To honor the memory of Philip Otis ’95, Bates invites a lecturer each year to give a talk on environment related issues. His endowment fund, along with sponsoring lecturers, goes towards scholarships for Bates students to travel and partner with communities in seeking to understand interdependencies with the planet.
This year, Bates invited Jamie Workman as the Otis Lecturer. Workman is the author of Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, a book that he had spent over 15 years researching and writing. Over the years, Workman has collected quite controversial accolades, including: blowing up dams, releasing wolves, restoring wildland fires, guiding safaris, smuggling water to dissidents, and becoming a dad.
His research question for the book, as he said, was: “How do you put a price on the priceless? We never had to ask these questions before, but now we do.”
Over the years, economists have sought different methods of controlling and conserving scarce resources. Workman began his talk detailing the people that have helped come up with a way to put a value on water. One economist in particular, Adam Smith, asked the “water paradox” in his book Wealth of Nations. Workman summarized this paradox, asking, “Why is water, what we can’t live without, treated so worthless? And why is a diamond, which has no value whatsoever, valued so high?”
To solve this, Workman looked at how humans have evolved over time and where the first civilizations emerged. According to Workman, “[We] can trace our oldest DNA to the Bushmen of the Kalahari, a people that you’ve heard of from ‘The Gods Must be Crazy’ to National Geographic.” Workman had heard about this indigenous people during a conference about the Botswana government shutting off these peoples’ water. After this, Workman decided to take it into his own hands.
“I have never felt more self-righteous in my life,” humored Workman. “I am helping the poor and downtrodden… and it didn’t work out.” On his journey, he had broken down in the middle of Kalahari Desert, after the air intake in his Land Rover became loose and sucked in sand. “And it was at about that time when I realized, ‘Geez, these people have been out here for more than 30,000 years without me. Somehow I think they’d be alright without me coming to their rescue; in fact, I need them to rescue me.”
From the Bushmen, Workman discovered a possible solution for putting a value on water. He saw that the Bushmen had a system in which the people would earn and own what they hunted and gathered. They would mark what they had brought back and store these resources. Workman explained, “To really make [saving resources] valuable they would negotiate with one another, and this was a reciprocal system called ‘Xaro’… and through this system they would turn scarcity into abundance and reduce conflict, turn it into cooperation.”
Under this idea, Workman developed his “H2Ownership” concept, where you have equitable shares that are earned brought home, saved, and traded. He argued that this could be a way to tackle the economic theory, “Tragedy of the Commons.” The theory details a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users behave in self-interest and deplete resources, to the detriment of the common good.
To test his theory, Workman developed an app called Aquashares, where families and firms that have a meter in front of their house can trade their unused shares of water, as a credit. Workman was astounded by the interest garnered in his app: “Utility is interested, in finally having a carrot that goes with the sticks, the foundations are interested in keeping water in the rivers, keeping it wild. Businesses can go, ‘We’re water neutral! Drink our beer or our wine, we’re not harming nature to get this out, we’re able to offset our footprint!’”
More exciting yet, Aquashares has found a place to try this shared-resource system out—Russian River Valley in Northern California, home to an endangered species of salmon. According to Workman, it works like any standard, mundane bank system works. The simplicity of the system has spread to places like Marrakech where resorts are depleting water resources.
The app’s tradable water savings has risen to 91 cents per thousand gallons, which according to Workman is “a fifth of the cost of what a new dam or new salvation plant would be, it’s less than the energy that goes into pumping that water, it’s less energy than the rebate programs. So people have gotten excited about this.”