Is Water Life?

The idea that ‘water is life’ is something beyond a normative claim. Rather, Mark Bosch writes, as bodies of water ourselves, always already imbricated in the ebbs and flows of this world, it is an ethical imperative for which we must fight.

Image by Amy Hamerly, via Unsplash

water is life becuz our bodies are 60 percent water
becuz my wife labored for 24 hours through wave contractions
becuz our sweat is mostly water and salt
becuz she breathed and breathed and breathed
water is life becuz our lungs are 80 percent water
becuz water broke forth from her body
becuz amniotic fluid is 90 percent water
becuz our daughter crowned like a coral island
water is life becuz our blue planet is 70 percent water . . .

— Craig Santos Perez, Chanting the Water (2016)

It should come as no surprise that water, without which life as we know it would not exist, flows to fathomless depths with meaning. From the biblical flood to its bottling and branding, from Tangaroa to the tidemark where Foucault’s face of man is washed away, from the Water Protectors at Standing Rock to the rising cost of seawalls…water is everywhere on this bounded, blue planet.1 We fear and cherish and scorn it. We take it for granted, treating it like it forgets; like we can afford to forget it. We know this all too well in and around so-called Australia, where the effects of the disastrously mismanaged Murray-Darling river system are killing communities and ecosystems, where the largest and deepest artesian basin in the world is under threat of unparalleled—but not unprecedented— extraction and contamination, where the Great Barrier Reef is literally fading from life.2 As Astrida Neimanis puts it, water can and does “take an unbelievable amount of our shit — literally and figuratively” — but its ability to do so is starkly finite.3 Although water may be, in Jamie Linton’s words, “what we make of it”, water also makes and exceeds us in the eddies and maelstroms of complex Earth systems.4 5 We need to be more alive to an already-here world of compromised bodily and environmental flows, from bioamplified substances to unstable, plastic-ridden ocean currents. We are all toxic now.6

As I write this, my brain won’t stop repeating, like a mantra, the words more plastic than fish by 2050More plastic than fish by 2050. More plastic than fish by 2050. There’s always a part of me wondering how to even begin thinking this horror. How to begin even one of the reparative and recuperative projects that might generate some glimmer of goodness amongst all this violent depredation of life?

Start simple. Water means a lot to us because “water is life”. Craig Santos Perez and the decal covering my laptop’s Apple logo tell me so. Water is life, and I am one of its many bodies. And as a body of water, I can no longer imagine myself safely swaddled beyond the reaches of the watery world’s reckoning. As Neimanis reminds us, “bodies of water puddle and pool. They seek confluence. They flow into one another in life-giving ways . . . [w]e owe our own bodies of water to others, in both dribbles and deluges”.7 That is to say, I am accountable to other bodies of water, whether they be notionally human, animal, plant, river, ocean, or otherwise.

So one answer to the question ‘what is water?’ is that it is what “makes ethics possible” on this planet.8 It gives and gives and gives; it allows us to live well with each other. And when the waters are in poor health, it is a sign we are as well. But the great resilience of communities like Walgett and Collarenebri should give us hope. They remind us that “culture is stronger than contamination”, in Jason De Santolo’s words, and that it is possible to look to more positive futures together by remembering and honouring what has been. For all Australians, this means honouring place and culturally-specific ways of living and knowing that have been practiced for millennia. To be able to share a journey to good health premised on Aboriginal self-determination would be a gift for us all. But this also means not getting caught in an essentialist politics of purity or primitivism. This is not a journey back —it is a journey forward, and no doubt a nonlinear one with plenty of stumbles and setbacks. We need to face up to the fact that life everywhere has been painfully scarred, at least for the next however many generations, by petrochemical worship. And even as we see through the last days of this twisted doctrine, it is possible to see glimmers of goodness, not just at a crystalline mountain spring, but in the late-afternoon coruscations that shimmer across a suburban backwater.

I have lived near the Georges River in southwest Sydney my entire life. The water has been thick with algae, weeds, industrial and household pollutants for several decades, and thus for as long as I can remember. And yet, this portion of the river was still swimmable until about 1950, when hundreds of families would gather on summer weekends to cool off and enjoy the adjacent parklands. And before that, when it was called only Toggerai: think of those life-giving waters. There is no going back. But what a blip in time is this. Capitalist ‘deathwork’, to use Deborah Bird Rose’s term, is the exception, not the rule. It is possible to desire differently.

As surely as “we mix language, gods, bodies, and thought with water to produce the worlds and the selves we inhabit”, water mixes and helps to produce these things in us.9 If we begin from a position of accountability to bodies of water, with great respect and reciprocity for all they give, we can refuse the sure horror of plastic oceans and paraffin arteries. Other possibilities open up. ‘Water is life’ is no longer a simple adage but becomes a call to action. To declare ‘water is life’ is to ask: what kind of life?

To pose this question critically is to do so without recourse to the usual fear-mongering political scripts that propound a return to purity. Fear only sends us back into ourselves and away from actively working to understand the reality of the situation. Fear sponsors the deathwork that seeks to subtract a particular way of life from the world, and in this sense is perhaps the greatest obstacle to our flourishing in a bioculturally diverse world, especially as understandable ecological anxieties proliferate and risk being channeled into politically expedient scapegoating. Maybe we can make different normative claims, such as: better or worse worlds come into being on the basis of whether we expand or limit respectively the potential for others to flourish alongside —but not be answerable to — us.10 This claim is by no means a catch-all, but it’s a generative place to start and, I think, significantly less problematic than starting from purity and fear. Using this claim to think more plastic than fish by 2050, for example, turns us towards caring and being accountable for those fish and other marine creatures whose potentials have become so profoundly constrained, rather than simply the paralysing horror of so much plastic and the need to save ourselves, if only to allow the fictions hiding the real scale and complexity of our destructive practices to continue their hold on us for a little bit longer.

As a prior student of gender studies, I am in general reasonably suspicious of normative claims. But I also believe it is important that critique lead to affirmative propositions for what our worlds ought to become.11 Water being life cannot be taken for granted. It is something for which we must fight. Listening to and chanting with Craig Santos Perez taught me that “water is life” is a battle cry.12

. . . becuz corporations steal, privatize, and bottle our waters
becuz sugar, pineapple, corn, soy, and gmo plantations divert our waters
becuz concentrated animal feeding operations consume our waters
becuz they use 660 gallons of water to make one hamburger
becuz pesticides, chemicals, oil, weapons, and waste poison our waters . . .


1. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Routledge: London UK and New York NY, 2002 [1966]: 422.
2. Jonathan Lamb, “Understanding the Loss of Colour”, in The Aesthetics of the Undersea, eds. Margaret Cohen and Killian Quigley, Routledge: London UK and New York NY, 2019, 54-66.
3. Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology, Bloomsbury: London UK and New York NY, 2017, 184.
4. Jamie Linton, What is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction, UBC Press: Vancouver BC, 2010, 3.
5. cf. Neimanis, Bodies of Water, 153–186.
6. Teena Gabrielson, “The Everyday Toxicity of the ‘Average’ North American Home”, in The Greening of Everyday Life: Challenging Practices, Imagining Possibilities, eds. John Meyer and Jens Kersten, Oxford University Press: Oxford UK, 2016, 82–97.
7. Neimanis, Bodies of Water, 29.
8. Mielle Chandler and Astrida Neimanis, “Water and Gestationality: What Flows beneath Ethics”, in Thinking with Water, eds. Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis, McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal QC, 2013, 62.
9. Linton, What is Water?, 3.
10. cf. Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis MN, 154–157.
11. cf. Rosi Braidotti, “Affirmation, Pain and Empowerment”, in Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 14(3), 7–36; cf. Sara Ahmed, “Feminist Killjoys” and “Conclusion: Happiness, Ethics, Possibility” in The Promise of Happiness, Duke University Press: Durham NC, 50–87 and 199–224.
12. Craig Santos Perez, “Environmental Justice and the Power of the Pacific Word”, HumanNature Lecture Series, Australian Museum, Sydney NSW, 14 May 2019.

Mark Bosch majored in French and Gender Studies at the University of Sydney, and is an SEI Honours Fellow for 2019. He plays the violin and has since 2017 been a member of the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra. He also writes as Lead Critic for the online youth classical music magazine CutCommon, and participates in environmental justice activism. Mark lives on Darug land in southwest Sydney.

In May 2019, the Sydney Environment Institute hosted poet and author Craig Santos Perez for a series of lectures and workshops on literature, environmental justice and eco-poetry in the Pacific context.