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Calif. Community's Techno-Fix to Drought: A Path Towards More Climate Problems?

'I think that one of the myths, besides the myth of abundance, is the myth that technology will fix whatever we're doing, so it's OK to foul those waters because some technology is going to come along and clean it up.'—Maude Barlow

A parched Folsom Lake, as seen in January 2014. (Photo:  Morgan Murphy/flickr/cc)

The Santa Barbara City Council unanimously voted on Tuesday to restart a desalination plant to confront exacerbating water problems amid the state's four-year drought.

The plant, which has been in standby mode since the 1990s, would suck water from the ocean and use reverse osmosis to turn it into drinking water.

According to reporting by KYET-TV, it is set to be online next year, and it could provide up to 40 percent of the southern California community's current water use.

But thinking that such technology can be a solution to human-caused climate change has been criticized by some analysts as an illusion that may end up actually making the crisis worse.

Author and activist Naomi Klein described it as a kind of climate denial. At the Guardian earlier this year, she wrote that, for some time, she

stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my “elite” frequent flyer status.

A great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial. We look for a split second and then we look away. Or we look but then turn it into a joke (“more signs of the Apocalypse!”). Which is another way of looking away. Or we look but tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever and will come up with a technological miracle that will safely suck the carbon out of the skies or magically turn down the heat of the sun. Which, I was to discover while researching [This Changes Everything], is yet another way of looking away."

Maude Barlow—author, water and human rights activist, and chair of the board of Food & Water Watch—has also denounced the idea that technology can be a panacea for climate problems.


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Responding to an audience member question at a speaking event at Xavier Univeristy in March , she said, "I think that one of the myths, besides the myth of abundance, is the myth that technology will fix whatever we're doing, so it's OK to foul those waters because some technology is going to come along and clean it up. It's OK to use up all that water because we'll just build 'desal' plants and we'll just pull it in from the ocean."

But why shouldn't communities, like Santa Barbara, rely on desalination as a solution to increasing potable water shortages? Barlow lays out three main problems with the technology.

"Here's what you need to know about desalination: It's extremely expensive, number 1. And that's why you don't find it in poor countries that are thirsty; you only find it in rich countries that are thirsty," she said.

"Number two, it's intensely energy-dependent, so it uses fossil fuels to run. And that creates more greenhouse gas emissions, which it turn hurt water. So it defeats the very purpose for which it's supposedly being created.

"Number three, what it puts back out into the ocean is a poison brine, because what they do is they take in the seawater with aquatic life, they put it through a heavy reverse osmosis process using chemicals. What they put back is the dead aquatic life, this very intense brine, and the chemicals. And it just destroys the fisheries, the coral reefs, and so on," she said.

Instead of desalination, others see more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly efforts as the right approach.

Robert Wilkinson of UC Santa Barbara, co-author of a report on potential water-saving practices in the state released last year by the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, stated at the time: "We have an unprecedented opportunity to do more with less—and we need to take every possible step to do so. By rethinking water management strategies so we work in harmony with the environment and our economy, we’ll be rewarded with dramatic water savings that will offer us local and more sustainable supply for decades to come."

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