First Impressions – The Ripple Effect

Sometimes I read for pleasure, but often my reading takes me on a journey ranging from pain, frustration, through to a cathartic release of anger at how stupid we are sometimes. While reading can be an escape from the mundane moments of life, some books remind me to look closer at the people around me, the people who are impacted by the decisions I make each day as an engineer, the people who deserve, at the very least, a chance at a healthy life lived out in relative safety.

I may be kidding myself in believing that my supposedly rational thoughts represent some level of moral or ethical standard that we should expect from professionals of all descriptions, but from my observations as a casual observer and (sometimes unwilling) participant in this Western wonderland nirvana called North America, we’ve messed up our priorities on many levels, to the point of placing corporate profits and GDP above life itself.

The book that has got me thinking these dark thoughts, (and I’m only on page 24), is The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century. Written with a similar style to The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, it follows some highlights of recent water history, examining the topic from a wide range of angles.

A passage that makes me shudder, describing the historical dumping of oil and chemicals in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the subsequent redevelopment of the sites to allow residential development, and the health effects that are likely attributed to the issue, is excerpted below:

“I used to think my cancer was an act of God. But now that I know more about the pollution, I’m rethinking that,” he said. I’m coping, I guess. But I still have sleepless nights.” Although he lacks conclusive epidemiological evidence, Sebastian Pirozzi believes the oil spill and Greenpoint’s cancer cluster are linked. “Bone cancer is very rare,” he said. “To have all this rare cancer in one place? It’s just too much of a coincidence.” The oil underground was invisible and easy to overlook, he said, and no government or oil company officials explained the possible health consequences of industrial pollution. In the 1970s Greenpoint residents “didn’t even know what an oil spill was,” Pirozzi said. “No one was savvy enough to connect the chemicals to all the sickness. No one was up in arms. You just didnt hear about it.”

Pirozzi first learned of the oil spill in 2006, when he read a small newspaper article about it and showed it to his neighbors. “People were amazed—’How can there be so much oil under our houses and nobody told us?’

Excerpt: The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century

The book is filled with examples of mankind’s ingenuity to mess things up, and when it comes to water and the way we’ve used and abused it, there is little evidence that we’ve understood how precious it is, and our response to this growing knowledge is painfully slow.

Some would see water a a pretty dry subject, (pun intended), but this book presents an engaging and fresh look at the web of interconnected ways we are messing with this vital resource, often in the name of corporate profits.

For my Canadian readers, The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century at

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.