Old habits die hard and so I sometimes still visit Christian blogs and I have noticed that people respond well to 1) numbered lists and arbitrarily putting some sentences in bold. I am disinclined to follow those patterns and I am effectively allergic to the kind of blog posts that hide the argument behind a “just throwing this out for y’all to consider” tone.
In the 30+ years I have been on this planet, I have accumulated a very tiny amount of self-knowledge. It could easily fit on a floppy disk. Actually, it could fit on an ice-pop stick, written in Sharpie. But one of the things I have learned is that I lack guile. My creativity evacuates me when it comes to phrasing things as if they don’t really matter to me (even here I can’t find a tactful way to describe the “I am not het up about anything” tone it seems one must adapt!). I have no rhetorical poker-face. I don’t think it is strategically wise to be strategic about conversations you have. “Play it as it lays” is the only thing I have ever learned from golf, and to be honest, I learned it from a Joan Didion book. Nobody can learn anything from golf, except that humans like to be part of elite groups and don’t care about destroying the environment.
There I go again. I’m losing you with my inflammatory anti-golf position. Guileless.
Yet I am going to attempt to keep up with fashions and instead of just telling you what I think about the protests against Irish water charges, I am going to offer five considerations that Christians should weigh before they decide to commit to the same position I have, which is of course, naturally, the right one. There’ll be numbered lists, there will be emboldened phrases, and there won’t be any swearwords, so you can share it on Facebook too. Mostly though, it will help map out some of the key issues about Irish Water, so you don’t miss it entirely.
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1. The Economics of Shared Resources
Economists of a certain ilk talk about a phenomenon they call “the tragedy of the commons”. The world is full of resources that we share, in that no specific person owns them all (such as the fish in the sea or the water that falls from the sky) and the tragedy is that individual self-interest encourages people to recklessly tap into those resources without consideration for how to sustain or develop the resource.
So the classic example of this is fish-stock in the seas. If you could catch the fish, you could keep the fish. Nobody owns the sea, not even Elizabeth Windsor (actually she does own some of the sea bed around Britain but that is a fight for another day). Hence, everybody took as many fish as they could carry back to market. And the fish-stocks started to deplete. That accelerated the need for those who made their living out of fishing to catch more fish, because they couldn’t be sure they could still fish these waters in a generation.
The common resource was utterly depleted. This is the tragedy. This happened with seals and whales and it is happening with fish off the western coast of Europe right now, even though the common resource is now regulated by common quotas.
Water in Ireland is a shared resource. Nobody owns it, so nobody has the rights to ration it or re-distribute it. There is no motive for you to turn the tap off, or to fix the leaky pipe, or to leave the shower after 45 minutes (most people take that long, right?). If you wanted to cultivate the habits that maintained and developed water supply in Ireland, then economists would recommend putting a unit price on the water. This is the great creative leap of economics: it gives us a means by which to abstract our concrete world and represent it as a number. When it is thus represented, it gains a certain shared value that it didn’t have before. Economics is one of the myriad ways we have of creating value. If we don’t value water, then we should put a price on it and that will approximate value.
So far, my argument is right on track to encourage the Irish Times to give me a weekly column or for RTE to invite me on to Prime Time. But there are three questions that Christians need to ask before they accept the common argument that charging for water creates responsibility.
a) How was water free up till now?
b) How is water depleted now?
c) Is water like fish?
Simple questions. Here are the answers:
a1) Water charges are being introduced but up till now, they were paid for by various taxations. I don’t pay water charges in Aberdeen. I pay rates (actually, Wife-unit pays rates since I am absolved of them because I’m a full-time student) that go towards water, streetlights, garbage collection, parks, lawn-cutting, tree planting and various other services I take for granted that make my life lovely. So before 2014, Irish water services were already being paid for. The people who manned the waste treatment plants weren’t volunteers. They were paid by an arrangement of central revenue generation through taxation. This is not a small point. The old funding mechanism successfully funded water provision. So why the change?
b1) Water literally falls from the sky. In Ireland, it falls from the sky over 300 days a year. In climate change predictions, it will continue to fall. Water, unlike other hypothetical tragic-commons-resources is not being depleted.
c1) Water is not like fish. This is a deep philosophical point. Water’s difference from fish is one of the reasons why fish like to live in it! Water is the fundamental necessity for human life. Without, we die. So describing it as a common resource like fish or pasture is a profound ethical mistake. I am ambivalent about Christians using the language of rights, but if ever there was a fundamental human right, it was the right to water. This is why the foremost Irish Christian NGO dedicated its major annual appeal to that topic this year. Economics is very good at some things, but it is not efficient (its own favourite category) at demarcating foundational, universal needs.
Economic rationale might be mis-applied if it is straightforwardly applied to the provision of water.
2) The Importance of Conservation
The 20th Century saw the Christian church develop in a number of very significant ways. Christians don’t recognise that enough but we did some good work. To cite just three:
1) We started hospices and that helped us think through what it means to be old and to die in a whole new way, because a lot more people are old when they die now.
2) We grappled with what it means that humans are disabled and how that shows us what it means to be Christians.
3) With the help of a pipe-smoking Swiss man we rediscovered the strange, new world of the Bible
We also remembered that “creation” means that God thinks the Cosmos is very fine. It is our job as his stewards to tend the gardens he has created. In the last few decades we have remembered that our calling as human beings is to steward the world. So water conservation is something we are actively interested in.
The Irish water infrastructure is inherited from the colonial days and is in widespread decay. It leaks at a million tiny points. It fails to deliver cleanliness in large parts of the island. It is a shambles. Christians are invested in seeing this improve. We should be buying water butts for our gardens and making sure we turn off our taps and take shorter showers, if only as a practice of solidarity with the shockingly large number of people on planet earth who still don’t get access to tap water.
But if the Irish Water scheme only talked about conservation and never actually moved towards conservation, then Christians would be well placed to protest. This is not selfish self-concern. As a small island nation, Ireland needs to prepare for the changes in climate coming over the horizon. We might have reason to think that conservation is not near the top of Irish Water’s priorities.
3. Politics, not Economics
One of the things I have realised in my study is how similar economists are today to priests 100 years ago. In Ireland in 1914, public opinion was swayed by anyone who could claim to represent Catholicism. This was very bad news for actual, serious priests. It gave them the wrong kind of power. Instead of poverty, prayer, and service, they got social capital, political capital, and actual capital. As a minister-in-training, I hope Irish clergy never again make the mistake of allowing political discourse to adopt our modes of speech. They bankrupted us.
Today, economics is a valuable component in the modern university that offers ongoing excellent research into a stunningly wide and diverse range of human activity. Then that credible and meaningful intellectual activity gets boiled down into a PR exercise for a real estate agent who uses that to lever pressure up against a politician to achieve some benefit in their industry. Sometimes there is no middle-man, and the politician just takes the research and perverts it for their own ends, applying it in a slapdash fashion to make sure a high-rise apartment complex is blocked here and a multi-storey car-park gets built there.
The arguments about Irish Water are not economics. They may be economical. They may use the thought structures of economics (with greater or lesser fidelity) and they will certainly use the brand of economics, with graphs and acronyms, numbers represented with decimals. But the decision to develop Irish Water was forced on Irish politicians as a result of the 2010 bailout. That was a political decision that our politicians didn’t make but ceded to.
It might seem like a small point, but Christians need to be alert to the ways in which the wolf of political argument dresses like the sheep of economics to encourage our passivity. Economics, like all the academic disciplines (from astrophysics to theology) is essential for informed practice but it doesn’t compel application. The physics of gravity give rise to the engineering of bridges, but we can build bridges in a million different ways. The theology of Scripture gives rise to preaching but we can preach a passage a million different ways. In the same way, the economics of state liquidity might give rise to a bailout, but the shape of that decision is political.
Ethics is about description as much as decision. Don’t let politicians, journalists or talking heads tell you that something is inevitable from an economic perspective. To collapse things that way is to give up because things are hard.
4. How Just Is The Implementation?
If we do have to have unit-price water charges, then we need to recognise that this might be the harshest kind of taxation. If everyone pays the same, we are automatically creating an injustice because “the same” means different things based on how much you have. If I earn €165,000 then the water charges are a negligible blip on my annual budget. If I earn €16,500, the water charges have just made a serious dent in what is possible for me.
And that just considers the outgoing aspect of the water charges. Let us consider the incoming aspect – the need to consume water. It is an agreed upon reality that the people who are in the most need need the most water. I have a friend who is autistic and has Down syndrome. One of his great pleasures in life is to take a bath, which he does every day without fail and sometimes twice. Luckily, he doesn’t live in Ireland. The idea that households have quotas for water consumption assumes that our bureaucracy can keep up with the changes of life and health and well-being that shape our water needs.
5. Trajectory of Society
During the Celtic Tiger, there were plenty of preachers I knew who addressed the topic of consumerism and consumption. I know of no preacher in Ireland today who is offering people Biblically-informed support to cope with austerity. I would love to subscribe to the sermons of the people who are addressing full on the kind of society Ireland is becoming.
Ten years ago, people were losing themselves in Mammon. The same is happening today but we aren’t preaching about it. Whatever way you count it, Ireland has been subject to the most tremendous theft of common goods. Things that are needed are now gone entirely. Things that are needed that we still have are deeply diminished. Ironically, the funding for water infrastructure has been cut by 70% since 2008! The museums are close to shutting down. The teaching assistants have been let go. We no longer have accessible third level education. We no longer support young people who are unemployed. We have done nothing to stop emigration. We keep asylum seekers in a strange and hellish captivity. But all the while, the figures for wealth accumulation among those at the top of our society continue to rise. Our Minister for Justice owned 14 properties! Square that with Isaiah 5!
No Christian is advocating for a return to the Tiger Economy. But the challenge of Austerity Ireland is far greater and far more pressing than prosperity ever was. The prosperity is still there. It’s just joined now by collapsing poverty.
6. Jesus and Water
How cliche is it for an evangelical Christian ethicist to end his diatribe with a reflection on the Bible? But in this case, it isn’t forced or artificial. The well is a recurring location for the action of the Old Testament. The judgment of YHWH often involves promises of drought. The promises of YHWH often involves surplus hydration. Throughout the Bible, the well is a communal resource. It is shared. We use it together. In the New Testament, it is by a well that Jesus meets the Samaritan woman and tells her of the springs of eternal life. And it is in the act of handing a cup of water to the one who thirsts that Jesus promises we will encounter him.
The Scriptures can’t be read off for a “principle” or a set path to “Biblical approaches to water”. They are far too interesting to be turned to raw material for our casuistry. But what we can say is that the people of God are depicted throughout the Scriptures as people who recognise the centrality of water for life. That we have to write out such banal truisms speaks to how desperate our political situation is.
Jesus literally tells us to give water to the thirsty.
Your Correspondent, Will not belch the national anthem