I would like to say congratulations to the Environmental Protection Agency for it’s recent “We’re for Water” campaign to promote responsible water use (after all, who can argue with low-flow toilets and efficient showerheads?) but I am seriously concerned about the campaign’s underlying message.
“We’re for Water” features families competing with each other to see who can save the most water by “checking for leaks, twisting on faucet aerators and replacing inefficient fixtures with WaterSense labeled ones.” When the contest is over, a gallon of saved water will become Flo, the We’re for Water “spokesgallon.”
Corniness aside, the implied message of such campaigns is that the global water crisis is primarily the result of inefficient faucets and showers, and, by extension that our water problems can be solved by tiny personal tweaks. Conversely, we are taught to feel guilty about the small amount of water we waste on an individual basis, while remaining ignorant of the really serious threats to global water supply.
In reality, home water consumption accounts for a tiny fraction of fresh water withdrawals. According to a 2006 report prepared for Congress, irrigation and thermoelectric energy production (from coal, nuclear and natural gas) account for nearly 40 percent of freshwater withdrawals. Domestic water use, by contrast is only around one percent.
The EPAs campaign is reminiscent of what Alex Steffan at Worldchanging has called “privatizing responsibility” or “lite green” thinking.
“The reality,” Steffen writes,
“is that the changes we must make are systemic changes. They involve large-scale transformations in the ways we plan our cities, manufacture goods, grow food, transport ourselves, and generate energy. They involve new international regulatory regimes, corporate strategies, industrial standards, tax systems and trading markets. If we want to change the world, we need to forge ourselves into the kinds of citizens who can effectively demand such things.”
Thus Steffan has called for an end to the celebration of Earth Day because “it has become a ritual of sympathy for the idea of environmental sanity. Small steps, we’re told, ignoring the fact that most of the steps most frequently promoted are essentially meaningless without larger, systemic action as well.”
This doesn’t mean that we should leave the tap on while brushing our teeth (does anyone do that anymore?) but it does suggest that citizens and public officials might do better to put more energy into addressing the big systemic design and economic issues that affect our water supply.
It would be great to see Flo, the “spokesgallon” at a rally outside a power plant or a factory farm—but I’m not holding my breath.