182 glorious square feet: day 1 in our first apartment, while moving in (and yes, that’s a twin-sized bed)
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
Yesterday, Joe the Husband & I went on a Day Date. We said “Yeah, right” to school work, went to Taste of India for lunch & walked around the mall like we were on our first date. It. was. awesome. I wanted to keep the fun rolling, forget about my zero-waste diet for a date (mistake 1) & grab a frappuccino from the Starbucks in Target (mistake 2).
I placed my order & moved to the other end of the counter to wait for my frap (salted caramel mocha, obviously). And I saw the faucet running. Just, running. Pouring water into the sink. #firstworldproblems
My mouth fell open, & I whispered to Joe. The faucet is just running. He proposed several reasons: filling it for dishes (no); rinsing out the blender (nope, still sitting on the counter); being a completely crap company (ok, that was my suggestion).
When I first moved to Bloomington for graduate school, I needed a job. Badly. I got hired at a Starbucks–I’d been a barista at independent coffee shops for more than four years & was desperate to get back behind an espresso machine. About an hour into my shift, I noticed a faucet running. Are you using this? My coworkers looked at me. No, they explained, it’s where we rinse everything; it’s easier to just let it run.
Well, I’m shutting it off unless we’re using it. I was trying hard to be really gracious on my first day, but I could not stand next to a running faucet for five hours at a time. Each time I made a drink, I turned back to the faucet & found it running.
This was my only shift at a Starbucks–for a lot of reasons, but this is the one that rushed back to my mind when I saw the running faucet yesterday. Am I blaming Starbucks for the U.S.’s obscene amount of waster water–more than double that of other OECD countries (OECD 2005, 136-149, found in Roseland)? No, but believe me: I really, really wanted to.
But here’s the thing: most of the way through high school, I was guilty of this same type of thinking. I mean, I’d studied the water cycle. It was infinite. Water always evaporated, then it always rained down somewhere. We’re drinking water that at one point in time was drank by dinosaurs. How could anything measly Megan does affect the water supply?
Then, thanks to organizations like charity: water, I realized that there is a large difference between the infinite water cycle & finite potable water. Even in the U.S., communities are facing water privatization*. Access to water, the one resource our species needs to survive, is riddle with inequity & social injustice.
* * *
Right after we married in 2010, Joe & I moved to France. We’d found mediocre salaries teaching, and we leaped at the chance. We moved into a tiny apartment on the top floor of an old building. (See it her.)
The first time I used our toilet, I was terrified. It held roughly 5 drops of water and relied on a lot of loud noises & screeching to flush. The labels all over the thing insisted it was highly efficient. I quickly began warning guests not to be afraid of the noise when they flushed. We got used to it–mostly because it was the norm. Every restaurant, house, bar or school we visited had high-efficiency, low-flow toilets with two buttons for flushing. (You can guess what each button means.)
While our building was old & we had the tiniest apartment in the place, even our water fixtures had been brought up to high efficiency standards–faucets, shower, tiny water heater, toilet. If you know anything about how long it takes the French to retrofit things, you can understand that this is (a) a small miracle or (b) a testament to their understanding of water use. Another testament? For our 182 square-feet, we paid 15 euros ($20) for water each month–a figure derived from the average amount used in a space that size. (To put this in perspective, a flat water fee is included in my rent, encouraging us to essentially use as much as we want. At my last rental, the house of four girls paid at total of $30 every three months.)
Each day that I walked to work, I passed a gas station (station-service). I would calculate the price of gas in my head. It averaged around 1.5 euros/liter. Rounding up to four liters in a gallon and converting to USD, you get $7.85/gallon. Did you just choke on that number a little? Because I did. Every. day. Did my French friend complain about gas prices? Sort of.
They didn’t like paying for it, but these prices were also nothing new. For most of their lives, gas prices had been this high. But they made it work: they drove smaller cars, drove less, had higher fuel efficiency. They maximized their resources, and they were used to it.
Why am I talking about gas? Like water, fuel & food, Europeans have a better understanding of the finite nature of resources. They also have to live within much smaller bounds. (France is roughly double the size of Colorado.*) If they don’t economize, they’ll be relying on the rest of the world & paying even higher prices.
If the U.S. is anything, it’s proud of its size, but somewhere along the line, we seem to lose site of how our small part of consumption sums up to a larger whole. I know I’m not alone in saying that I struggle to visualize an acre. How can I visualize the systems at work across our country?
By starting small. I think the community-level projects discussed in Roseland are essential for developing a true understanding of our impact on the environment, spiraling out to a state level–operating much like a small European country striving for self-sufficiency. We keep coming back to this, but I think that reframing prices–shifting the focus away from saving pennies to being part of a larger system–is what makes efficient (fun, beautiful, exciting) water projects work. It’s what makes people understand where their toilet-flushing & tooth-brushing water goes.