When Rights are Wrong: The Weird World of Water Quality Standards in the Pacific NorthWest, a Presentation by Dr. Steven Kolmes

Introduction by Derrick Peterson

Jeremy Bentham once called human rights "nonsense on stilts."  What he meant is not ultimately that humans should be mistreated. Rather, he was concerned that the concept of what a "right" itself is, is so vague as to be useless.  This is because "rights" often parade as self-evident discourse, when they are anything but.  As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes "we might as well believe in unicorns."  

Where do rights come from?  How are they generated?  Justified?  Applied? The point is not to ignore that many like John Rawls and others speak highly of natural rights discourse.  It is to point out that often talk of "rights" does little more than appease our modern rhetorical sensibilities.  Hidden within "rights" discourse, our "right to water" for example, are often many other factors.  

Dr. Steven Kolmes, who holds the John Molter C.S.C Chair in Science, and Chair in Environmental Studies, at the University of Portland, gave a fascinating presentation here at New Wine, New Wineskins several weeks ago on just such a problem.  While many Native Americans are guaranteed a "right to water" and the "right to fish" in territories that traditionally belonged to their ancestors, what is not often noted is that logging--not covered in these "rights"--can change the ability of Salmon to migrate.  With fewer trees--and so less shade--the increase in average water temperatures can be hostile to Salmon health.  Rivers themselves are often caused to migrate--sometimes straight out of traditional Native American territory--because logging along rivers causes massive soil erosion.  Thus while the right to fish is on the books and (seemingly) upheld--the rivers themselves have packed up and moved camp!

Any issue of "human rights" and related problems must also by their nature abstract to speak about the "generally human."  But what is the "generally human," and what people group or type may be secretly serving as its prototype and exemplar?  When the need was felt to set an industry standard for the level of pollutants allowed in fish for example, it was necessary to determine the average amount of fish eaten per day in grams.    And yet, the standard average was set by non-Native males above 150lbs.  Not only does this weight range exclude females completely, and everyone under the minimum weight range, but the significantly higher amount of fish consumption by Native Tribes was completely discounted (their diet often consisting of ten-times the fish of others, or more).  

Take a moment, then, and enter the weird world of water rights, and listen to a fascinating presentation by Dr. Steven Kolmes.