There is an iconic scene in Frank Herbert’s Dune when Stilgar leans over Duke Leto’s polished table and spits on it. Stilgar is a leader among the Fremen, the Indigenous people of planet Arrakis, where Leto has just arrived as the latest colonial overseer. Arrakis is now fief to House Atreides—of which Leto is duke—who seek alliance with the Fremen to ensure their control over the empire’s extractive economy, which hinges on the planet’s spice harvests. Leto has sent his right-hand man and swordmaster, Duncan Idaho, to live with Stilgar’s tribe and gain their trust in the hopes of forming a union between the two people. The scene is set for strained negotiation between native host and colonial interloper to determine how the settler colony will relate to Indigenous communities. Stilgar is self-possessed and assertive, qualities colonial authorities deem offensive. But, out of what appears to be a moment of political pragmatism, Leto acknowledges Fremen codes of custom, dignity, and honor. Stilgar responds by spitting on Leto’s administratively impressive desk. Witnesses erupt in outrage, but Idaho intervenes. Arrakis is a desert planet; water is the most precious substance globally. Idaho explains to the ducal cohort that sharing moisture is the deepest sign of respect on a planet that never sees rain. Idaho then approaches the table, shoulder to shoulder with Stilgar, and spits.
The scene dramatizes one of the primary ethical insights of Christiana Zenner’s revised version of Just Water: water discipline is at the heart of just human relationships. Because these relationships take place among different communities mediated by colonial power dynamics, the rationale for how to value and use water can be neither mere survival nor maintaining endlessly advancing economic profit if the goal is justice. Yet we white settler scholars cannot pretend we don’t come to the table holding the long end of the stick; water distribution is governed by white privilege. Indeed, Zenner works from within the Catholic context by which she arrives at the scene, a tradition that bears all the colonial presence and political machinations of the duke. Despite the history of structural and imperial violence, which Zenner acknowledges, her method asks: Is there a way, from within the tradition, to form just relationships through developing new disciplines? Is it possible for Catholicism to form the qualities of character we see in Idaho, characteristics shaped by practices and concepts that run counter to the values, perceptions, and habits developed in extractive economies? Can people form dual allegiances to both the dominant religious tradition that cultivated them and the Indigenous and subaltern communities whose flourishing embodies the horizon of justice? The answer to these questions depends on water.
Yet water as the focus for ethics is inherently slippery—both literally and metaphorically. Zenner’s concluding reminder to the reader is that ethics “cannot proceed except in light of plurality and contextuality, and ongoing revisability” (213). One of the primary reasons to be grateful for Zenner’s revised edition of Just Water is that it incarnates that ethical mode of revisability. On the one hand, it’s our institutional obligation to take seriously Zenner’s comment that the first edition aimed for her tenure committee’s approval. On the other hand, despite these all-too-common pressures of speedy production and faculty evaluation, Zenner acknowledges the opportunities and friendships that allowed for revision. Scholars frequently pay lip service to ethical complexities and nuances but rarely perform the unfinished nature of ethics with such appreciation. Zenner’s rationale for revision isn’t just trying to tighten up the argument against critical engagement but rather to expand the purview of justice to better articulate water as a universal right in different contexts. The elusive nature of water is captured in both the argument and approach.
What has been added to the new edition indicates not only the nature of water but also that of justice. The primary changes are: focusing on Laudato Si’—Pope Francis’s second encyclical exhorting people to “care for our common home” in light of global environmental degradation in an era of anthropogenic climate change—to develop the ground on which Catholic Social Teaching (CST) argues for water as a human right; incorporating settler colonialism and environmental racism in local instance of water injustice, and; a critical engagement with “Anthropocene” as a concept for analyzing both the unequal distribution of benefits and responsibility for harms among global human communities. All of these add complexities and openings to her original insights into water justice rather than substantiating rhetorical closures to further engagement.
Both the substance and form of revision builds on Zenner’s original work to reveal and resist. She offers a resource that gets us to simultaneously investigate things we take for granted while drawing from religious traditions to argue against economically dominated narratives of water’s value. Zenner’s contribution is using theological ethics to show both the connections water draws between human health, social location, and ecological conditions as well as the justice to which those connections should be ordered. CST constitutes the book’s primary source material but revealing these connections and idea of justice is accomplished in a way that models how it can be done in other traditions. It behooves all moral traditions, especially ones possessing inherent privilege, to investigate how universal concepts and commitments are not just manifested but also shaped and filled out in particular local contexts. Zenner exemplifies this investigation by asking, how do individual and communal social practices in specific times and places dealing with water issues simultaneously affect and expose how we understand and communicate that which all of humanity is due—clean drinking water?
Using CST to answer this question adds to both the theological ethics community as well as to economics and political studies of water. The descriptive element to the book demonstrates how the Catholic tradition might value water differently from, and thereby resist, neoliberalism. Zenner goes through the documents of her tradition to identify eight ethical insights and imperatives for water justice. Taken together, she forms a theological and ethical framework that could be seen as taking the lead among organizations addressing right-to-life issues generally and clean water specifically. Zenner makes a compelling case that the Catholic tradition—despite its institutional and moral failures—is a leader for water justice.
Take, for example, how agriculture and climate change are predominantly water issues. Uneven and declining access to adequate water for drinking and farming emerges from how instantiations of unsustainable agriculture and climate change order relationships based on economic values—or when the non-human aspects of the relationships are valued economically. When done so, the connections between humans and their non-human communities are ordered by structures of injustice, which means they require ethical remediation. Or, to take another example, witness the disproportionate burden women bear for finding clean water. Water isn’t neutral but instead conveys the politics of gendered social relationships.
Insofar as water discipline is both at the heart of water justice and human relationships, moral formation is as significant for addressing water issues as it is for maintaining religious traditions. Zenner’s case in point is that theological ethics—forming habits and disciplines based on religious sources—changes the value of water, which changes the vision and discourse on its proper access and consumption, which changes the nature and definition of responsibility for just distribution and use. The flip side to this formulation is that political and economic challenges to this value, vision, discourse, and responsibility are, among other things, moral challenges. Zenner makes aspects of fresh-water crises and quotidian responsibility for those crises visible, using theological and ethical resources to shape how the crises is described and should be addressed.
Victor Lam and Leila Harris question this last claim, noting that CST provides a helpful framework for what Zenner sets out to do—namely, make visible the power hidden in water and frame the discussion accordingly—but are left to wonder how does that shape interreligious, or even intra-Christian, conversations? How is CST implicated in places where different religious practitioners work side by side and where those affected most by water problems are determined by different religious commitments? They home in on Zenner’s rallying cry for the importance of context to both ask about the religious contexts of environmental issues as well as some engagement with CST’s potential limitations. Overall, they press Zenner to get more from the CST framework, which they see as underappreciated and fecund for investigating concepts of justice and responsibility in ways that could apply or be in dialogue with other environmental and social justice issues.
Jacob J. Erickson applauds Zenner’s attentiveness and memory for complexity and multiplicity of experiences in fresh-water crises, which demonstrates the potential—not just the difficulty—of water as a “slippery” topic for justice. Erickson uses the metaphor of ice as an image for problematic structures, namely, those possessing “the domineering logic of the One,” for investigating ethics of water. That kind of solidity—whether it takes the form of the Catholic tradition or the concept of the Anthropocene—prevents both fulsome analysis of slippery ethical issues as well as moral responses that adequately address complex details and uneven experiences of those issues. Erickson urges Zenner to push CST further to interrogate concepts of rights in addition to other practices and concepts that shape fresh-water crises, but also to see how those interactions and intersections impact CST-framed ethics as well. Does the framework get shaped as it shapes, or is it as frozen and unidirectional in the way Catholic universality typically gets understood?
Frederick Kirschenmann asks if there is a larger story in which these crises and experiences are placed? Is the Catholic tradition held within a larger, evolutionary narrative? Kirschenmann suggests telling the story of CST’s framing of water as Zenner outlines it within the encompassing narrative of “the great turning,” in which humans are beginning to take responsibility for the health of the planet. What happens when the health of the whole rather than right-to-life is the main plot in the narrative of water?
Duke Leto knows water discipline is important on Arrakis but for power not justice; he says, “Let us not rail about justice as long as we have arms and the freedom to use them.” Zenner’s gift to those of us advantaged enough to take water for granted, in blissful ignorance of what our unfettered access costs less privileged communities, are tools to change the orientation of our perception and practices of water from power to justice. Empire and its industries will fight tooth and nail to protect this access to fresh water and prevent us from seeing it as a human right rather than a commodity available to the highest bidder. To stand in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder, among water protectors and those with neither arms nor the freedom to use them against the powers that be is the position in which water discipline is formed. This position is not inherently opposed to institutions underwriting or being coopted by extractive economy and its apparatuses, but it does depend on re-learning “theology as action oriented to the well-being of vulnerable populations” (8).