Dihydrogen Monoxide, available at a store near you

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When I grow up, I want to get a job (or an internship, or just a stint in the mail room) with Corporate Accountability International, the folks who are behind the recent announcement by PepsiCo that they will label their Aquafina bottled water for what it is - tap water that's been filtered a few extra times. It's good news in the world of truth-in-marketing, and a nice success story for a so-called "corporate watchdog." (Blog entry for another day: why do we need so many corporate watchdogs? Hmmm.)

And yet, Pepsi will continue to promote the unique benefits of their Water(TM) - 0 calories, 0 sodium, 0 carbs, hooray! - just as every other bottled water maker will continue to sell their product as one of the best possible ways we can consume Water(TM). Consumers will probably continue to buy large cases of plastic bottles with plastic caps filled with Water(TM). Public drinking fountains will continue to be replaced by vending machines that glow into the night.

It would be easy to rant about the environmental impact of this trend: all that plastic, much of it not being recycled, that wasn't in circulation before this latest fad caught on; all of the resources used to ship, fly, and truck the water from one place to another. And so on.

But instead I thought it worth highlighting a piece of information I recently learned from some long and in-depth research on the web: life actually depends on water. Not like, "oh, it'll really suck if we can't have access to a good crop of water this year" like you might say about your garden harvest, but as in "oh, we'll actually die if we don't have access to water." What does that have to do with Aquafina? It's a manifestation of a dangerous trend to toward making the basic components of successful human life - food, water, shelter, community, love - products that we have to pay for instead of resources we have access to and responsibility for maintaining.

When we outsource and abdicate our role in obtaining these resources to increasingly non-local, for-profit entities, we put ourselves at risk of losing access to the resources altogether. Resources that we literally cannot live without. Yes, most of us are still paying for the water that comes into our households via municipal systems, but at least in most cases it's drawn from a local source, managed by local people who depend on it too, and recycled within the region. The diverse and localized nature of these systems insure that we're not subject to the whims of the global water market, the unexpected contamination of a far-away water source, or the inability of this week's water shipment to reach us because of bad weather. Just as with fuel, produce and groceries, and housing, when we decide that we will cede control over the source, availability, price and quality of these resources to the world of big business, we eventually find ourselves wishing we had not.

So it's a good thing that people are talking more about supporting local resources that already exist and recognizing the bottle of Aquafina for what it is - someone making money by selling something you already had reasonable access to before, just with a nicer label on it. When we move in that direction, we have a much better chance of creating a sustainable life and culture for ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Dihydrogen Monoxide, available at a store near you

  1. Can't say I agree with you much here. Resources get allocated much more efficiently when people have to pay to use them.

    As far as local/non-local goes, the market does a pretty great job of figuring that out too (except when gas costs are subsidized, but that's another problem.) I would guess that if it were more efficient to have your water transported long distances, you might not mind that as much. After all, I don't suppose you restrict selling web services only to people you know in Richmond. Most people don't demand that their laptops be made locally, for example.

    In fact, lack of control over the market is a feature, not a failure. When somebody does get control over market outcomes, usually bad things happen.

    As a small-business owner, do you ever get local people leaning on you to offer more services because they "like to support the little guy"? Instead of dealing with you in a professional and businesslike manner, some people expect to be rewarded with favors because they're dealing locally. That seems crappy to me, but that also seems to be the logical extension of your argument--what is the benefit of buying locally but to lean on the supplier?

    Here is a recent post by a bike-shop owner about that phenomenon which illustrates what I mean a little better:

    Basically, what I'm trying to say is that I really appreciate the anonymity and facelessness of the market. It's like nature or the weather to me--nobody will help you out but nobody will screw you over. Perfect competition (where it exists) is really a beautiful thing in my book.

    Finally, with regards to the final take on Aquafina: I think I've only had bottled water as a last resort. I don't mind other people drinking it though, because they are paying for the privilege. The rest of us benefit from that. Think about it. That means some people are putting in a lot of time and energy for things that make our lives better, and all they want is a pretty label in return. That is a trade that I as a member of society am more than willing to make. Aquafina is basically volunteerism!

  2. wow, good thing laptops and web sites are basic necessities! and good thing you live where clean water comes out of the tap - it would be terrible if you had to choose between dysentery and that last resort! (much of the world doesn't get to make that choice, since bottled and/or clean water just isn't available. god bless america, except the ozarks.)

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