reading response: H2O

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.
Coleridge

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.

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About meganbetz

human geography PhD Student at Indiana University; wife, reader, writer, baker, gardener
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15 Responses to reading response: H2O

  1. marliang says:

    Your post on social injustice/equality reminds me of water wars throughout the world, and more specifically water management. In China, most available water is located in southern China, which is also where the China’s mega cities are located, but the country’s most arable lands are located in the north. Then we get problems where the country’s rapid urbanization generates water transfers from ‘low-value agricultural uses to high-use value industrial and domestic use in china” (Khan 2009). Then we get into the issue of food security based on water access. Additionally, what can be said about urbanization, or should we say population growth? These issues become so much more complex the deeper we dig.

    Kahn S. 2009. Agricultural Water Management. Elsevier 96 (3).

    • meganbetz says:

      I think social justice in terms of water availability is the Problem To Watch. We grossly underestimate the value of agriculture, and I’m wondering if this dynamic will shift–if we’ll begin to value it more as we begin to experience scarcity–or if things will only become more desperate. (I’m way more of a pessimist than I thought.) Thanks for the comment.

  2. Addison Pollock says:

    I feel your pain when spectating water waste at the sink. Folks who leave the water running while brushing their teeth or shaving really grind my gears! My girlfriend’s aunt, for instance, was washing vegetables during a family gathering with the water running at almost full blast. It took a lot in me to refrain from turning it down for her. I find it a challenge to not come off as rude when correcting individual’s home water-use habits. I need to develop a gentle reminder for all occasions. I try to lead by example but sometimes that is not enough to get the point across.

    I was raised to conserve energy and resources in my household because essentially waste is wrong, but also because cutting consumption saves money on bills. My parents’ house typically has only a couple lights on in the whole house at night. In regards to water, my father takes what my family calls “military showers.” This is the type of shower where the water is turned on to get wet, then turned off to soap up, then turned on to rinse. The water runs for a total of one minute during the whole process. I have tried this technique, but it is difficult to form the habit (especially in the winter!).

    It is fascinating that France uses that little water with its fixtures. Does the law require that low-flow fixtures be installed in all residential buildings? Or are the water rate prices so high (like gas) that it coerces retrofitting? It is also interesting that French citizens use bidets. I would assume those use potable water too?

    • meganbetz says:

      My assumption is that it’s more of a price-based necessity than a regulation, but I’m going to check on that. I think it’s also a, “Well, that seems like a logical choice” sort of thing–which is also clear when you have a conversation with them about light bulbs. I had a few friends who were really confused by Americans’ attachment to the inefficient incandescent light. They were like, “But the more efficient bulbs are just LOGICAL.” I think they’re just coming from a very different frame of reference (as seen through their approach to most of politics, versus our own intense fear of regulation).

    • meganbetz says:

      Addison, I tried to take a “military shower” last night. All I can say is, that’s serious dedication. I made it through the shampoo, but I definitely had to turn on the warm water while conditioning…

  3. Stephanie says:

    As always Megan your blog never fails to entertain and inform! I seem to gravitate to yours because they are always so interesting. I am a Starbucks aficionado myself, no one seems to make a macchiatto as well as they do so I always gravitate towards them. One thing I found interesting when I was doing research as an undergrad, I had thought Starbucks was pretty unsustainable, but by the time I was working on my project I had actually found that they were the most sustainable coffee chain at the time. They promoted fair trade coffee, recycled a ton, tried to use local milks in their stores, and had high efficiency in their store. I was pleasantly surprised. But great behind the scenes observation. Once you mentioned their running sink I realized it is pretty much that way at all of them. Hopefully they reform their bad habits.

    • meganbetz says:

      This is so reassuring! I have a laundry list of complaints against the chain, so I’m glad to hear some good things. Through my (one day) experience & through friends who had tenures there, I haven’t heard/seen recycling or local milk… so it’d be interesting to see which markets those are found in. I’m definitely looking into that–and forcing myself to be a bit more open-minded.

  4. John Hiestand says:

    Fun article. I was hoping you were going to talk about that rain garden you have pictured. For my personal project I’m doing some ecological landscaping, and I think that might be cool to factor that in.
    You are so right about how smaller countries have to economize and be efficient out of necessity. When I was in South Korea, I experienced all of the energy policies that I thought I would love to see in the US: minimum 28 degree indoor temps in the summer, strong public transportation, no ac on many subway cars (1 cool car/train) and stations. Ironically, I ended up realizing how incredibly uncomfortable these policies can sometimes be, and how we take for granted our abundant resources and frivolous energy use. Try being packed into an unairconditioned subway car like sardines at 8am in August, or being a productive public servant when you are sweating in your cubicle. I guess what I learned is that energy and resource efficiency comes with inherent reality checks that American culture would not be as open to.

    • meganbetz says:

      Sorry for the rain garden tease… It’s the only water picture I have for now. (I’m working on that.) I’d LOVE to talk to you about the garden or connect you to someone that can help. Chad actually helped with ours at the Kitchen, I think; he’s a great resource.

      And yes–it gets so uncomfortable. France doesn’t really have air conditioning in a lot of places. The trams did, but older buildings (like the Opera) hadn’t yet been retrofitted). It’s frustrating at times, but you’re all pit-stained together & make it through. Eventually, you just stop thinking about it. Well, you think about it, but it’s become what life is & you come to terms. I get frustrated about how much we whine when we have to face any discomfort, but you much we brag about our willingness to fight for our rights/what we believe.

  5. I really liked your article. I was especially interested in your discussion of how people adjust to different circumstances and different prices–of gas, for instance. There is a whole literature in economic development which talks about how, in the developing world, some women’s preferences adjust to what society is willing to provide them. In other words, just creating policy out of women’s preferences, and hoping for a Western result, is sometimes a fool’s errand.

    Your discussion of water consumption around the world reminds me that there are different standards for potable water in different countries. When I was quite young, I travelled to Mexico, drank the water there, and spent the next two weeks sick with Montezuma’s revenge. At any rate, my point is that even things we think are universal–like standards for drinking water–in fact vary from country to country.

    Again, liked your article, and will be vigilant about wasted water in coffee shops.

    • meganbetz says:

      The literature you mention sounds great; I’m going to look into that. I love a lot of the studies/literature surrounding economic development & the role of women, so I’m sure this will be more interesting reading. And I was fortunate enough to still be in a developed country with comparable water standards… Phew. (I really like charity: water, a nonprofit dealing with the issue of water access/standards: http://www.charitywater.org/.)

  6. Mark Milby says:

    Your blogs are always the easiest to read. And props for responding to everyone’s comments.

    I love hearing about France because it’s an example of how society can use less resources without really trying. It sounds like my impact would be smaller if I kept my same lifestyle but just lived it in France. Smaller impact, little or no reduction in comfort. We all know how eye-rolling curtailment pleas are, and frankly, I think they drive people away from thinking about their actions. For example, we shouldn’t have to feel bad about flushing the toilet or using water while conditioning – but when our toilets use 5 gallons per flush, the simple truth is that we’re committing crimes against nature in the name of sanitation. Increasing the efficiency of water- and energy-using appliances has to be priority. I shouldn’t have to feel bad when Heidi and I are shivering so I turn the heat on. People have to be allowed a moderate level of comfort and hygiene. But, to you points above, no one will make or install those efficient appliances without market pressure (high prices).

    Blaming people for their actions rarely results in progress (not that you did this at all – I’m just full-tilt into my own tangent/rant). I mean, sure, the bros at the football tailgate are certainly responsible, in a direct sense, for throwing their Keystone can on the ground. But when you step back and see that there were no trash or recycling receptacles around, and that everyone else had thrown theirs on the the ground, the picture starts to look different. When society says a big, boring, fescue lawn is the pinnacle of achievement, good luck getting the sheeple to do otherwise. If society said throw yourself off a cliff, I’m sure plenty of people would do it. As long as foamy-lipped Starbucks customers continue to buy their venti mochafrap without complaining about recycling, water wasting, or greenwashing, we are, in my opinion, just as responsible for those problems as Starbucks is.

    • meganbetz says:

      Thanks, Mark–and thanks for your comments. I love what you’re saying. I definitely felt really guilty not saying something to the girl at the Starbucks, but this is the problem I often run into: How do we express our hippie ideas without people tuning us out as radical or overly concerned? HOW do we re-think this so that people see the showers & toilets & light bulbs & hybrids as the norm? IT’S SO HARD! BUT SO EASY!

  7. gmckeen says:

    Megan, thanks for the post. I really enjoyed hearing about your time in France and it is just a glaring reminder about how much we can really suck it up sometimes here in the ol’ USA. If they can do it, we can do it, right? But how do you change norms, they are after all, norms. What is the quickest way to change a norm? Through regulation/teeth of the law? In response to a disaster or event (as we are too responsive and not proactive in this country)? – I’m just asking rhetorical questions here – don’t mind me.
    It took me a long time too, to realize the large difference between the infinite and finite water cycles. I also agree that water rights will be the social justice issue in the coming decades.

    While the City of Bloomington’s water wasn’t necessarily in jeopardy of being privatized in 2009, there was a story that caused myself and a lot of Bloomy’s some worry. As Bill mentioned in class the other day, the City of Bloomington does not own Lake Monroe (it is operated and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources) and therefore does not have absolute authority and control of the lake as a drinking water resource. Indianapolis Power and Light Co. (IPL) was trying to petition the state for a 20 year contract that would have allowed IPL to draw 23 millions gallons a DAY from Lake Monroe to cool the power plant in Petersburg, IN (of course it was for energy generation purposes). Luckily, Gov Daniels did not sign off on it and it really made people in the area realize how precious of a resource we have and how little control we actually have over it. Kind of scary really.
    http://www.ibj.com/article-headline/PARAMS/article/6424

    • meganbetz says:

      Scary stuff! They came so close to facing a serious problem. Thinking about this made me realize… I have no idea where my hometown’s water comes from. I lived there for 18 years & have NO idea where the water comes from.

      As for changing norms, I HAVE NO IDEA. It is the most frustrating thing to me. I am constantly trying to sift through this. As a writer, I try to do my best through my blogs & hope to write books for the non-SPEON to read… but I know not everyone gets as inspired by books as I do! I do like what the social marketing book has to say about social diffusion–but it takes a lot of man power. Realistically, I think it’s more of what you’re saying: we respond to crisis.

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