Circle of Blue's Carl Ganter Wants To Change How We Think About Water

A key technological evolution came closer to home when Ganter and Eileen, who married after meeting at Interlochen Public Radio, collaborated on a project called With These Hands, a collection of stories about farm families near Traverse City published in late 2000. What the couple pitched to the Kellogg Foundation, which funded it, was fairly straightforward: a 52-page magazine and a website.

“But then Final Cut Pro [a video editing program] came out halfway through the year, so we added a documentary film, and we did a 12-part radio series on WTCM.” Even for Ganter and Eileen, a writer and radio reporter, the cumulative effect of working the story so thoroughly in multimedia—print, radio, film, web—wasn’t evident until it was all over, and they could see it play out. Months later, when it came time to launch Circle of Blue, the couple knew that multi-media had to be a foundation component of the storytelling. Subsequently they consulted for major news organizations about multimedia reporting and taught multi-media storytelling for eight years at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

When Ganter and Eileen’s daughter Kira was born, the event led the new parents to some bigger questions, like, What kind of world would she inherit? “We wanted to do something that felt good and important,” Eileen says. Living amid a global center of freshwater, they naturally put water on the short list. She remembers pulling out an article called, “Water the Miracle Molecule,” from the Cousteau Society, and the two shared wonder over what two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen meant to the world. “Water felt right,” she says.

Circle of Blue conducted a survey that asked 1,000 people in each of 25 nations about their top environmental priorities. “Number one was water scarcity, and number two was water quality.”

But when they each paged through a report called The World’s Water, by Dr. Peter Gleick, a MacArthur Fellow and member of the National Academy of Sciences, the decision became clear. “I went out to San Francisco and knocked on Peter’s door,” Ganter says.

Gleick noticed two things about Ganter right away: first was his commitment to the issue of water, and second was his enthusiasm for applying all the tools of communication to tackling water problems. “We know how to solve our water problems,” Gleick says. “We don’t need to invent new technology, new institutions and new financial mechanisms. But we’ve failed to solve our water problems, and so part of the challenge, a big part of challenge, is communicating in a new and different way.” Circle of Blue, Gleick says, “is filling that niche better than anyone else in the field.”

Circle of Blue has done much on precious little resources, many times working grant-to-grant and with gratefully acknowledged local contributions, but Ganter and Eileen and virtually everybody else familiar with the organization’s work agree it has to expand dramatically to achieve the changes that water and policy experts see are needed worldwide. In a recent San Francisco planning session that included top data management people from Google and image makers from globally renowned design agencies, the consensus was that Circle of Blue must not only be bigger, but also think even bigger than the big ways it already thinks.

Imagine data-gathering and reporting outposts—bureaus, stringers—flung across the globe. Picture arrays of computers storing massive amounts of water information and staff people trained to analyze it, and present it in novel and compelling ways. Picture Circle of Blue stories, in print, on the web, in video and radio, on Android phones and in multiple languages connecting with people’s intellect and emotions all over the planet. Consider leaders convening with an Apollo-style intensity and urgency to solve some particular water problem using Circle of Blue data and convening skills as the means for reaching a better solution faster.

To move world decisionmakers, “this information has to escape conference rooms and Powerpoint,” Ganter says.That means finding a large grant somewhere, large as in the tens of millions of dollars range. Still, he points out that such a sum is tiny relative to global water expenditures or health costs needed to treat water-borne disease, or to avoid global-scale disasters. Even before his advisors recently told him to think bigger, Ganter has known he needed greater funding to fulfill his and Eileen’s mission, and large money had to start with large reputation.

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