Published on December 6th, 2013 |
by Ben Lucas
Image © Albert Herring 2011
I got a free bottle of water today. But should I be happy about it?
Before embarking on my train journey to work the other day, I was handed a free bottle of water. Initially I accepted this with great joy. As it was, I was parched and needed a drink. But as I quenched my thirst, I began to wonder why I had been given it for free?
One of the first lessons I ever learned in economics was that nothing is really a free good. Everything always costs something. If there is a limited supply of a good then use of that good incurs an opportunity cost i.e. that resource could have had an alternative use elsewhere, and more than likely an actual monetary cost. Water on the other hand is one of those free goods. There is such great abundance that use by one does not affect another’s use of it.
I am not saying that we should take this mantra seriously and value EVERYTHING we have on a cost based decision as the current brand of politics would have it – the rhetoric that seeks to legitimise privatisation, outsourcing and marketisation with all its harmful side affects. But when having this moment of joy at getting something for nothing, it is useful and quite depressing to look deeper at the politics behind this little bottle of water.
My parents talk of times past, as parents always do, where free water fountains could be found on nearly every street corner. Yes! Water was free! The idea of having to pay for a bottle of water then must have seemed ludicrous. But today the situation could not be more different.
Water should be a public utility, owned in common by everyone and accessible by everyone at all times (as should be the case with many other things!). In 2010 the UN general assembly passed a resolution formally recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. According to the UN, “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights”.
However whilst in theory the right to free accessible drinking water is there, in practice there are many things going on that go against this principle. Currently, we have private bottled water companies, such as Nestlé, tapping the ground water supply for virtually nothing and then selling it back to us! In Canada and America petitions and campaign groups have popped up across the country, arguing that communities should be in greater control and ownership of their water supply. Similarly, Nestlé has moved into Pakistan, allegedly rendering large areas uninhabitable after draining the water supply, in order to sell “mineral-enriched” water to the west and local upper, while the poor watch wells run dry. According to the petition, in the small village of Bhati Dilwan, villagers have watched their water table sink hundreds of feet since Nestlé has moved in.
If this human right is going to be of any use at all then it seems pretty obvious to me that you have to take money out of the equation. The idea of only having human rights if you can afford them is completely contradictory to what a human right is. The idea of a human right is that you have it no matter what. In practice rights mean nothing if they cant be realized.
Furthermore, quantifying the environmental pollution associated with the commercial production of plastic bottles is astronomical. Apparently, in order to produce the number of plastic water bottles used in one year in the US is enough to fuel 1 million cars. This is not including all the shipping and transportation pollution involved. Also many plastic bottles end up in landfill, or end up being dumped in large mountains of to-be-recycled waste in poorer countries backyards.
So now that I have thought about my free bottle of water some more, I have realised that it unfortunately does not represent the altruistic nature in all human beings. Instead it was a simple PR stunt to attempt to cleanse a big company of the regular sins they commit. In hindsight, the initial glee that I experienced when getting my free bottle of water is in fact a classic reminder of the corporate capitalist world we live in; a world where human rights are dependent on wealth, the practice of profits for the few reign supreme and mass environmental pollution is the inevitable by-product of capitalism.
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