Water panel starts 'conversation' between religion and science

November 06, 2001

A panel at this week's annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Boston will confront the problem of global water usage with an unusual blend of expertises. In addition to the customary mix of geologists and hydrologists, presenters will include ethicists, philosophers, and religious scholars.

It's an extraordinary and possibly unprecedented step for a GSA panel to include so many non-scientists, according to panel co-organizer George Fisher, professor of earth and planetary sciences at The Johns Hopkins University. But Fisher and the panel's other co-organizer, Mary Evelyn Tucker, professor at Bucknell University, firmly believe that both science and religion are essential to finding solutions as the demands of a burgeoning population head for a dramatic collision with the limits of the planet's resources.

The panel starts at 1:30 p.m. on November 7.

"We want to get a conversation started," says Fisher. "We want to start a dialogue between the community of science and the community of religious scholars, between people who understand natural science and people who understand moral dimensions."

Such a dialogue, Fisher says, will be essential to answering critical questions about water such as: Who owns a given water resource? In a conflict, what water usages should be given priority, and why? and How can the current generation meets its own needs for water and still honor its obligations to preserve water resources for future generations?

Fisher was recently elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences. Among other accomplishments, the citation noted his study of "the interaction of science and religion in application to global sustainability."

Fisher acknowledges the challenge of overcoming many scientists' strong reluctance to consider a dialogue with religion as a valid part of their professional lives. He and co-organizer Tucker elected to schedule the panel speakers so that they alternated between scientists and religious and moral scholars.

"We wanted to weave the two disciplines together to create a real dialogue, and to ensure that even those who attend only part of the symposium would hear both perspectives," Fisher says.

Fisher credits the Critical Issues Committee that he started at the GSA with the idea for the panel. They chose water usage from other issues of sustainability for several reasons. It's among the more pressing issues, with nearly 1.5 billion people already lacking adequate drinking water.

"Water also hasn't created as big of an industry vs. academia conflict as other sustainability issues like energy," says Fisher. "In addition, water also has a metaphorical role in many religions that may play an interesting role in the conversation."

The schedule for the panel includes an introductory presentation by Fisher and a concluding presentation by Tucker. Other presenters will include:

*Gordon Wolman, a leading hydrologist and professor of geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins, who will assess trends in water demand, availability and usage.

*William Fisher, with the Program in International Development, Community Planning, and Environment at Clark University, who will detail new decision-making paradigms designed to ensure that all stakeholders affected by water usage decisions are given input.

*Susan Kieffer, a private science consultant, who will describe the "pros, cons, and consequences" of megadams.

*John Grim, professor of religion at Bucknell University, who will probe indigenous peoples' spritual views of water, and the role it plays in their cultures.

*Paul Doss, professor of geology and physics at the University of Southern Indiana, who will describe conflicts over water usage between landowners outside of Yellowstone Park and park advocates concerned that water use will decrease or disable Yellowstone's famous geysers.

*Stephen Viccio, professor of philosophy at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, who will give a presentation on Judeo-Christian perspectives on water use and examine ways in which the scientific and religious community can cooperate to discuss water usage issues.
-end-
For more information online:

*Complete panel program:
http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2001AM/finalprogram/session_757.htm

*George Fisher:
http://www.jhu.edu/~eps/faculty/fisher/index.html

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Johns Hopkins University

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