March 24th, 2006

Voted for Dean

Cool Clear Water

Back in the 1970s, John Brunner wrote a series of approximately annual disaster novels based on the best-selling disaster-prediction book of the previous year: for example, Stand on Zanzibar from Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb and The Shockwave Rider from Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. But the grimmest but perhaps most tightly written, a favorite of mine as often as I can stand the depressing tone, is his The Sheep Look Up from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

As with a lot of Brunner novels, there are a lot of characters and subplots going around, but one of the side stories involves a couple of guys who are setting up a business offering home water purifiers. Americans were rapidly losing faith in the quality of their air and buying and wearing a lot of filter masks, and finally getting serious about pollution control for cars and starting to buy lower-emissions vehicles, and losing faith in the quality of their food and driving up the prices (and stock price) of Puritan, the (fake, mafia-owned) company that advertises the only produce organically grown on supposedly uncontaminated land. So these two guys figure that losing faith in the municipal water systems is next, and fortunately for them, one of them knows of a third world factory that produces ... well, actually, what it produces is a pretty good prediction of the Pur brand faucet-mounted water filter, a combination of ceramic micro-particle filtration and activated carbon for chemical neutralization. Brunner incorrectly assumed that it would take plumbers to install these things, but correctly predicted that the real money would be in selling replacement cartridges. But one of the other predictions about the water filter business that, to my taste, didn't come true enough is that in the book, when their product hit the market, it was a huge political issue, and there was a major hostile backlash against them. Brunner thought that the vast majority of Americans would take it as a personal insult that these guys were claiming that America had fallen so far that it could no longer offer even its poorest citizens clean drinking water.

Would that it were so. But now at least half of even my poor and working class friends either use Pur or Brita water filters for their drinking water or else they buy their drinking water at the store in plastic bottles and carry it home. I got into the habit myself during a brief stay in San Francisco's south bay area, where industrial contamination had rendered the drinking water foul looking, foul smelling, and undrinkable; in that neighborhood, even the cheapest grocery stores had bottled-water refill-dispensing vending machines outside.

Americans now consider safe drinking water, like health care, to be something that only people who pay quite a bit extra for are entitled to. Enough extra, in fact, that until the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina disrupted the supply chain, under some circumstances drinking water was more expensive per gallon than gasoline.

One of the prejudices I inherited from several of my favorite science fiction authors, including Robert Heinlein, is that it is entirely fair to judge a civilization by its plumbing. Gods save us all.

We've mostly lost our ability to be outraged about this in America, but there are still some flickers of outrage in Latin America, where capitalist economics too rapacious even for the USA have come to about half the region. Under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF and the US, countries that were failing to provide enough clean drinking water, and more importantly failing to deliver it the last mile to people's homes, were persuaded to let American companies come in and take over their local water utilities ... but without the utility regulation that we take for granted in every state of the US. The result was the classic "hydraulic empire" situation. Rather than settle for cost-plus pricing like they have to do in America, these companies cheerfully treated their water monopoly as a weapon to wield for the purpose of looting those countries of everything that wasn't nailed down or could be pried loose. This so outraged the population that it managed to make even Marxism attractive enough to win elections in places like Venezuela and others. And even in places where the Marxists haven't yet seized control of the governments, Marxist populist legislators put enough pressure on that the countries finally revoked the American companies' water monopolies ...

... who will have the last laugh, unfortunately, because they're bringing the same practice to Latin America that they test-marketed on us. See Mark Stevenson, "Bottled Water Big for Multinationals," dateline Mexico City, Associated Press for March 21st.

World War III won't be fought over oil. Every time a geologist throws a rock in a random direction, it seems like, he finds more oil. And if push comes to shove, we can live without oil. But, as dying elderly people reminded us in New Orleans last year, you really can't go five days without drinking water, and one by one our governments are throwing up their hands and giving up on delivering it even in non-emergency situations. World War III may well be fought over cool, clear water.