Advances in efficiency and alternative power technologies are key, but they aren’t the entire solution. For the past several years as a student, I’ve explored the way that social and political factors are connected to science and technology. This research makes me optimistic that tackling the water-energy nexus might actually help us better respond to other global problems too.
Take, for instance, how complex and interdisciplinary the water-energy nexus is. Not only are the technological systems deeply connected, but there are also important human dimensions like political disputes over resources, whether energy or water are human rights, or even simply how you and I think about the environment. Even more challenging, a great deal of recent research has shown that we as humans often ignore evidence that opposes our beliefs, making it even more difficult to solve problems collaboratively.
I recently helped run a workshop at Arizona State University that offered a great deal of hope. We brought together students and professionals to learn about the water-energy nexus, and then gave them tools to educate others. We discovered that the water-energy nexus is like a ‘gateway drug’ for thinking about these kinds of challenges: complex enough to cause people to consider how systems interact, but still tangible enough to understand these connections. Perhaps the most important step at the upcoming Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, then, is creating similar kinds of conversations that break down disciplinary and demographic barriers. This needs to be done more broadly as well, by engaging the public through social media and follow-up events around the globe.
I’m also hopeful because the water-energy nexus is a global problem that is still local and tangible. Although international debates on issues like climate change may seem to achieve little, a great deal can be accomplished through fostering many small-scale collaborations. Instead of waiting for multinational agreements, the Sustainability Week is a chance to begin forming partnerships between companies and communities. History has shown that not only do these small-scale agreements often achieve more than comprehensive treaties, but that they can even lead to better international relations (perhaps I’ll post more later about Canada and the Soviet Union joining to protect polar bears during the heat of the Cold War!).
The first step, therefore, is creating a conversation where concepts like collaboration and human impacts are just as important as talking about technology, and a space where optimism can lead to creative and mutual innovation. As we begin 2013, I’d encourage you to keep an eye on the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, and think about how the water and energy you use are deeply connected.