June 8, 2008

The Morality of Bottled Water

Salon.com recently published an interesting interview with Elizabeth Royte, the author of a new book called Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.

It’s definitely worth a read, I think. One of the biggest takeaways from it is the fact that the whole “8 cups of water a day” maxim isn’t so much a myth as a misinterpretation that’s been promulgated by the water industry: yes, we need 8 cups of water a day, but we already get most of it from the water contained in the food we eat. And as with most environmentally and ethically-conscious texts, it looks like this one ultimately prescribes a local solution: get your water locally, whether it’s from a tap or—if you’re in a place that has extremely poor public water—a bottle.

I don’t really consider myself to be an environmentalist, but I really like the idea of “staying local”. For me, it’s largely just an issue of understanding small, simple systems versus enormous, complex ones. It’s also an issue of observability. Things immediately around you are easier to perceive and understand the nature of; it’s relatively straightforward to know whether the people in your community are happy with something, because they’re your friends and neighbors and you can talk to them. One of the most startling realizations I had in college while researching the issue of sweatshops was that there was actually no way for me to truly know whether people who worked in sweatshops were unhappy that they had their job without either going to the affected area and seeing things for myself or doing an enormous amount of research; otherwise, any single account portraying a positive picture could be dismissed as corporate propaganda, while authors of negative portrayals could have their own agendas. And either way, reading reams of journalistic accounts in an effort to obtain a balanced perspective or traveling the world myself would be a huge time investment. Much easier, and far more satisfying, would be to simply obtain my clothing from someone I knew and trusted, who obtained their raw materials from someone they knew and trusted, and so on.

This isn’t to say that one should be blind to the things that are affecting the globe, of course, because ultimately the things that happen around the world do affect us whether we like it or not. It’s rather that whenever I read things like this interview, I become acutely aware that it is by no means a trivial matter to be certain of what’s true and what’s not in today’s world, especially as the players become more aware of what people find truthful and use it to manipulate people to their own ends. A recent book by Farhad Manjoo called True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society seems to address this issue, and I think I may pick it up soon.

© Atul Varma 2020