A panel earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Boston confronted the problem of global water usage with an unusual blend of expertises. In addition to the customary mix of geologists and hydrologists, presenters included ethicists, philosophers and religious scholars.
It was an extraordinary and possibly unprecedented step for a GSA panel to include so many nonscientists, according to panel co-organizer George Fisher, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. But Fisher and panel co-organizer Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor at Bucknell University, say they firmly believe that both scientific knowledge and moral reflection are essential to finding solutions as the demands of a burgeoning population head for a dramatic collision with the limits of the planet's resources.
"I hope that everyone who was there sensed the richness and coherence of the conversation that emerged," Fisher says. "It was extraordinary."
Fisher believes such conversations will help answer critical questions about water, such as, Who owns a given water resource? In a conflict, what water usages should be given priority, and why? And how can the current generation meets its own needs for water and still honor its obligations to preserve water resources for future generations?
Fisher acknowledges the challenge of overcoming many scientists' strong reluctance to consider a dialogue with religion as a valid part of their professional lives.
"I'm married to a Presbyterian pastor, so an interest in this kind of dialogue comes naturally to me, and it's something I've been working with for quite a while," says Fisher, whose wife, Gretchen van Utt, was university chaplain from 1985 to 1993. "Questions of sustainability are fundamentally both scientific questions and moral questions."
Fisher was recently elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences. Among other accomplishments, the citation noted his study of "the interaction of science and religion in application to global sustainability."
Fisher and co-organizer Tucker scheduled the panel speakers so that they alternated between scientists and religious and moral scholars. They were pleased with the results.
"Although the talks alternated between the geological and moral perspectives, most of the speakers expressed the feeling that the prior speaker had said what they had planned to say," Fisher says. "The speakers then went on and offered a new perspective on what had gone before. I thought the weaving together of the two perspectives was really remarkable."
Fisher credits the Critical Issues Committee that he helped to start at the GSA with the idea for the panel. The group chose water usage from other issues of sustainability for several reasons. It's among the more pressing issues, with nearly 1.5 billion people already lacking adequate drinking water. "Water also hasn't created as big of an industry vs. academia conflict as other sustainability issues like energy," Fisher says. "In addition, water has a metaphorical role in many religions that [we thought would] play an interesting role in the conversation."
Other presenters at the panel included Gordon Wolman, Johns Hopkins professor of geography and environmental engineering and a leading figure in hydrology. Wolman assessed trends in water demand, availability and usage.