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By Esperanza Cerón Villaquirán
It is not possible to carry out any biological, agricultural, industrial, commercial, social, cultural, mining process or of any human nature that does not involve the use of water. We want to try a specific reflection on water at a time when the lack of water and its contamination in the world is the subject of public agendas, and that in our country legislators have turned their backs on the popular voice that demanded a referendum for water to declare it as a public good and a fundamental human right.
Water is a constitutive element of all biology, everything when I live is on the planet, it is composed mostly of water. Today we know that only 2.5% of all the immense amount of the precious liquid is fresh water, that is, what humans and all the terrestrial biomass need to exist. However, said water is heavily polluted throughout the world by the irrational action of a development model that has wrongly emphasized exploitation and not synergy with nature.
It is not possible to carry out any biological, agricultural, industrial, commercial, social, cultural, mining process or of any human nature that does not involve the use of water. It could be said throughout the history of all civilizations, that there is no economy without water.
At some point in human history, the economy as an activity became the center of all explanation and almost the only individual and collective motive. The problem is that from producing to live well, one went on to live or survive to produce. In this way, once cooperative societies were divided according to the different levels of accumulation: surplus crops, land, animals, slaves, women, anything that could represent a value in the human way. As we got into modernity, read the realm of instrumental reason (Horkheimer, 2004), it went from real to virtual accumulation, and today the economy moves on numbers that have no real representation anywhere.
Modernity was characterized in the words of Boaventura de Sousa Santos (Santos, 2002) by starting from a social contract where nature was excluded, since it was considered an object and not a subject of development, and humans as "external" to it. In this way, the ideas of economy, progress, development, were mounted on a budget that in the end has turned out to be false. Today we know that nature is all of us and we are interconnected in such visible ways that they became invisible in the face of excessive ambition. Water, air, soil, biomass, everything is part of an intricate network where humans are chained in a delicate balance that has already been broken in various knots of space / time, putting at risk not the planet but the world that we have built on androcentric premises.
We want to try a specific reflection on water at a time when the lack of water and its contamination in the world is the subject of public agendas, and that in our country legislators have turned their backs on the popular voice that demanded a referendum for water to declare it as a public good and a fundamental human right.
Of the use value
The use value has been defined as the utility or capacity that a thing, merchandise or substance possesses to satisfy a human and / or societal need. It is said of the use value of anything in whose nature there are physical, chemical and other natural properties that are required for life. These can be produced by human activity or be characteristic of nature: air, water, soil, biomass (Borísov).
In formal economic theory, it is said that some things due to their use value directly satisfy the personal needs of human beings, serve as objects of personal consumption (food, clothing, etc.); others serve as means to produce material goods, that is, they are means of production: machines, raw materials, fuels, etc.
From the outset, a critique of the concept can be established as Western thought only recognizes things and with them nature, an externality, that is, something that is outside and that can be used, for good or bad of the thing herself. The term "use value" is therefore instrumental and denotes that one can use something for one's own benefit. The consumer society based on the frenzied change of uses, has come in this way to produce everything disposable, with the consequent effect of being the only beings on the planet net producers of garbage.
Of course you can use clothes, shoes, food, etc., that is, you can use what is the fruit of human labor. The difference is that nature, and for the case at hand, water, cannot be "used" with impunity, without paying the price of life itself. We cannot continue to think that upstream we can use water and also dirty it, knowing that downstream there are others who also need it with the same quality and right to which we personally aspire.
However, and to stay in the formal codes of economic language, we could say that water shares both characteristics: it directly satisfies vital needs and is also used as a means of production. What water is being recognized so far is that it is inherent to life, therefore our relationship with it is not only as an externality, but it is something without which we simply are not, or we cease to exist. Without pretense of sufficiency in the so-called economic or philosophical sciences, it occurs to me from biology and medicine that in the case of water the word "use" would not fit, or at least not as we mean it in common.
Water is essential for life on the planet TO BE, TO EXIST… if we accept the term as it is understood today, its use value is therefore and at the same time: individual, collective, social and biotic. "Interesting", or better is inherent in humans, plants, animals and all living things.
The water cycle passes through our body regardless of our will, it just happens like any living process. The heart or lungs work without question and we don't have to pay for it. Of course we can affect them with an inadequate diet and lifestyle until we make them decline in their normal function; or simply over the years they wear out. The thing is, you don't decide if you want to use your heart today and turn it off tomorrow. The same happens with intracorporeal water, no bio-physicochemical process can take place without water. As with water on the planet, our body transforms, reuses, distributes, evaporates, eliminates, produces, etc.
In this way it enters and leaves our biology, moreover, it is in biological processes where water is purified, since at the molecular level, it does not matter from which complex of molecules, two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule always come together. to form the essential molecule.
It could then be said that its use value derives from being inherent in life. Water, together with air, would become the use values par excellence for life. Air is everywhere, to make use of it, just breathe, without talking of course about its quality.
Water, constituting the majority of the composition of everything that exists on the planet, is not available everywhere, at least not in its quality of drinking water. As the human population has grown, the needs for clean water have multiplied. Living beings have always looked for water: human beings and animals walk whatever is needed in their search; plants develop trophisms and other adaptations in order to capture water and make the most rational use of it.
That is, there is a natural economy of water that is there for us to investigate and apply in human economic processes, just as we learned to fly thanks to copying the flight mechanics of birds.
Economics says that use value depends less on the thing itself than on the use we make of it; This definition, as we can see, is not possible for water because in the first place it is not an “external thing”, it is not an object or a resource, it is a vital intracorporeal element and linked to a natural cycle that is being intervened in the worst ways , which are not only making it more scarce but also impotable and sometimes toxic.
The social value of the use of water, is therefore a planetary bioethical value, that is to say that we need new categories to be incorporated in the social, political and economic disciplines in order to seek to make the lives of all those who depend on and are water sustainable.
Of the exchange value:
The exchange value of a thing, commodity or substance depends, according to economic theory, on its scarcity and on the amount of work required to obtain it. In the case of water, it is obtained independently of human action, although it interferes with its quality and availability (The Great Encyclopedia of Economics). We can say that the planet manufactures the water that is recycled throughout the biosphere and other layers of the earth; which in turn is purified thanks to the action of evaporation (the sun) and perspiration (plants) and its passage through biological processes.
Human beings “intermediate” water through our biology but with our social, political, economic and cultural action, we pollute it, we misuse it, we privatize it for the benefit of a few interests that are basically of “virtual accumulation” and not of use social and less bioethical planetary.
We know that the water we drink today was drunk by dinosaurs, it is the same in quantity millions of trillions of times recycled, it has been a crystalline river, salt water, an underground source, clouds, steam, ice, a component of biomass. Until the appearance of industrialization, it can be said that this same water has supported life without problems, but the perspective is not the same due to inadequate human action. In other words, we are degrading water for all living things including ourselves.
The exchange value appears first as the proportion in which the use values of one type are exchanged for those of another. Is there where questions arise about how to find a proportion that covers 70% of the planet?
When something is worth a lot, it is simply not valued. For the original indigenous peoples, water was worth nothing, at least in our territory, which has been abundant; water simply could not have a price, that is, exchange value. It was unthinkable to attribute ownership to something that came from the sky, that flowed independently of humans or the bowels of the earth.
Over time, the value of water use appeared to the extent that it was necessary to take it to distant places, especially with the birth of cities. Regulations appeared within city-states and provinces on the management and use of collective water. When individual ownership of the land was established, the water sources within the land became the property of a lord. Conflicts over water have always existed, as have solutions, but the great world wars over water seem to have already started.
Water as a vital value
The economy is not the problem, it has always existed, Lionel Robbins said that "economics is the science that studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means that have alternative uses" (ECONLINK.COM.AR). To say it seems that in the end the economy alludes to the way of relating to nature in order to sustain life.
If we thought about the cost benefit logic, knowing that we are water beings in up to 70% of our individual biology, the value of water would only have one possible adjective: vital value. The benefit of caring for her, of giving the opportunity to all human beings at least one vital pussycat, would simply be an ethical issue, but in such a case, the main value of any economic approach would have to be bioethics.
The value of water lies in the fact that it is actually a biotic good: it belongs to all humanity, but above all, it belongs to the biomass of the planet, if we seek to define property over it.
The economy would then have to reinvent itself from a point of departure neither positivist nor instrumental rationalist, but from the perspective of complex thought. Accept that the current paradigm is no longer possible, and that new ideas that take up non-linear logics to reinvent an economy in and with nature, not against it, that is, of our own nature / biology.
Water does have an invaluable value, a category that the economy of the future must build for a new civilizational model. It will have to include all those components of Gaia that sustain life: water, air, biomass in general. Thus, it is desirable to imagine that when calculating agriculture, livestock, industry, mining, the value of the invaluable that may be being affected will have to be included in order not to damage it. When it comes to issuing environmental licenses, the invaluable will have to force the development of technologies that guarantee their sustainability.
The vital value defined in negative, is one whose affectation endangers the life of any species, which in the end results in human affectation. Defined as positive, it is one that sustains life, in the case of humans, that guarantees good living.
The metaphor of Avatar, Cameron's film, of an extra-planetary civilization that teaches humans how visible and invisible networks are that connect us to everything living and non-living in a system, is the type of imaginary that we need to rethink our current model of values, without a doubt against honoring life.
Esperanza Cerón Villaquirán - Essay for the Economic Analysis Module Specialization in Health and Environment of the Faculty of Environmental Engineering. El Bosque University - Colombia - May 2010
Borísov, Z. and. (s.f.). Dictionary of political economy. Obtained from
ECONLINK.COM.AR. ECONLINK.COM.A. Retrieved on May 21, 2010, from
Horkheimer, M. (2004). Frankfurt School. Critique of instrumental reason. Recovered on 05/20/2010, from
The great Encyclopedia of Economics. The great Encyclopedia of Economics. Retrieved on May 22, 2010, from
Santos, B. d. (2002). The State and the modes of reproduction of social power. 17-29.