Continuing this exploration of the intertwined fates of two liquids – water and oil – I’ll share with you what I learned at the Royal Geographic Society last week. This seminal British institution, housed in a glorious Victorian building in Knightsbridge just spitting distance from the Royal Albert Hall on the south side of Hyde Park, hosted a lecture entitled “Is Water The New Oil?”, presented by the charity Just A Drop.

Andrew Mitchell, of the forest conservation group Global Canopy, said he thought linking the two liquids might be challenging – especially for him, a rainforest expert – but the ties between the impending global water crisis and climate change are clear once you pause for thought. 

He explained how rainforests generate their own rainfall, and if the coastal forests of the Amazon are mowed down, the interior could parch into a desert (one hypothesized origin for the Sahara). Though we hear so much about aviation’s contributions to climate change (around two per cent of global emissions), deforestation accounts for far more greenhouse gas emissions, around 17 per cent. Though the lumber trade certainly has a role to play, 80 per cent of deforestation is for cattle grazing. And though we seldom think about the water footprint of what we buy, it is worth thinking about: one hamburger requires some 1300 gallons of water to produce. Meanwhile, a billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water. And global access to fresh water is likely to only worsen as our climate changes.

Water, unlike oil, is precious, and essential for life, he said. But now most of us think of it as a commodity, something to buy – and he threw an image up on the screen of a bottle of water. Something packaged that we pay private companies through the nose to sell to us in oil-derived packaging – not a human right.

A good lecture, on all counts. Nothing you could argue with. 

Except this: upon leaving each guest was handed a gift bag, provided by the evening’s sponsor, Simpson Millar, a “forward thinking” law firm (as the night’s MC had described them), containing a large faux leather folder (made from oil) and…

a bottle of water.

Right after being lectured on the need to preserve our planet’s fresh water, and the links between our profligate oil consumption and the looming global water crisis, we were all handed the very product that we were told encapsulates our misplaced values.

Truly. Astounding.

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