Jerome Shea       September 29, 2007      Weekend Wonk

All day I face the barren waste
Without the taste of water, cool water
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry
And souls that cry for water, cool, clear, water.

(fr. “Cool Water,” Bob Nolan, 1941)

So it’s the late Seventies and you’re a venture capitalist. I am sitting in your office outlining my blockbuster proposal. I want to bring a new drink to market. I will package it in pint-sized plastic bottles and charge, oh, roughly what Coke and Pepsi charge for their concoctions. I see this new stuff as taking over half the beverage industry in a decade.

“Just what,” you cautiously ask, “is this revolutionary elixer?”

“Water,” I whisper, eyes a-glitter with zeal.

You laugh until the tears come and then you have your large son-in-law escort me out into the sun’s pitiless glare.

You’re not laughing now.

I ask you: is there anything in the history of marketing more mind-boggling than this bottled water phenomenon? I mean, what’s going on here (and has been going on for more than a decade)? I look out over my class: practically every one of those young people has a bottle of Poland Spring or Aquafina or Dasani peeping out of his backpack. I go over to the Student Union to check some prices. (And you thought I didn’t exhaustively research these wonks. Shame on you!) In Albuquerque right now, regular gas is going for about $2.80 a gallon (with all the taxes included). A gallon of Aquafina would, based on $1.29 for a 20 ounce bottle, set you back, with tax, over eight bucks! This is madness, friends. I have never bought a bottle of water and never will. Does this make me an insufferable snob or just eminently sensible?

The crashingly obvious point about this whole bottled water issue is that there is an alternative available. Has been for years. It’s called a “tap,” folks, and it’s right there in your kitchen. You just turn the handle on this “tap” thingy and out comes the water (go ahead; try it; I’ll wait). For eight bucks, in most localities, you can get more than a THOUSAND gallons of the stuff out of that tap! And barring the aftermath of a hurricane or some other natural disruption, it is completely safe to drink. Often, in fact, it is more pure than the bottled stuff.*

A thoroughly boggled mind is poor equipment to work with, but I have to try to speculate on what brought this about. First, though, we need to separate two things: water per se and bottled water.

Water is good for you; nobody would dispute that. If people, especially young people, are better hydrated nowadays, good for them. And water is better than about 80% of the other things that you can imbibe (soda, booze, coffee, etc.). And it is convenient to carry water with you, although that skirts the question: you can fill a water bottle—perhaps even an insulated water bottle—at your home tap in the morning, with ice, and refill it throughout the day in any urban setting. And that would cost you less than a penny a fill-up.

Bottled water, on the other hand—that bottle you bought at the Student Union for a buck twenty-nine—offers, as far as I can see, no advantage at all over what I have described above. Moreover, you are complicit in a very wasteful practice in ecological terms. First, of course, that plastic bottle is made from petroleum derivatives (i.e., oil, and I hope I need not enlarge on that point) and three quarters of those bottles do not get recycled. They wind up in overtaxed landfills or, worse, they wind up by the side of the road or in lakes or oceans and stay there virtually forever. And let’s not start on all the transportation costs involved.

Anyway, how did this madness start? Again, I can only guess. We have actually had bottled water for a very long time. The granddaddy, I would suppose, is Perrier, from France. But there is a difference. Perrier and others like it are naturally carbonated (fizzy) and since you can’t get carbonated water out of your tap (if you do you should tell your water department), there is a place for such a product, just as we buy soda water or seltzer water at the grocery store. No objection there. After a long run, soda water with a little lemon juice is very refreshing indeed—better, to my taste, than regular ice water.

So how did plain water sneak in? Probably Perrier and Evian and the like paved the way, made the idea marginally acceptable. But the leap came, I suspect, from the ecological and physical culture (an oddly old term) ideas that arose in the Seventies. Ecologically we were warned (often rightly) that poisons were pervasive—in our food, our drinks, the very air we are forced to breathe. And then we also started running or bicycling or working out at the gym, promoting our bodies as temples to good health. These were all good developments, but I suspect that tap water—perfectly innocent and good tap water—got caught up in the sweep, rather like the preacher passing out salvation tracts in the cathouse who winds up at the police station.

But that’s enough for this week. We will leave the mortified minister in the pokey for now. I need a drink.

*For much of this data, I am indebted to The Week for September 7, 2007 (“Briefing,” p. 15)

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