January is California’s rainy season. I’ve spent the last 3 weeks in a town outside of San Francisco, expecting to see rain clouds and cool temperatures. Instead, the governor just declared a drought emergency, with many regions not getting any precipitation at all for almost 50 days.
Wells have dried up. Roaring rivers have shrivelled to a trickle, making bridges over them obsolete. A lake where locals usually go to swim has become a destination for treasure hunts, with long lost artifacts sitting openly on the dry river bottom, no longer hidden by the deep blue waters.
Citizens in the area have been mandated by the municipality to reduce their water usage by 20-30%, and all outdoor lawn watering is prohibited.
It is in times like this that our cultural values are challenged by nature. The Western world prides itself on self-sufficiency, independence, and individual rights. Steeped in these beliefs, it is difficult for some to adjust to a community mindset when an emergency comes along.
This past week, I have taken several neighbourhood walks. Not only have I seen people watering their lawns, but even their pavement. One small yard had 6 sprinklers running at full blast, with wasted water pouring down the sidewalk and into the drain. I considered being that guy and reporting them. Instead, I chose to believe that they did not know about the drought declaration.
Chances are they did know, revealing a deep-rooted belief: their individual right to a green lawn trumped the collective rights of an entire community to a life-sustaining resource.
In university I took a course on natural disaster vulnerability management, and learned that natural occurrences turn into natural disasters because humans make themselves vulnerable. We build on fault lines and floodplains. We over-consume natural resources, leaving little margin for emergencies. We poison our own rivers.
And, like the group here in California who decided to build a campfire during a severe drought last week, we assume we can be the exception. This little campfire sparked a wildfire that burned down dozens of homes and further depleted the state’s much needed water reserve.
Individual rights certainly have their place, but I wonder if it’s time to revisit an old-fashioned concept that has been lost in our pursuit of personal success:
What is good for my community?
It is this question that drives people to sacrifice some of their personal rights for the well-being of others around them. Our lives are interconnected, and the way we steward our individual rights can have an enormous effect on our communities as a whole.
Dealing with environmental scarcity is just the tip of the ice berg. We must be willing to ask this same question when it comes to addressing other social ills – like poverty, or sex trafficking, or economic inequality. What individual rights are we willing to put on hold to advocate for the good of society as whole?