Author Cynthia Barnett’s ‘Blue Revolution’ starts in the garden


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The Dry Garden: ‘Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis’

Most high-level arguments about how to conserve water in the garden take place without involving home gardeners. Rather, as water managers weigh what an imaginary average consumer would and would not do by way of conservation, we real-life consumers are offered carrots in the form of ephemeral rebate programs and sticks in the form of emergency sprinkler ordinances.


The new book ‘Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis,’ (Beacon Press, $26.95) knocks this tired seesaw off its axis. Author Cynthia Barnett argues that no conservation program will truly succeed unless embraced by the public as part of a universally adopted ‘water ethic.’ After research took her across the U.S. and to the Netherlands, Singapore and Australia, Barnett concluded that a water ethic can be reintroduced to a place only if a primal sense of the importance and beauty of water is restored.

It’s unorthodox to review this book in a garden column, but it was equally unorthodox for Barnett to open ‘Blue Revolution’ in a garden, standing on a lawn and looking at a pool and artificial waterfall. Embarrassing for a reviewer in California, the phony Eden she captured was in Sacramento. Although the capital of California is celebrated as green for its encouragement of public transport and strides in LEED-certified construction, its outdoor water use, Barnett observes, makes it ‘one of the most water-wasting places on the planet.’

Yes, California’s water policy is hammered out in a city where the average consumption is 300 gallons per person, per day.

Barnett begins ‘Blue Revolution’ with her feet on an obscenely over-watered lawn not to humiliate California but to offer a metaphor. From the Sacramento suburb of Granite Bay, she proceeds to roll out this statistic: NASA remote sensing has found that turf in the United States covers 63,240 square miles. That is bigger than Georgia, Illinois or New York. This 51st state, she observes, absorbs more water every year than all the feed grain crops in the country.

Surprisingly, Barnett is not anti-lawn. She gratefully wiggles her toes in it. She merely wishes we planted it more discriminately and watered it less. Moreover the author, pictured at right, doesn’t see American gardeners as the problem; she sees us as part of the cure. Our backyards serve as just the right launch pad for a trip back through our municipal water systems, hundreds of miles back through our massive water-moving networks, to the sources of our water.

Barnett’s conviction that we would benefit from the trip was provoked by the writing of ecologist Aldo Leopold, and she offers this quote from his 1949 book ‘A Sand County Almanac’: ‘There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.’


Barnett’s book takes inspiration from Leopold’s son, the distinguished UC Berkeley hydrologist Luna Leopold, who identified a need for a ‘guiding belief’ about the preciousness of water. Barnett expands on the idea and issues her own call for a ‘water ethic’ and ‘blue revolution.’

Reviving lost respect for water is possible, she argues. Gas guzzlers were once the dream. Now we’re buying hybrids and recycling our trash. The hurdle with building a water ethic is that while we can taste smog and see trash, most of us live far from collapsing fisheries and shrinking reservoirs.

So Barnett shows them to us, but she also shows us startling turnarounds. In Holland, she found an unusual style of consensus building. In Singapore, she found the conventional tools of sticks and carrots failed until rivers once indistinguishable from sewers were turned into sparkling cultural amenities and their banks were transformed to local parks. ‘It’s like falling in love -- everything the other person says becomes wonderful,’ a Singaporean water authority officer told her. Once Singaporeans sampled the beauty, they wanted to observe government dicta about pollution control and conservation.

In Perth, Australia, she saw lawns doing just fine on a two-day watering regimen and a pronounced shift from wet English gardens to native Australian gardening. In the American Southwest, she found rainwater harvesting becoming as Texan as a cowboy hat.

There are some great books to be read on water. Most are unutterably depressing. ‘Blue Revolution’ is by no means a feel-good book, but it’s not an obituary for wetlands being sacrificed for lawn. It’s a call to action. Barnett takes us back to the origins of our water in much the same way, with much the same vividness and compassion as Michael Pollan led us from our kitchens to potato fields and feed lots of modern agribusiness. The cook or, in this instance, the home gardener, emerges scared but wiser.

Most of all, we realize that we have choices and making ethical ones can begin a revolution.



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-- Emily Green

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