Forum examines water from a religious view
New construction, whether of dams, reservoirs, canals or two giant tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, will not solve the state’s water problems. That seemed to be the message issued at a forum on the Chico State campus Tuesday (Jan. 5) that featured five speakers, including a Zen Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian and an attorney of undetermined religious affiliation.
The forum, according to a press release, was a “focus on the spiritual and stewardship issues that surround water, including water as an element to all life, as a human right, and as a contentious public policy in Californian and beyond.”
It is time, speakers suggested, to change our collective mindset and respect the Earth and our neighbors.
“All we need is the will and commitment,” said Bruce Grelle, professor of religious studies at Chico State. “This is not just an environmental crisis,” he said. “It’s a moral crisis.”
The forum was a joint production by the Butte Environmental Council and Chico’s State’s Book in Common Group, which this year has chosen Robert Glennon’s Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to Do About It.
Bill Loker, the university’s dean of undergraduate education, introduced the speakers and credited Grace Marvin, a local environmental activist, with the idea of having different faiths represented in a discussion on water. Loker organizes the Book in Common program.
“How many have read the book?” he asked the 50 or so in attendance. Only a few raised their hands. “Raise your hands if you are interested in water issues.” Not surprisingly, almost everyone did so.
Before the speakers started, BEC’s Nani Teves mentioned Gov. Jerry Brown’s push to build two “peripheral tunnels” under the Delta to help transfer North State water south, a project greatly criticized by local environmental groups like BEC and AquAlliance, who fear it will drain the Tuscan aquifer that supplies water to the region.
“We don’t know what he’s thinking, but we want him to know how the North State feels about exporting more water down south,” she said, asking those present to sign a petition protesting Brown’s project.
“This is important because we’re a small vote up here compared to the rest of the state,” she said.
Grelle, the first speaker, said the panelists had been asked to focus on spiritual and stewardship issues when it comes to water.
“When thinking about spiritual issues surrounding water, I’m reminded of water’s rich symbolic significance in many of the world’s religions. For example, its role in purification rights in Judaism and Hinduism and Islam or the significance in the rites of baptism for Christians and Sikhs.”
He quoted an ancient Taoist take on water as “the way of the cosmos.”
He mentioned Glennon’s book. “I’ve pretty much read the whole thing,” he admitted to laughter from the audience. “I skipped around a few parts.”
The book is filled with ways we use and misuse water, he said, and how “we fight over water even when we take it for granted.”
The problems we face with water, he said, “require a change of character, not a technological fix.”
He mentioned writer Wendell Berry and essays he’s written on the matter of water and the ethics of stewardship. He offered this from one of Berry’s books: “We as humans have that limitless capacity to ignore reality and an arrogant refusal to accept that we are human and not God.”
The next speaker was Lin Jensen, author of six books, former farmer and college professor and current Zen Buddhist teacher.
“We all wear shoes,” he said. “Not all the time, but we’ve lost contact with the dirt under our feet as a result.”
The living Earth, he said, may be underfoot or under pavement, “but the Earth is still there.”
What is sacred in Zen, he said, is “not just the vegetables, the human beings, the birds, the animals, the fish. It’s also the mineral. It’s the earth, the air, the water that is sacred. And that is a concept that Zen has in common with deep ecology.”
Buddhism, he said, is an atheistic tradition, which throws responsibility back on humans. “Everything you touch, including the soil under your feet, is sacred. So is what’s below, in the Tuscan aquifer, which is equally sacred.”
We need to treat the earth as if it were our own body, he said. “It is our body. What are we made up of? Mostly water, but a lot of other little minerals and bits and a good deal of air.”
Marty Dunlop is a lawyer and founder of Citizens Waterwatch, a watchdog group. She said she went to law school “to help provide a service and a voice for the environment, Mother Earth.
“I know it’s hard to believe that a lawyer has ethics,” she joked. “But laws are enacted to make humans behave in a responsible way.”
She listed the state’s environmental laws, including the California Environmental Quality Act, passed in 1970 to make sure local agencies “put protecting the environment in every decision that is made” and requiring the public be part of the process.
She also mentioned the Public Trust Doctrine, which came out of a court case concerning Mono Lake and basically ruled that all resources belong to the public, and the state constitution, which says “water is a resource that belongs to the people of California.”
“Water,” she said, “is a finite resource, a closed system. We don’t make new water.”
Ali Sarsour, a Chico State graduate, former candidate for Chico City Council, longtime local resident and a Muslim, spoke next. He lightened the mood.
“Are there any Muslims here?” he began. Seeing no response, he said “Good. Anybody who is an expert in Islamic theology?” That was met with laughter. “Good, then there will be no contradictions and I can say anything I want to.
“All living things are originated from water. Since our lives and the lives of every living thing are sacred, water is the most sacred element of the universe.”
Shirley Adams is founder of Bridging the Gap by Giving, a local foundation that raises money for clean water in developing countries. She puts on “Walk for Water” event each year.
“We have a big thirsty world, “she began.
She said while visiting overseas she realized how blessed her life is. “I was more blessed than probably 80 percent of the people in the world,” she said. “God spoke to me—I heard it in my heart and head: ‘I want you to start bridging the gap.’”
She said she sent out a form letter to about 100 people to get her foundation started, and among the responses was a check for $1,000, which got the program underway. Since then, she said, Bridging the Gap has brought clean water to 15,000 Africans.
Adams showed a PowerPoint presentation with photos of smiling young people in Africa who have received the water. “These people are thriving, not just surviving,” she said. “That is the difference water makes.”