By Theo AndersonBy now it’s a cliché that water will be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th. Its scarcity, along with our refusal to create more sustainable living patterns, threatens global turmoil. Fred Pearce made this case persuasively in When the Rivers Run Dry.But water also poses a completely different threat, one that has to do with abundance rather than scarcity.The shelves loaded with bottled water in grocery and convenience stores are one of the great triumphs and frauds of modern marketing. In 2008, the average American consumed 30 gallons of bottled water each year, which is 20 times more than the average in 1976. Water is sold as a kind of magical elixir: pure and pristine, captured directly from a source deep in the heart of nature.In fact, as Peter Gleick writes in his new book Bottled and Sold, these claims are just a big dose of bad faith, since much of the product is processed tap water. And the bottled water that’s actually captured from springs is often less safe than tap water, because government regulation of the industry is lax or non-existent. Elizabeth Royte covered much of this ground last year, in Bottlemania.The tangible costs of our addiction to bottled water are terrible enough. Plastic bottles are tossed into the trash and end up in landfills at the rate of about 1,000 every second in the United States, Gleick estimates. But the intangible costs are even greater, because the act of buying bottled water—paying good money for an inferior product—is a small but significant statement of values. It’s a vote. It says that private companies do a better job of supplying drinking water than government agencies.It also helps create a vicious cycle. If we’re willing to shell out money for the “magical” powers of expensive bottled water, we’re less likely to invest money in the infrastructure and regulatory mechanisms that keep our tap water safe. So the brilliantly designed plastic bottle with all the pretty pictures isn’t just a way of soaking consumers. It’s also an argument for the worst of both worlds: bad private water, and bad public water. Bad news, any way you look at it.
Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.