Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Bottled Water – Bottled Gas?

 By Tom Berman: Tom currently works for IBM having previously been employed by the Centre for Sustainable Development, Cambridge University.
Years ago priests, shaman, magicians, blessed water, manipulated water and gave it power, today its corporations, government, celebrities, brands.
The idea behind this article came after watching the BBC documentary “The Foods that Make Billionsdescribing the birth of bottled water industry in the 1970’s and its development into a multi-billion pound industry, that everyday ships water from the French Alps around the world.  The following morning I read about Longannet Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) scheme.  Longannet, a coal fired power station in the Firth of Forth, provides electricity to 2 Million people with annual emissions of between 7-8 Million t CO2.  The CCS scheme, due to begin operations in 2014, has been designed to capture over 1 million tonnes of CO2 from the energy generated at Longannet.

It struck me as an interesting symmetry; our efforts to sustain society, which bottles and transports water, a resource available (almost) everywhere to (almost) everyone, by “bottling” CO2, the potentially harmful side effects of the generation of energy needed to support such an undertaking.

As a modern Malthus, this article could go on to suggest that a technological solution will never be able to keep pace with the invented, insatiable wants of consumers; wants, created in part by companies needing to find continuous revenue streams, as mirrored by the continual growth needed by the economy.  Indeed it seems that for many the only option on the table is to find efficiency through large technological systems.  Prof Dave Mackay, Scientific Adviser to DECC, dismisses the mere possibility of making serious inroads into our energy demand in his book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, thus providing the intellectual justification for increasing the UK’s nuclear capacity - racing to keep up with demand while action is indefinitely deferred, until a new technology removes the problem.
If you accept for a moment that a technological panacea is not round the corner or that our biosphere’s survival depends on reducing our ecological impact, then at some point we (whoever this “we” is) will have to decide what constitutes an acceptable use of resources, at times overruling the (rational?) preferences of individuals or markets though unpopular means.

Perhaps education is the answer? Don’t, after all, better educated people make better decisions, their habits resonate with the need for sustainability, while the ignorance thoughtlessly consume.  This is, of course, a fallacy: higher education correlates with higher income, more consumption, bigger houses, more energy use, more travel and more likely to buy designer water.

Having studied economics I am baffled why anyone, regardless of their level of education, would pay over 3000% times the price for the same basic product.  Some comments from an article I found included quotes such as:

"I drink Dasani. It tastes good, it tastes crisp, like -- natural,"
"I think tap water kind of tastes like sewer,"

People also say they drink bottled water because they believe it is safer than tap water.
"As a parent I feel more comfortable giving her bottled water,"

When one is mixing a subjective preference (such as taste) with marketing and disinformation (there is no evidence that bottled water is any safer than tap in the U.K), does anyone have the authority to balance these wants with the reality of the resources these preferences require? Is the absurdity of a lorry containing bottles of French water destined for Scotland, passing a lorry of Scottish water destined for southern France not obvious enough? Is the question not about taxation, or marketing or globalisation, but rather than being spoiled for choice, we are spoilt by choice?

And as for the Longannet CCS scheme, will the need to use extra energy and the consequences in additional air pollution, and the potential problems of leakages, be worth the extra time we get to defer the real choices of changing our consumption habits?

Writing this article with my green hat on, it is easy to disparage what some may see as frivolous behaviour, but how are we to judge and at what level are we to set the bar?  Do we have a society who can even ask these questions in a mature manner?

Perhaps in the end we should just produce carbonated water – billions and billions of bottles of carbonated water, but not actually open the bottles, but rather keep it in storage.


  1. Nice article. You only touched on what I thought was the most interesting point - where should the pressure for being a more efficient (not necessarily less spoiled for choice) society come from? Education resulting in slight changes in attitudes are all well and good, but without pressure then the path of least resistance is always to maintain our current inefficient way of thinking and even to encourage further inefficiencies. As long as we think that year-round availability of cheap goods and their improved quality are more desirable than supporting local production, then the inefficiencies of globalised commerce are going to stay.

    Sometimes there are good economic reasons why trade happens the way it does, and sometimes it just seems to make no sense (see Clarkson's arguments against hybrid cars). Commercial incentives, government taxes, EU directives and widespread societal malcontent are all ways of combating inefficient globalisation. From a libertarian perspective those actions, bar the last, are seen as unwanted meddling. The implications for growth, free trade and everyday lifestyle are such that it'd be difficult - even for more green-dominated governments - to pass sweeping changes.

    Moving on to the presentation you posted, it seems like some moves are being made to mitigate environmental impact through economic incentives in addition to targets at the EU level. In my opinion this is the most practical way of doing things right now as long as pure research funding is maintained in parallel to the commercial side of things. All this stuff looks pretty good until you get to the last slide - "North Sea has unique natural CO2 storage potential". While I know the sea has an awful lot of water in it and it may not have been intended to be a scary comment, a general point I'd like to make is that the downsides of green initiatives should be communicated to the public more often, along with their benefits.

  2. Interesting article. And yes, something we should be aware of. Consumer choice vs. environmental destruction. On a personal level, we are feed into this balance somewhere.

    At a very similar time I listened to a BBC podcast exploring the same issue.

    (further down this page)



  3. thanks a lot david, I'll have a listen to the podcast straight away