A few weeks ago The Wall Street Journal reported that at least one sector of the economy is doing well: Sales of filters for home water faucets are soaring. And not just faucets—shower heads, too, since companies are promising “softer skin and hair in a week” with the improved H2O flowing through their products.
In one sense, that’s good news—it means that people are using less bottled water. Sales dropped 3.5 percent for that industry last year, driving its spokespeople crazy. “When coupled with bottled water’s safety, convenience, and healthfulness, the ‘total bottled water package’ is one consumers can feel proud about,” said the CEO of the International Bottled Water Association. But not proud enough, apparently, since the momentum is clearly with products like the $650 Aquaovo Ovopur, a “filtered dispenser resembling a giant porcelain egg,” or Design Within Reach’s “slender glass vessel with stones from the Sea of Japan coast and Binchotan charcoal for ‘odor-free water.’”
No one is happier to see Dasani and Aquafina suffering than me (and kudos to the ban-the-bottle campaigns on college campuses and elsewhere that helped drive the trend). But it still seems a little sad to see the huge boom in filters. For one thing, it’s driven by misplaced fear: Pollsters report that “pollution of drinking water is America’s number one environmental concern.” This is, simply, silly: The vast majority of Americans have access to safe, clean drinking water simply by turning on the tap. If you wanted a list of tougher environmental problems, it’s easily supplied: Think, say, raising the earth’s temperature to the point where one NASA team recently predicted we won’t be able to have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”
But say you were concerned about safe drinking water—as it turns out, there are a couple of billion people on earth who don’t have any. Instead of obsessing over the last few traces of trouble in your tap, that $650 for the giant porcelain egg would dig a decent well for an entire village.
If that sounds altogether unrealistic, then think about our own water supply. It’s good now, but maybe not for long—The New York Times reported in March that there was a major water main break every hour in some American city, in part because we’ve allowed infrastructure to decay so thoroughly. Water, it turns out, is often running through pipes that date from the century before last. A reporter described the head of the District of Columbia’s water department trying to explain the problem to residents, who refused to listen. “I pay $60 a month and I want my water,” one man said. Which is understandable, except that money won’t pay the cost of providing it.
The relentless privatization of our lives—right up to protecting our kidneys from bad water—means that we no longer think very much about each other. We will spend money to guard our own well-being, but we won’t pay to safeguard our collective health, not for strangers in other lands, not even for our own cities and towns. If there is one commodity we should think about collectively, it’s water, the most essential single element in our lives. And the greatest metaphor, from our baptism on. Whatever pours out of the $1,595 “dehumidifier/purification system” from Atmospheric Water Systems that “bypasses pipes altogether, pulling moisture from the air and sending it through a multi-step filtration process,” it’s not the living water we most need.
Bill McKibben is scholar in residence for environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont and author of The End of Nature.