State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Privatizing Responsibility on Water Use

Hello Flo. Source: thecameo on Flickr.

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.

Freshwater Withdrawals, United States. Source: Data from "Energy Demands on Water Resouces," 2006.

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.

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13 years ago

Both you and Steffan are right in terms of your analysis of water withdrawals, consumption, and the errant focus on small-bore issues like home direct water conservation. As you mentioned, to really overcome water-related problems in the U.S. we need major changes in water use/water protection; with two giant concerns, water for energy production or CAFO nonpoint source pollution.

What might be overlooked is that these “at-home,” household conservation are the very things that draw people into larger systemic changes. In essence, they prime the way for transformational shifts.

So we must be cognizant of domesticity as a behavioral wedge in larger societal transformation. Certainly EPA is not doing enough to raise awareness within the American public about the major water-related problems facing U.S. population. Yet I submit that it’s not just up to the EPA to highlight crucial needs, but also non-governmental entities like Columbia Water Center, my organization (, Riverkeeper, Pacific Institute, etc.

Just as there are small lifestyle changes taking root in households, there must also be groups working from the top-down to shape the policy/systems necessary for large-scale solutions. Changing society is never easy, and it takes the mobilization of many working from different directions to precipitate such monumental shifts.