Sunday, August 12, 2007

Environmentalism Issue Strategy Memo, Part I

I've been reading various environmentalism-oriented anti-bottled water commentary on some blogs for the past few months, now the NYT has an article about it. The objection to bottled water is the impressive amount of energy and materials consumed to deliver a single serving-sized bottle of Dasani, or whatever your favorite brand is.

Personally, I have always been anti-bottled water because I think it is a teriffic waste of money. The idea of paying (retail) for drinking water galls me. What's next, air?

I am also sympathetic to the environmentally-based anti-bottled water objections. We do have both global warming and energy depletion to consider. A logical first step in addressing these problems is to just stop wasting, and that's what the bottled water issue seems like to me.

But.

Relatively minor issues like this carry a strategic risk for the environmental movemement(1), in my opinion. One school of thought would say that, by focusing on a something relatively easy and simple, the environmental movement can "bring people along". People get involved, ditching bottled water today, setting house temperatures more reasonably tomorrow, the week after that they start changing their driving habits, and maybe in a few years, they become a card-carrying member of the movement.

I don't think it works that way. The limits on how much energy [pun intended] people have to expend on abstract, optional issues, plus the natural tendency to avoid unwelcome change, conspire to subvert this kind of implicit, baby-steps strategy. Here's what actually happens.

Some people who drink bottled water quit or decrease their usage. Since water is generally available for free, that's a pretty easy thing to do, once you pass over the "energy hump" of deciding to do it. Those people now get to feel mildly virtuous. And they are done. They have expended all the time and devotion they have for the environment, for this year, on this one little issue.

And the people who never consumed bottled water in the first place? They go along for the ride--they get to feel even more virtuous, never having even taken up the "nasty" habit. Likewise, they, too, are done thinking about any environmentally-friendly changes they might make in the near future, having so recently conquered the bottled-water bogeyman.

Conclusion: the bottled-water issue is a reprise of the recycling issue. Part II examines the "motivation" for putting so much energy into these false paths.

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(1) Of course there is nothing like a central or coordinated environmental movement setting strategy, that is a conceptual construct. Which is why it can't have anything like an effective, cohesive, prioritized, single-minded strategy.

2 comments:

  1. I don't object to paying for water when I'm traveling, on the go, what have you. In general, I don't think water SHOULD be free except maybe from drinking fountains. But what all the press that's been focused on the waste and environmental impact of bottled water fails to address is the convenience factor. Until it's as easy, cheap and effortless to provide your own water whenever you're on the go as it is to buy a bottle at a hot-dog stand, convenience store or deli, people aren't going to give up the habit. Little of the appeal of bottled water is for perceived health or label snobbery, IMO. Convenience is really what it's all about.

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  2. That's a good point. I do think it is half-and-half, on the motivation for buying bottled water, but I could be over-estimating. I am always surprised how many people at work are drinking it.

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