Sandra Massey, Research Program Coordinator

David Foster Wallace‘s 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College has become well-known. Wallace began his talk with this story:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Living Heritage is the water we are all swimming in; the cultural milieu that we inherit but may not be consciously aware of how it motivates our choices and behaviours. Living Heritage encompasses our values, beliefs and ways of living; it shapes our sense of identity, belonging and place in the world.

All life on earth depends on water. In his book, The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, David Suzuki reminds us, “Water is integral to supporting and maintaining life on this planet as it moderates the climate, creates growth and shapes the living substance of all of earth’s creatures. It is the tide of life itself, the sacred source.” Moreover he says, “We are water - the oceans flow through our veins, and our cells are inflated by water, our metabolic reactions mediated in aqueous solution.” Therefore, water in all its forms is connected to Living Heritage and quality of life on many levels, access to water, water quality, and how we use water.

Suzuki also reminds us, “. . . water is at the heart of human ritual. Baptism, for example, often welcomes the child into the human family, washing away the past, marking a new start. The powerful symbolism of water - as transformation, purification, sharing - permeates our lives.” The symbolic significance of water is reflected in the myths of many cultures around the world. Myths have informed human behaviour for centuries. As J. F. Bierlein tells us in his book, Parallel Myths, “The patterns, stories, even details contained in myth are found everywhere and among everyone. This is because myth is a shared heritage of ancestral memories, related consciously from generation to generation. .  . . Myth is the thread that holds past, present, and future together.” In other words, our beliefs about the value of water are part of our Living Heritage.

Human settlement almost always occurs near water; alongside a river for example that provides food and transportation much like the Saskatchewan River that flows through the province. This is because healthy populations depend on access to water; clean potable water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing. Significant improvements to health and wellbeing have been realized since the introduction of indoor plumbing making it possibly one of the greatest inventions of all time. Think about it; clean drinking water comes right out of a tap, to drink or cook with; warm water too for bathing and laundry not to mention the convenience in the middle of the night. To take water for granted is a luxury many don’t have, even here in Canada. Furthermore, irrigation systems make it possible to grow crops and maintain domestic animals in some of the most inhospitable places.  Agriculture and the world’s food system depend on water; not to mention the amazing power of water harnessed to provide energy to our machines and technology. In other words, our ways of living depend on water.

Not that long ago there was a debate in Regina over water that illustrated two different types of values. The Chamber of Commerce and the City of Regina based their message on the qualities and characteristics of the project albeit in a negative way. “Would you like to pay higher utility fees?” Their campaign was based on the cost of the project expressed in terms of exchange or monetary values; utility fees, higher taxes, less affordable housing and a loss of federal funding. The Regina Water Watch group responded with numbers of their own but added a message based on morals, principles, or other ideas that serve as guides to action, “water is not a commodity. Water is: a human right, a common good, a public service, and an essential human need.” The campaign message stated, “Water is a shared resource and a shared responsibility. That’s why we must keep our entire water cycle - including waste water - public. Future generations are depending on us.” Expressed in terms of common good and/or a public goods vs private goods debate, several scholars have explored the distinction between these two types of values as it relates to quality of life in more depth.

Water is an example of a public good because in theory it is non-excludable and non-rival. However since it has been bottled and sold, water has become a commodity whose value is determined by the market demonstrating that what constitutes a public good can change over time. In The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel reminds us, “Most of the things that we buy and sell weren’t always commodities in the way we understand them today - land, music, labor, care, people and food once had a much more ambiguous status.” Patel suggests, “To value something involves both identifying it and setting up rules through which it can be used by society, . . .“ Inge Kaul, author of numerous publications on international public economics and finance suggests the standard definitions of public goods are of limited value in a contemporary context. In her paper, Public Goods: Taking the Concept to the 21st Century she suggests the following alternative to the classic economic definition. “The proposal is to require public goods to be inclusive (public in consumption), based on participatory decision-making (public in provision) and offering a fair deal for all (public in the distribution of benefits).”

Living Heritage is reflected in the ongoing negotiation of values, beliefs and ways of living and is naturally connected to our willingness and capacity to answer the difficult and complex question, how’s the water?  


Bierlein, J. F., Parallel Myths. New York: Ballantine Wellspring, The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1994.

Kaul, Inge, Public Goods: Taking the Concept to the 21st Century, (downloaded June 2013)

Patel, Raj, The Value of Nothing. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2011.

Suzuki, David, The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Vancouver, British Columbia: Greystone Books, Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1997.