The tragedy of capitalism

The people of the United States are sucking their country dry of fresh water at frenetic rates. They will not stop, they cannot stop, because they are driven by the pump of capitalism, as it seeks—at all and any cost—to turn every material into dollars. As the scientists lay out more and more dire warnings about water scarcity, the data centers and chip manufacturers rush in, demanding their gargantuan share of this dwindling and so-precious resource.

In 2023, the New York Times analyzed water levels at tens of thousands of sites across the USA. “Nearly half the sites have declined significantly over the past 40 years as more water has been pumped out than nature can replenish,” the Times stated. In the last ten years, four of every 10 sites measured hit all-time lows. 2022 was the worst year yet. “From an objective standpoint, this is a crisis,” said Warigia Bowman, a law professor and water expert at the University of Tulsa. “There will be parts of the U.S. that run out of drinking water.”

The aquifers that deliver groundwater took thousands—even millions—of years to fill. Once depleted, they will not easily fill again. In fact, many will never fill again because, as they are emptied, the land settles and compacts, filling in the space where the water used to be.

As with so much else about modern life, it was innovative technology (in this case, water pumping technology) that drove the environmental collapse. Technology does nothing if not make humans think we are more powerful than we are. We are still small things, no matter how arrogantly we strut the Earth. By pumping far more water than could be replenished, the USA became an “agricultural powerhouse.” A temporary one.

Tragedy and irony and contradictions are everywhere. In some of the most parched and drought-stricken deserts in the USA, you’ll find the cheapest water prices. It’s as if there’s a game being played to see who can drain the aquifers the fastest. Arizona is a good example. Water is dirt cheap there and they keep digging deeper and deeper wells in the hope they might tap into Chinese water. The land is crumbling, with hundreds of miles of fissures appearing, and building projects having to be put on hold because of a lack of water.

This digging and pumping is not simply a US thing. Around the world, in the last 50 years, we have pumped so much water we’ve affected the Earth’s tilt. By 2030, global demand for fresh water will be 40% greater than available supply.

But some good news. Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, is also the data center capital of the USA. Arizona’s data centers guzzle down about 13 billion liters of water a year. And chip factories—with their ferocious demand for water—are on the way. It makes no sense at all, unless your only motivation is greed, and your only horizon is the three-monthly reporting cycle from your god, the stock market.

America Is Using Up Its Groundwater Like There’s No Tomorrow, Mira Rojanasakul, Christopher Flavelle, Blacki Migliozzi, Eli Murray, The New York Times, 2023

Humanity’s groundwater pumping has altered Earth’s tilt, Warren Cornwall, Science, 2023

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