Backwash

back·wash

/ˈbakˌwôSH,ˈbakˌwäSH/
(noun)

· The cleaning of a filter by reversing the flow;

· The backward current of water or air created by the motion of an object through it;

· The motion of receding waves.

Where I live, water is precious. Supply is limited to what can be drawn from the aquifer, from my well, drilled some 400 feet into the granite below the surface of the land. The water seeps; it does not gush; and when I consume it — to drink, or wash, or to irrigate my plants and vegetables — I know how long it will take before it will replenish what I have consumed.

The test results from samples taken from my well reveal what the water contains: minerals and other natural chemicals, some toxic if consumed in quantities, grit from the grinding of the glaciers or the bit of the drilling rig, organic stuff that has been seeped along from deep within the center of the earth. I have a filter in my basement designed to sift out those things, and I can see its effect in the cylinder where the filtrate accumulates. To clear the system, I must backwash it on a regular basis, clean the filter by reversing the flow.

That same system is used at greatly increased scale in freshwater filtration and salt water desalination, a similar process requiring powerful reversal of flow to clean out debris and toxins contained in a greatly amplified volumetric flow. We accumulate the flug of our use, reverse the flow, and clean the filter to enable that use to continue, cleansed and sustaining.

We are agents of backwash, as objects moving through water and air, motion created by our values, structures, and behaviors we create the movement; we understand that our system cannot continue safely or successfully unless somewhere, sometime along the way we stop, reverse the flow, clean up our mess, and begin again.

Are we not now in a backwash moment? Do we not see the residue our consumption that has polluted natural cleansing systems and species beyond their natural capacity? Do we not understand that when we have depleted, consumed or poisoned the oxygen in a place, that we have created in that place where plants, animals, all life cannot grow? Do we not see that a red tide, a surfeit of algae that corrupts ocean water for sea life, but also for sea bathers, is comparable evidence of a destructive behavior untreated and turned against the natural world and our successful living within it?

What we do to re-establish the systems that clean and protect us? One method, itself a type of backwash, is called bio-remediation, a technology that enables the decontamination of soil and groundwater and the clean up our oceans after oil spills and other environmental disasters. There are three basic approaches at work:

  • Microbial bioremediation that uses microorganisms to break down contaminants by using them as a food source;
  • Phytoremediation that uses plants to bind, extract, and clean up pollutants such as pesticides, petroleum hydrocarbons, metals, and chlorinated solvents; and
  • Mycoremediation that uses fungi’s digestive enzymes to break down contaminants such as pesticides, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals.

The strategy here is to use natural elements to detoxify and cleanse the consequences of a man-made technology that has caused the seemingly final destruction of natural systems. The process is at once astonishing and absurd. We are using Nature to reclaim Nature from our toxic behavior, in essence, we are using nature as a backwash system to reverse the flow of our indifferent, destructive movement through air and water. Nature is the filter through which we must seek to redress our actions. What if our values had protected us from those actions in the first place?

Finally, backwash is the motion of receding waves — waves of the sea, waves of social change, waves of political awareness and reaction to set things right again. We are all Citizens of the Ocean and we are making waves.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 12 years this year, with more than 600 episodes produced to date.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 12 years this year, with more than 600 episodes produced to date.

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