective is that this transition reaches the hearts of the people, organizations and institutions, and especially must reach especially the nucleus of Institutional Governance policies. This inevitably occurs through the realization of new behaviors, be they political, economic and citizenship (Social Innovation) in favor of that sustainable and inclusive development.
It would be desirable, that this new thought that represents the circular economy (Preserve and improve natural capital, optimize the use of resources and promote the efficiency of the system), should also acquire systems of innovation, beyond the economy, capable of extend the principles that inspire it, to all the challenges / components of the cities, in order to have an adequate fit in our system of economic development and job creation that guarantees the deployment and effectiveness of it.
Interview with Robert Glennon
SHARAM– Hello, we can see you there. Oh, this is great. Can you hear me?
ROBERT– Yes, I can hear you. Just fine.
SHARAM– Fantastic. Okay, Robert. So, thank you very much for joining and we really appreciate having you here and your time. So, let’s briefly introduce:You might have had a bit of an idea of what we’re doing here from Spain. Jose Esteban and myself were selected as Circular Economy Leaders. There’s certain people who are considered to be very active in promoting the circular economy, which is a bit of a buzz word now in the policy-making circles certainly. Although this reflects what’s been happening for years which is a call for action to shift to a more ecological and sustainable economy, and of course water and energy are huge transversal issues that we cover. And Circular Economy is very transversal cutting across all silos, as is Climate Change, and there of course water as you very well know. So, Jose as one of the leaders whose more on governance, complex systems perspective of circular economy, and he’s an expert in communication, with a Doctorate in the field. His leadership focuses on disseminating information at the policy level, with projects having worked with the UN, and with myself we’re working on European projects for Innovation towards advancing Circular Economy. We are also keen to bridge the English-speakers and the Spanish speakers, across South America and Spain, as there’s a major gap in transfer of knowledge and flow of information across the two. There’s a lot of knowledge and communication in the English language that has not been making its way across. We are here in collaboration with the Advanced Leadership Foundation and the Circular Economy Club. These are the two organizations that we collaborate with to promote sustainability and circular economy.
ROBERT– Sounds great. Well, it’s very important business. It’s an interesting and dynamic concept, the circular economy. It’s a pleasure for me to spend a few minutes chatting with you.
SHARAM– So, just to close it on our side Jose Esteban identified your profile as a very relevant person in the US and on the world scene, in terms of the Water Management, water a part of the nexus with other resources as well, so he wanted to speak with you and I’m here to support the dissemination of this interview through the blog and subsequent media.
ROBERT– That is great. And if either of you need more information about me, probably the best thing to do is to check out my website, which is https://robertglennon.net/.
SHARAM– Yes, I saw your website and some videos. So, I was very happy that we’re speaking to the right person! Let’s start with questions:The first question is around the context, and complex systems as a whole, in terms of the economy, cities, societal, technical, economic, environmental and security issues, all coming together with issues of migration for either economic or climatic pressures – as well as employment because of automation (industry 4.0), and globalization’s leading to displacement of jobs.Water of course is a major issue and security threat across the world. So, the question is, do you agree and what your vision is of that?
ROBERT– Okay. Your first question is about whether many of these challenges can only be addressed from the Strategic approach of a global nature. And I think that’s absolutely the case. I think that if you look at issues of the environment of climate change and of water many of them are global in nature and certainly International. I’m thinking particularly in the water context of international rivers. I think we’re just starting to understand the controversy that’s developed or developing both. I guess in Asia over rivers that flow from the Himalaya down two countries below them – they’re huge powerful Rivers, and have the potential to generate incredible amounts of hydroelectric power and for that reason are very valuable, but if the up-gradient country erects large hydropower dams that profoundly changes the environment, the hydrology, the fishing patterns, nutrients, just everything about a river gets changed and the lower lying countries are going to have to figure out how do they either make do with less water, or fisheries that are adversely affected by the change in the hydrologic pattern from these Upstream damns.Climate change as you say Sharam, really is the biggest one: I’m saddened by the United States backing away from a leadership position there. I have nothing but contempt for the way that our president has made nationalism his creed and internationalism something to be condemned, in the trade area and with tariffs, I mean my goodness – this is this is something that I wouldn’t expect to have seen ever again, but that’s what it is.You also asked about water management, whether that’s an exception to this to the fact that it’s all global. I think I’d actually there give you an answer of yes and no: on the one hand it’s very global because of the international rivers and it’s also global in a way that I don’t think many people have understood which is as developing and now developed countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and India look for food to feed their people, they’re increasingly turning to third world countries, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa for food production. And of course, food takes the most water of any use across the globe. It’s about 80% of the United States water is used for agriculture. And what I think we see is what one writer called the ‘global farms race’, and you have these countries buying up large swaths of land, war, having state-sponsored corporations do the same. Sometimes their own governments that are doing this and that’s creating a problem because many of these countries don’t have enough water even to feed their own population and if you have now food grown for export, that is really a humanitarian problem on the international stage and I’m not seeing nearly enough attention given to this issue.
SHARAM– yes, the so called ‘land grabbing’ issue.
ROBERT– Yeah. Yeah. This is a huge moral issue for the International Community and I’m not seeing the leadership that we need to deal with it. I mean for example, US is the largest exporter of water in the in the world. That’s mostly of course water embedded in food, but most food comes from the heartland of the United States, the Midwest, and most of those crops are grown with dryland farming, grown simply with the precipitation, the rain Mother Nature provides. I’m not troubled about that export if the United States wants to protect its own economic interests. It certainly has the capacity to do so. But in these other countries where the governments are either too weak, or too corrupt, too inefficient to protect their own people, we’re looking at humanitarian disaster down the road if we don’t do something about this.Now on the other hand water is local. I mean it’s it is physically local, exists in time and place and you can’t really move it around very easily. It’s a fluid, just doesn’t stay in one place either. It’s heavy. I mean one liter of water weighs 2 pounds (almost 1 Kg). You multiply that by the numbers needed to provide these for agriculture elsewhere and you’re talking about a real engineering problem of how you move the water and moving that water takes tons of energy. I think you might be surprised to know that in California the largest use of energy is simply to pump, treat, cleanse and deliver water – it’s moving around – 20 percent of all electricity in California is used just for that purpose. So, I don’t think that large international trans-basin diversions are the right way to go. For better or worse water laws, water regulations are going to have a very local focus. In systems such as the US with a federalism system. You can have a federal or national overlay, but ultimately each area is going to have to develop its own institutions to deal with the problem.
SHARAM– Yes, it’s very interesting the way you portrayed the global and local nature of water and the Nexus with energy. We also mentioned issue of cities there, the mass migration into cities.
ROBERT– Yeah, that’s its own humanitarian crisis. I mean, if you look at what’s been going on in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, you don’t have to scratch the surface very hard before you come to the conclusion that water is driving some of the migration and water shortages are a major problem for that reason. The country, I know best is Bangladesh. I taught in Bangladesh a couple of years ago and they are at the epicenter of climate change, and sea level rise in the Bay of Bengal is flooding the delta. On the other hand, snow level and glacier melt from the Himalayas is bringing water down through India and then to Bangladesh. So, they’re getting it from both sides. And the best estimate is that tens of millions of people are going to be refugees in the coming decades and to put that in perspective that as the situation of Levant and Syria which involved three million people, this is likely to involve 10 times that number – 30 million climate refugees. It’s stunning.And one of the things you asked me to comment on is what strategy should we have for the interface between water and energy – and I mean it’s pretty obvious: we need to move away from a fossil fuel economy. To one degree, there’s been a good development in that regard and that is with the increase in the amount of natural gas that’s been available. Now natural gas of course is still a fossil fuel, but it doesn’t have the same properties as petroleum and oil, and this development has been available in large part by technological development. The idea of fracking is what I’m thinking of – now fracking originally just means putting something into a well to keep a space open so that you can extract the oil or gas. Now that’s been around for a long time. What’s new in the oil and gas drilling space is what’s called horizontal drilling, and horizontal drilling allows the well to be dug down say, you know two or three miles and then the well driller tells the well that’s being dug to sort of take a right turn and go horizontally across. In the past when you had drilling you had to have individual wells. Now you can have one well going like spokes of the wheel off in all directions at whatever level you want, whenever you find natural gas you could do it and this has been transformative. The price of natural gas is a fraction of what it was only 10 years ago and in the United States despite, Mr. Trump’s efforts to prop up the coal industry, that industry’s dying right now. Right now, most energy in the United States is produced by natural gas than any other source. This is very transformative.
SHARAM– Yes, the US is exporting for the first time the liquefied gas.
ROBERT– Yes, yes. Now the downside of this which is the low price of natural gas has proven to be an impediment for the renewables, solar and wind both were kind of marginally viable economically, without government incentives like renewable portfolio standards, solar and wind have had a difficult time competing. And now what you’re seeing is many large Electric utilities are closing coal plants, but they’re not going to wind and solar, they’re going to natural gas. So, the Renewables are having an economic challenge competing with the lower prices for natural gas. On the city, I think the biggest problem is sea level rise. There was a book I reviewed a book in The New York Times last year. The book is called The Water Will Come. The author is Jeff Goodell, and it’s absolutely chilling. I mean, I knew about that from having done my own writing about Bangladesh, but well, the best city in the United States to look at is the city of Miami, Florida – this big Peninsula. What most people don’t know is that that Peninsula used to be Ocean and the land mass of Florida and the geology underneath it is limestone, based on the original see formations – and limestone is very porous. It’s like swiss cheese and if this is Miami Beach and the sea level rises above it (the water just seeps up flooding the city) – the water is going to go underneath and rise up. Miami is not like the Netherlands where you could simply put a dyke up and keep the water out because the underlying geologic formation is porous – the water will seek its own level. Well, and one of the points that Goodell makes is there’s not enough money to fix this problem. The city of New York has proposed a berm around the lower part of Manhattan. It’s I don’t know how many miles long but it’s it multi-billion dollars to put this berm around a very small part of the island of Manhattan. As it happens it’s a pretty important Island to the national economy and the world economy, to finance, trade and so on, but his (Goodell’s) point which I think is correct is that there just isn’t enough money to protect people from this problem of climate change. Some are going to get protected others are not, there will be winners and there will be losers.
SHARAM– Regrading what you’re saying about the natural gas. Is there a huge use of water in the fracking because the hydraulic fracking? I don’t know if you mentioned that and the impact in terms of the shift to Renewables. Because, the issue of gas is very interesting, but I was trying to find also the link with water.
ROBERT– Yes. Well, there is a lot of water used in fracking, but there can also be a lot of lot of water used in Solar production, especially Solar Thermal, that’s basically an old-fashioned power plant, and actually more water is needed to produce energy with concentrated solar thermal than it does with natural gas, nuclear, coal. Okay, now climate change, and the halfway move from fossil fuel economy to no fossil fuels – the halfway move is natural gas. Eventually that will run out too. But at least that the emissions from natural gas aren’t as bad as with oil.
SHARAM– Yes, what about the methane emissions and the kind of the lateral effect, the methane that escapes from the fracking process and so on?
Robert– When you’ve got the natural gas what you have to do is to move it to a power plant and you burn the natural gas to run the turbines to spend the turbines to generate the electricity and then you’ve got electricity on your system. The actual process of mining the extracting the natural gas isn’t the big emission problem. It is a water contamination problem in some areas and there are now businesses that are that have seen that there’s a niche industry. They could take this used water from the fracking process clean it up and reuse it again (recycle it). That’s really in a way kind of a circular economy point – reuse the water you’ve already got.
SHARAM– Yes, but I don’t think that they can avoid completely the cross contamination, the leakage into the groundwater. Yeah, and also that it’s not a sustainable, the most sustainable way. I mean from a water use perspective, is renewable more friendly in terms of the use of water, because as you said solar panel production uses a lot of water as well.
ROBERT– That solar panel production uses water as well. If you’re talking about photovoltaics, once you’re using the panel there’s no more water, other than the washing of the panel – that’s it. Yes, so but the problem as you know with photovoltaics really with solar and wind generally is the intermittency problem – is it’s only when the wind blows or the sun shines. At least with concentrated solar there’s embedded heat in the process (as a storage), and even if the wind the sun goes, you can still run it for a few hours. But with photovoltaic the moment the sun goes it stops. That’s why there’s this big surge for a battery to store the power. Which as you know is a good effort but let’s not forget the basic laws of thermodynamics: that every time you transition from one form of energy to another you lose lots of energy. Yes, we’re moving it to the battery and then moving it back out – yes, the inverter the battery and so on. Yeah. And there’s no good battery out there.
SHARAM– I think what you mentioned with cities. When we talk about circular economy, I think a lot of people talk about recycling but they forget all the upstream effort of eco-design, processes, and also the actual consumption patterns – the production and consumption patterns in the first place; that the way we consume, for example as you know with fashion, there’s a huge use of water and also contamination. Well the fast fashion industry, the food industry, as you said, my understanding is the meat consumption for example – there’s increasing awareness in terms of the consumption of meat, where these developing countries for example, and in developed countries use more meat because it’s seen as a more affluent kind of product to eat – whereas some argue that the human basic diet is actually fruit-based. We’re kind of mainly plant-based animals, where we can have some meat in our diets. I’m gaining a lot of awareness, based on some studies on nutrition, and apparently there’s a huge lobby there in terms of the dairy and meat farming production, because the vertical value chain in creating meat is so much more interesting for corporations – because there’s a much larger value chain to profit from, compared to tomatoes or mushrooms.
ROBERT– Right. I think Sharam you’re absolutely correct that it is the circular economy and that food is a big part of that. And the number of gallons it takes to make a pair of jeans or a dress or a coat is huge. And then when you look at a pound of beef it’s astronomical. So, the trend with the developing world places like China and India the increasingly robust middle-class, meat production is going up and that’s going to strain a lot of things on the upstream part of the circular economy. There’s been surprising players in this field. I would point to Wal-Mart which is the biggest retailer on the globe and they have found that being engaged in environmental issues – sure it’s good for public perception, it’s a good image for the company – but the bottom line which is what the circular economy is all about is it saves them money, so they can do good and well at the same time – and they have pushed their suppliers to package things in smaller cartons or not use carbons at all or other ways of reducing the footprint of their suppliers is a way that Wal-Mart and other companies are reducing their own overall corporate footprint. And it ends up saving money. I mean if you don’t have to pay for bigger cartons, you’re saving the paper you’re saving that cost. But the transportation costs you can get more widgets into a U.P.S. truck or a Wal-Mart truck. If the packages themselves are individually smaller rather than larger. So that’s I think a pretty-pretty interesting development. Well when I put the circular economy, I agree with you in some ways it’s been around a long time. You know what. Oh, idea reduce reuse recycle. I mean that’s been around a lot. And so, you. I think the circular economy is still it’s a great concept. It’s easy to grasp it’s eliminating waste. I mean every step in the chain. How can we can we do better. I’m concerned. About the tail end of this because it’s money you can do as much as you can at the front end. To reduce the use in production what do you do with the stuff that’s still leftover or left over by consumers – the waste. You would say you would you recycle it. But in the United States a lot of this waste that’s sent to be recycled has been purchased by Chinese companies; sent over to China and then used there. And you may know, there’s a glut on the market and the Chinese and have now refused to take this stuff from the United States, which has created major problems.
SHARAM– Yes, I think elsewhere in Asia as well. Malaysia is sending back the waste to Canada and Indonesia back to the UK and so on.
ROBERT– Yeah. So, we have to figure out economical ways to reuse. And one of the things that I’m increasingly aware of is it’s all well and good to say I’m going to recycle wealth in Tucson Arizona where I live part of the year. That means you just throw all your recycling stuff into a bin and you feel good. But someone has to sort through that stuff and it takes just a little bit of mixing paper and plastic before you’ve contaminated the entire lot. And if some of the stuff isn’t clean to begin with hasn’t been washed as food particles or whatever, then you’re ruining the whole lot. And where I live, we’re near Maine, a very small rural fishing community – but this community is their cheerleaders for recycling. The town of St. George has a recycling center and there are some ten or twelve different windows where you place your stuff. And even there they’re finding that it’s difficult to take advantage of all of this stuff because there’s not enough people in the small town on this peninsula to generate enough material for people to buy it and use it. So, they end up selling it to someone who mixes it in with another people’s waste. So, the benefit of having achieved a high-quality aluminum batch gets messed up when you start to mix it with other people who have not segregated their waste so well.
Water is local. If I can say something on the circular economy and water there’s a terrific development that the city of Los Angeles just announced. Other people have been doing other cities have been doing this but not L.A. And that is to reclaim its wastewater. Now in Tucson where I live about 10 percent of the water is reclaimed it’s used for golf courses and cemeteries, ball fields, highway medians… In some places it can now be used in power plants for electric generation. The city of Phoenix in Arizona sends a huge amount of water to the Palo Verde Nuclear generating power plant which uses that in its cooling towers. So, recycling it’s got to be a much bigger part of our solution to the world’s problem of water – and just about two months ago the city of L.A. announced that they were going to recycle all of their water by 2030, and that’s a big deal. I’ve been critical of them. There’s a power plant there called Hyperion and the Hyperion Power plant generates a volume of water equal to the seventh largest river in the entire United States. And yet if you look at a photograph of the Hyperion plant you see right behind it is the Pacific Ocean. And that’s where they have put until now all of the water they treated and then they dump it into the ocean. That’s how well the cities around the entire world have figured out and analyzed their water treatment plant which is always at the lowest part of the basin. You deliver water to homes and businesses they use it and if you have it you have sewer systems then the pipes do what you flush away goes into pipes and by gravity it goes down here and then you treat it and you dump it in the ocean or you dump it in the river. Well really what we need is a completely different institutional framework so that the treatment plants are upgradient or at least at the same gradient. So you use it (and the waste water) goes to a treatment plant so it can be used there when you don’t want it. What L.A. has is the plant that gets water from all around the L.A. area and then dumps it in the Pacific and they have unnounced that they’re going to stop doing that. That’s a a terrific evelopment.
SHARAM– It’s very interesting these examples that you’re giving. I think these are decisions at the institutional level and at the policy level. So, I think it’s interesting also to look at education and maybe within education we’re talking not only about schools but also the citizens education as a whole. Because my personal conclusion is reaching to the individual, the person, the human with all this. You know I’ve been working on this for several years now and I just keep thinking it’s not the businesses, it’s not government, it’s us the people you know – and because we find that somehow it’s easy to abstract things into institutions and entities, they take away responsibility from us in a way, because they’re abstract forms that have legal representation, but actually the people are hiding behind them. And I think we all kind of get somehow protected by institutions you know. So, the question is if we go back to education. Maybe you could say a bit more specifically on that, because my idea was that maybe the cities being so important, the youth, the future – we see things like what’s happening with the climate movement, we know for example it’s a youth-led movement. It’s also cities Climate Change is affecting (where most people are concentrated) – you know it’s very transversal and effects on consumption patterns because all these things you talked about waste, it’s at the end-of-the-pipe. If we actually change our consumption patterns. A big part of the circular economy is circular thinking, so if we know where things come from and how their made, where they end up, and how along the value chain that affect everything along the way – then I think we become much more sensitive and responsible. What do you think?
ROBERT– I think that’s a terrific point. Education has to be part of it. And yet both in the schools, but it can also be a lifelong learning process. The city water department when they send their bills out each month includes an insert that is something about water. It’s an educational message about your water supply. I think if people have a better sense of where their water comes from and how it’s being used, and what happens to it, they’re more likely to be better stewards of it. So, I’m not an expert as I said about your questions (on education), but education has to be part of it and right now it’s fairly sad when people are polled, people in the United States about where their water comes from, they often are clueless and they don’t – we don’t think about water. It’s just there, you turn on the tap and out comes water. And we pay less for it than we do for cell phone service or cable television. That’s a big problem. The price signals are all wrong. We don’t have enough resources, we can’t maintain our water and water treatment systems in the United States right now. That’s the biggest water problem. I’m sure you’ve heard of a city called Flint Michigan where people died from drinking the water.
SHARAM– Yes, privatization…
ROBERT– Well you know it wasn’t privatization. It was continually provided by the city, but they shifted from one supply to another area. And they were all lead pipes and lead pipes leech stuff into the water supply and people got sick and some people died. That could have happened in hundreds of other cities. That happened to be a majority African-American city, but it could have happened nearby in the wealthy communities – Gross Point right next to Detroit. We have to do better in providing a revenue stream so that the water systems, both the drinking water and the treatment systems are maintained at a high level. Now that’s going to mean a real challenges. Some people already are struggling to pay their bills. And the issue of affordability of water has been a big issue in the United States. I myself have written in my book ‘Unquenchable’ about recognizing a human right to water. I think we should do that in the United States for people of modest means. It would not be a limitless amount of water. It would be enough water for basic needs. That’s 15 gallons (about 60 liters) of water a day for basic needs. And let’s just do that. The funny thing is if you did 60 liters per day for every person in the United States, 320 million people, you come up with 1 percent of the water that’s used in the United States each day – 1 percent! So, if the richest country in the history of the world can’t do that then that’s a sorry statement. So, let’s listen to that and then we can have an adult discussion about how to price the other ninety nine percent. Now I’m talking to you from the US which is a rich country. In some countries to say that’s just a human right to have access to water, it doesn’t matter what the U.N. says, it doesn’t matter how many people there are, there aren’t the resources to make that happen on the ground. And I don’t have an answer for that.
SHARAM– I think it’s a very interesting that all this is so complex and so many different things come together. But on the subject of education in terms of lifelong learning that you said, I think it’s not your expertise but I think because of your involvement in policy making and your first comment you made about the current political climate. In the US you know it’s not about politics but I think it’s about you know education of policy makers. Sometimes education is about also resistance to change, and I think that there’s a lot of resistance. When we don’t want to learn something we just don’t learn. I think the image comes to my head when Trump met Prince Charles and he was trying to convince him about climate change and spend an hour trying to give him a lesson on climate change and you know he came back making some jokes about it. I haven’t seen the video right, but I’m sure it will be quite funny. How do we educate policymakers because these are such complex issues and we love having these conversations between us, because we tend to speak the same language, but at the same time what we are saying goes against the grain in some ways.
You said companies like Walmart can make savings from a lot of this (circularity) but that’s just because they’ve been complacent in terms of the unlimited idea of resources we had in the past century. And now that change is coming, because we’re competing with all these other emerging economies for the resources, we know are limited. But, there is also a vested interest in wasting. Because when it makes money then they don’t want to make savings. So, for example, obviously Wal-Mart has no money to invest in marketing to tell you to change your consumption patterns. That’s something policy makers would have to do. So, they do things when it saves them money. But this is I think a big problem with circular economy. For example, what’s happening in Spain, and even in the European Commission level, Circular Economy is synonymous with recycling, which as we said is about end-of-the-pipe – and they’re not actually dealing with consumers, and production processes, with eco design, in a really fundamental way. And what you’re talking about water energy all these fundamental things. And it seems to be that there is no political will because it goes against the grain of the whole economic system we’ve built on a global scale. It goes against global finance and the flow of money, the waste generated and the way it’s accumulated. It would make the machine go to a halt and asked to go into some kind of a reverse flow. It would be a different way of making money. So, it just seems to me that everything is certain to be related.
ROBERT– It is, but I don’t despair. I think change is happening and I’m actually optimistic.When I look around I think people are much more willing to take actions and to provide money through taxes for example to maintain the water system. But the problem at least in the US and I think in a lot of other places is that the legal rules developed when the resource was in fact plentiful. And now that water scarcity has become ever clearer, the institutions, the laws, the rules haven’t changed to reflect.
The situation of water insecurity water scarcity is one example which is very powerful, I think. I wrote a book about groundwater pumping and the environment and the rules in China and India in many parts of the United States allow virtually anyone to drill a well. Well the example I give is, I think about a well as the equivalent of this this glass: I call it a milkshake glass. And what we allow is anyone who wants to put a straw in the glass –that’s the tragedy of the commons. It’s a finite resource. All you have is that amount of water. And when you put all the straws in guess what, the water just goes down and eventually runs out. So, we have to figure out ways to correct that and in my writing I emphasize reallocating. If you want to put a new straw in the glass you need to persuade someone else to take her straw out of the glass. So, you’re not going to make it worse. So, I think there’s a role for markets in water to encourage conservation, reuse and reallocation from lower value uses to higher value uses.
SHARAM– Ok. So, I think yeah that’s makes a lot of sense. I know we’re a bit pushed for time so just to wrap it up on this you want to say something else? My question is, in terms of the way you’re educating people and communicating through your books, your writings, trying to convince policymakers… what is the biggest challenge for you? Because you said some of the laws are enshrined and they’re difficult to shift, but other than that what you feel is the biggest three challenges or two challenges that you’re facing in getting the message across.
ROBERT– I did a report for the Brookings Institution called Shopping for Water. It’s available online. The league we can reform the law and we identify it as a lawyer and an economist as my coauthors in Shopping for Water, and we identified a series of things you could do to change the rules. The single biggest problem in the United States when it comes to water is that water is not priced. Not priced at all. Even when you pay a quarterly water bill and pay the municipal water department, or if it’s a private company which is regulated by state public utilities commissions, the only thing you’re paying for is the cost of service but no charge for the resource itself. And in many places in the United States the rate structure is based on flat rates. You pay the same amount for each unit of water or decreasing block rates. The more you use you get a deal on using more water you pay less. Well that’s madness.The other way around, to finish it up, is I go around giving talks. I meet inventors, engineers who have built better water mousetraps and yet what is so sad, so crushing is that none of them have a viable business plan because the price of water is too low. People are not going to buy a seven-hundred-dollar water meter that’s really high tech when their water bill is 20 bucks a month. So, getting the price of water right is a challenge that is vexing because people are spoilt and they don’t want to pay for water. Some think oh it’s a right like air. How could you charge for water and can’t charge for air? Well air is infinite and inexhaustible, water isn’t. This is what we have in being good stewards being good moral protectors of this resource means charging for water. Not for people who are poor, who live hand to mouth, but everyone else has to pay.
SHARAM– And the ones that making business out of it. Basically, I sometimes think what are you producing with that water? Let’s have a look. It’s like as you said where the value is being created and how we define value. Where it’s being used. But that’s very complicated to manage.
ROBERT– We have a couple more minutes so to finish:In the American West much water is used to grow alfalfa. And much of that by the way or a chunk of that by the way is then put in container ships and sent to China. Because China has a growing appetite for milk. Even though a large percentage of Chinese adults are lactose intolerant they think that milk, the government thinks that milk would be a good thing for people to consume. And so, they’re getting alfalfa from the United States cheaper to send it to China than it is to send it from one part in California to another, because of the great trade deficit. So, our producers receive six hundred dollars per acre. If you grow lettuce you might get six thousand dollars per acre foot of water. If you let the Intel Corporation make silicon semiconductor chips you get 13 million dollars. So, the opportunity for trade is immense. And what we have to figure out is how do you move the pieces around while still keeping the rural agricultural communities intact. To grow the food that will feed the rest of us. Because underneath this all we have to realize that the world’s population now about 7.6 billion is going to go according to the U.N. to 8. 6 billion by 2030. That’s 9, 10 or 11 years, and another billion in 20 years after that. How are we going to get the resources, water included, and clothes, and nourish the world 2 billion new fellow citizens? Well, we have to move waterways.
SHARAM– Or, change the economic model.
ROBERT– Good work. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Best regards to both of you. Thanks so much for including me. I appreciate your interest in what I’m doing. If I can be of any help as you go forward just let me know.
SHARAM– I really appreciate it. I think we will learn a lot and it’s been a great pleasure. Thanks very much