Planet Earth

Watch Your Water

By Clara MoskowitzNov 2, 2007 4:33 PM

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This morning I was careful to turn off the tap while brushing my teeth. I even forced myself out of the shower after a mere ten minutes, instead of my usual fifteen (I know, I still have a ways to go to reach the EPA’s recommended five).

Sure, I’ve grown up knowing I should be frugal with water, so why am I starting now? My good intentions got a jump start by visiting the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition, Water: H20 = Life, which will be opening to the public on November 3.

“Water” is an amorphous topic for a museum show, but the exhibition boils it down for us: There’s not as much of the fresh stuff as you think. This exhibit is a testament to age-old conservation, an environmental viewpoint that stands in contrast to the many voices pushing technology (desalination, green roofs, permeable concrete) as the answer to our troubles. Although the message is far from new, this exhibition does something I never thought possible: It makes water issues sexy.

We tend to yawn when we hear the word “conservation,” (Yeah, yeah, I’ll turn off the lights and go easy on the paper towels). Usually it’s technology that turns us on. “The bells and whistles of technology capture us and we get excited,” says Eleanor Sterling, the director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at AMNH, and curator of the new exhibition.

But when instructions to save water are projected on a 6-foot globe, through interactive games, and alongside a giant polar bear, the idea of conservation starts losing its nagging qualities and becomes, well, exciting.

Water: H20 = Life stands to remind people about the “good old, use less to do more” tactic, says Sterling. And to do this, the exhibit takes a defensive stance against fancy technologies, which often bring more problems than benefits. Like dams. Although the exhibit notes that dams are a great source of energy—China’s Three Gorges Dam is expected to provide 10 percent of the country’s electricity when it’s up and running—it points out that China’s dam has forced the relocation of 1.2 million people, and will destroy precious river habitats, pushing several species of fish, birds, and other creatures such as the Baiji river dolphin toward extinction. The section concludes, “Will future generations regret the social and environmental cost?”

Desalination also takes a beating. The process of converting salt water to drinkable fresh is a big idea with loads of research dollars being sunk into it. And for a seemingly good reason—if we can make use of the water in the oceans, there will be no shortage for humans. But the exhibition primarily points out its drawbacks. “It uses a lot of energy… Marine life can be damaged… And there are those who think that increasing water supply attracts more people to fragile coastal areas, setting up a destructive cycle.”

Not all machines lose out, though. In keeping with the “simple-is-good” theme, the show lauds one low-tech solution. A whole exhibit showcases the PlayPump, a primary-colored carousel that pumps water from a well when children spin it around.

I walked away from the museum inspired. I was reminded that a shorter shower, a low-flush toilet, and a full laundry load really can help. Are there big issues that the exhibition misses? Sure. I was sad not to see green roofs and there was next to no talk of sustainable city design. But that’s for the engineers, architects and city planners. This show is for the public, whose lives depend on water and, like me, need the reminder that we are more able than we think to make a difference.

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