Christiana Z. PEPPART. Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014. Pp. 230. $28.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-056-3. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD, 21727
Christiana Peppard has produced a rich and varied moral and theological reflection on the problem of water. As Peppard notes frequently, water is both sine qua non and sui generis – it is absolutely essential for life, and there is no substitute for it. And yet a key task of the book is to “render water visible” (ix). This turn of phrase, playing on water’s physical transparency and its unthought presence throughout our lives, indicates the subtle cleverness of P’s approach, as well as the real challenges that are faced in confronting the problem of water today. Much water use, for example, is nonconsumptive – the water goes back into the ecosystem – and so “even with increased water virtue and mindfulness, shorter showers won’t solve the global fresh water crisis” (27-28). Instead, water is a “meat and microchips” problem – the amount of water consumed in agriculture and industrial production dwarfs domestic use (22). These larger structural issues are often invisible, and it is a key task of the book to build awareness of the many ways in which water is at the center of practical life, with special implications for the poor and marginalized.
The clear strengths of P’s work are two. First, P displays a vivid, active theological imagination – this is not a theological book of propositions or principles, but of images, experiences, and stories, which are themselves well-informed by knowledge of the ways water works. An example would be the chapter devoted to the current state of the Jordan River, as a convergence of ecological concern and theological memory. In a section on the problems of groundwater contamination by fracking fluid, she describes the problem by constructing the image of “anthropology as absorption” – how in our age, constant low-level contamination of the essentials of human life cause a host of problems. The book’s second strength is its breadth of coverage and in-depth knowledge of so many issues connected to water. P devotes chapters to agriculture, to the commodification of water by multinationals, to the particular challenges of women in relationship to water, to fracking fluids, and to the drought effects of global warming. In short, P succeeds in demonstrating how unsustainable and unthinking use of water permeates a host of ecological and social problems.
Much of the book’s material is drawn from previously-published essays and articles, and at times the book could be more tightly conceived as a whole. For example, the chapter treating the commodification of water through created demand for bottled water comes immediately after P has emphasized that individual, domestic use of water is not the key problem. The connection between the two chapters is not explained. Perhaps more important, the initial chapter, which treats in extremely broad strokes the phenomenon of globalization and the development of 20th century Catholic theology, seems very underutilized in the subsequent chapters. P’s broad generalizations in the opening chapter (besides potentially drawing criticism from some theologians for their lack of nuance) don’t seem clearly enough connected to the arguments developed on particular issues. As I noted previously, P’s gift is powerful, often surprising juxtaposition of imagery tethered to a strong command of factual knowledge of science and social systems. By contrast, the opening chapter seems added on, to provide an ostensible “theological foundation” for what follows. P might consider turning to further sources for theological reflection, on imagination (such as David Tracy) or on the relation of forms of religious imagery to science (such as Ian Barbour), to provide a better way of thinking through the theology she is actually doing in the constructive chapters. But on the whole, the book is a promising, stimulating work on an underexplored topic for Christian life in today’s world.