Sunday, June 24, 2007

Why I hate bottled water

I just read that San Francisco banned bottled water. Right on, bottle-free city by the bay! I hope that the rest of the world follows your shining example (although that hasn't happened so far with cable-cars, pyramid buildings, or Twinkie-inspired political assassinations).

A lot of people hate the bottled-water fad, for a lot of reasons
  • Environmental: The most frequent complain against bottled water is its high environmental cost.

  • Financial: One of Mayor Newsom's reasons for banning bottled water is simply to save the city a lot of money.

  • Embarrassment: It just makes us feel stupid, as a species, if even Andy Rooney can see how easily we'll fall for the lure of paying for what is inferior to the free product.

Those are all good reasons to hate bottled water, but I have a bigger complaint. The primary reason I hate bottled water is social: if the bottled water trend continues it will soon lead to severe hardship for the poorest 20% of our society. Here’s how that will happen: As potable drinking water because privatized, through the growing tend to buy bottled water, affluent citizens will see fewer and fewer reasons to pay municipal fees to make tap water drinkable. (Current laws regulating the purity of tap water are stricter than those regulating bottled water. Meeting these strict standards costs money.) Affluent taxpayers will look at their water bills and think "I get my drinking water from bottles, I would never drink water from a tap. Why should I pay hard-earned money for something I never use?! I demand cheaper water. I demand smaller government, fewer special interest regulations, and taxpayer justice." These affluent taxpayers will stop funding such a high level of water purification and, soon, public water will no longer be pure enough to drink. Most people will be able to afford bottled water, but some, the poorest 20% of the economy, will not. The underclass will be forced to drink unsafe water from the tap.

And that’s my main complaint against privatized (a.k.a. bottled) water.

Think that won’t happen? Think again. We have plenty of examples of what transpires to society when a previously public resource becomes privatized. Always the bottom 20% get the shaft. It happened with public transportation when privatized transportation (a.k.a. the automobile) caught on (brilliantly documented in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"); the issue is now less about who has to move to the back of the bus than it is about finding a bus route that’s still in service. It happened again with the telephone: with so many affluent people now using privatized roaming phones (a.k.a. cell phones) the number of public phones (those that the poor rely on) has plummeted. In some areas we’re starting to see the same thing with privatizing security services versus the municipal police.

Let us learn from experience of other countries experimenting with privatization and see where that leads. Take Belgistan, for instance. Early in the previous century the Belgistanians were going through the same industrial revolution as were other European countries. The resulting air pollution problems plagued Belgistan, as it did other countries. But Belgistan took a different approach to solving the air pollution problem. Where other countries took steps to regulate clean air for all, Belgistan privatized clean air. The bulk of Belgistanians purified their indoor air, and when out in public wore oxygen tanks. The wealthiest of the Belgistanians purchased tanks of air imported from far-off exotic lands such as Tonga, Finland, and NYC. Middle-class Belgistanians bought more-generic brands of air, in bulk, from CostCo. The poorest 20% could not afford bottled air and just had to make do. As a result, these poor were often sick (the wealthier citizens wondered why the lazy underclass lacked the moral will to take care of themselves and their children), often missed work, or simply died without the good sense to call in to their employer first. Without a living, breathing underclass no one was left to mow lawns, wash pots in the restaurants, clean house, or do any of the other tasks that the superior 4/5ths of society are no longer able to perform (those skills having been lost through atrophy). The eventual collapse of the Belgistanian government, while not the sole reason behind Europe’s instabilities of the time, is certainly recognized by most historians as one of the precipitating causes of the continental slide into World War I.

There are numerous other historical examples of what happens to a society when public resources become privatized. For further research into this topic, I suggest the excellent documentary, Urinetown, about what happened when public urinals became privatized. Also, for the exception that proves the rule, look at the record of Stanstanistan, which recently reversed the privatization of sex (a.k.a. prostitution), made sex workers freely available to all citizens of every socioeconomic class, and is now a veritable utopia (I’d provide a link and more details on this story, but it has come to my attention that my recent blogs have been tagged as "possibly offensive" by some RSS readers, and so I leave it to you, dear reader, to conduct your own research into the flowering revitalization of Stanstanistan).

So what will our world be like when everything is privatized? The poor underclass will get wrenchingly sick on tap water (due to privatization of drinking water). They’ll be unable to catch a bus to the hospital (privatization having led to public transportation disappearing). They’ll be unable to call an ambulance (privatization having led to public pay-phones disappearing). If they do find a phone they’ll be unable to dial 911 (privatization of education leading to them being unable to count that high). If they do make it to the hospital, they’ll be unable to pay (privatized medicine). Their dead bodies will litter our sidewalks (privatization leading to all the poor people being dead, leaving no one to operate the leaf-blowers that clean our sidewalks). Do we really want that? Search your soul, America, do you really want messy sidewalks?

And it all begins with bottled water. I consider the public availability of potable drinking water (first accomplished on a large scale by the Romans) to be the single greatest advancement in the history of civilization (barely ahead of the invention of beer, and only slightly beating out the creation of the nonstop farting kitty). This greatest of all civic achievements is being undermined by bottled water, and San Francisco is coming to the rescue.
    You are a hero, San Francisco
    You built that city on Rock & Roll
    Now you save its soul on H2O

End of part 1. Next week: Government of Poopoopistan finds itself in deep doo doo after banning public toilets.


  1. Long bottled-water article just showed up on Fast Company: Message in a Bottle

  2. If you don't know how to read, listen to an interview with the author of that Fast Company article on NPR here

  3. Ah, but there's one big flaw in your logic - evolution. Through Darwin's theory of evolution, 50% of the poor drinking untreated water will die leaving the other 50% stronger. Meanwhile the 80% will become less and less tolerant to bugs. Rolling electricity blackouts in 2120 , caused by NIMBYism refusal to address the energy problems will impact the purity of the bottled water leading to the 80% of the 80% dying from the contaminated water or from thirst from refusing to drink the tap water. The poor eventually always get the last laugh.

  4. Tap water is disgusting! I am from Toronto,and there is supposedly great tap water here. I have been all over town and tried it in many diffenr places,and its always about the same,totally nauseating. I am sure it is the same if not worse in other major cities,so if you think tap water tastes ok your taste buds must be very dull !

  5. If you're a fellow bottled-water-hater, this Think Outside the Bottle campaign may be a good place to start.