This month’s book club selection was Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It by Elizabeth Royte. In the spirit of books like Fast Food Nation, Royte seeks to educate (scare?) us by peeling back the curtain to look at ins and outs of the water industry, specifically as it relates to bottled water.
She frames her argument by focusing on a seemingly small local issue in a town near Portland, Maine. The pond on Howard Dearborn’s property is losing water and he thinks it’s due to over-pumping by Poland Springs, one of Nestle many brands. It’s a classic struggle between small town America and a multi-national corporation. (Apparently Nestle is the largest food company in the world–who knew?)
By looking at the issues surrounding this case, Royce tells a compelling story about water use and policy in America. From pumping and bottling to purifying and delivering water to our taps, she presents complex scientific and legal information in terms that even I can understand.
I generally like books that make me think and that help me understand things in different ways. Although I had some slight issues with some of the writing and the arguments, I can definitely recommend this book.
Among the things I learned are
There is no easy answer. Bottled water isn’t inherently evil, but it’s not that good, either. Yes, it’s expensive and it causes a lot of waste. But more than that, the proliferation of bottled water is undermining our trust in public water systems. The less we trust public supplies, the less likely they are to be maintained.
On an even deeper level, Royte argues that clean, drinkable water is a human right… not a commodity to be bought and sold by the powerful elite. By increasing our dependence on bottled water, we are denying that right to those people (the young, the old, the sick) who are at risk.
Simply drinking tap water might not be the answer, either. She does a great job of explaining how water is processed and the steps it takes to get from your local aquifer (or lake, or river) to your faucet.
The safety of our water supply is connected to so many things. In addition to a basic human need, water is used in manufacturing, in food production, in beer(!). Ensuring a usable water supply is just as important–if not more so– than other conservation/environmental issues.
In the end, the book left me feeling much more informed. It also left me feeling a little hopeless. I’m fine with tap water. I have a jug of it in my fridge at all times and try to avoid bottled water as much as possible. But I’m not sure where to go from there.
Luckily, there’s a page of water links on the web site for the book. If you’re interested in learning more, pick up the book or check out some of the links.