There’s another word for ‘water neutrality’: death

The demand that we should be ‘water wise’ shines a light on what lies behind the politics of environmentalism: shame at our existence.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

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A new campaign has been launched to encourage people to ‘Think B4 you breathe’. Activists want us to breathe less because it sucks in oxygen and expels carbon dioxide. A report titled Hold Your Breath! How Breathing Less Can Boost Biodiversity implores ‘healthy men and women over the age of 18’ to try to limit themselves to six breaths per minute instead of the normal 12 to 20. You can even work out your ‘Breath Footprint’ on a new online Eco-Breathalyser, where you input personal info – age, profession, level of physical exercise and sexual exertion – and it tells you how many cubic metres of carbon dioxide you’re spouting each year.

Okay, not really. I made that up. But is it really so far-fetched? Yesterday it was reported that WWF – the Worldwide Fund for Nature – wants to make people more ‘water wise’. It wants us to think long and hard before we use water because currently the average Brit uses the equivalent of 58 bathtubs of the stuff every day. WWF says that a lot of the ‘virtual water’ we use – that is, the water that is used to grow our food or the crops that become our items of clothing, or to feed the animals that become our meat dinner or leather shoes – is based overseas, and therefore Britain is draining water from poorer, drier parts of the world (1). We all must become more ‘water-conscious’, apparently, and ideally ‘water-neutral’, by offsetting our water-use with some eco-friendly campaigning or donations to water-wise charities (2).

So, after the eco-footprint and the carbon footprint, now we have the ‘water footprint’. After all those eco-exhortations that we should feel guilty about how much carbon we use, now we’re told to be ‘conscious’ (which is a PC word for feeling guilty) about how much water we splash on our faces or flush down the toilet. When even our use of water, the very stuff of life, is problematised, transformed into a symbol of mankind’s thoughtlessness and greed, then we can see what really lies behind the politics of environmentalism: not so much scientific evidence that resources are running out as a powerful feeling that humans have no right to use those resources. The new obsession with water-use reveals the discomfort with human life itself that courses through the veins of environmentalism, and the contemporary sense of shame about humanity’s presence on the planet.

The new water-conscious campaign inadvertently exposes the bunkum underpinning the notion that humans are ‘using up’ the world’s resources. One of the main focuses in the new WWF report is how much ‘virtual water’ we use. Where previously, water-wise campaigners argued that the average Briton uses 150 litres of water a day – all that cooking, cleaning, washing and flushing – the WWF says this doesn’t take into account our use of virtual water. Apparently, in virtual terms, we use 30 times more water than we thought. An individual in Britain uses around 4,645 litres of water a day, much of it from the Third World, when you factor in the water that was used to grow the coffee beans in his morning Starbucks, the cotton in his shirt, the juicy steak on his dinner plate, and so on. Or as WWF puts it ‘You take 58 baths a day – virtually’ (3).

‘Virtually’ is the operative word here, because this is ‘literally’ bollocks. WWF says that much of the 4,645 litres of water we ‘use’ is not the stuff that comes from our shower heads in the morning but rather is ‘virtually shipped in’ from overseas (4). This gives an impression of greedy Britons having gallons of water from arid Africa delivered to their doorsteps. But of course, water is not ‘imported’ or ‘shipped in’ from those countries. The water stays in those countries.

Even the water in developing countries that is used in agriculture, farming and manufacturing to produce things that are exported overseas does not become ‘our water’; it stays in its place of origin. Some of the water, doused on to soil to grow crops, will re-enter the natural cycle; much of it will become ‘greywater’, water that has become contaminated through domestic or low-level industrial use but which can quite easily be recycled (given the right equipment and investment) (5). The idea of ‘virtual water’ or water being ‘shipped in’ is entirely metaphorical – and it’s a metaphor for humanity’s callous wastefulness. It’s a metaphor designed to make us feel guilty about everything – from the tea we sip to the clothes we wear – on the nonsensical, simple-minded, emotionally blackmailing notion that every time we use ‘virtual water’ we steal a cup of the life-giving substance from a little black baby’s lips.

Furthermore, some of WWF’s figures don’t seem to add up. Its report tells us that it takes ‘8,000 litres [of water] to produce a pair of leather shoes – ie, the amount of water required to grow feed, support a cow and process its skin into leather’ (6). Does that mean it takes 8,000 litres of water to support one cow? If so, in what part of the world is one cow used to make just one pair of shoes? Cows normally also produce milk and meat, bone meal, glue, and enough leather to make more than two shoes. Is it really true that the leather shoes I’m wearing as I write this took 8,000 litres of ‘virtual water’ to produce, or did those 8,000 litres also help to produce milk for the farmer and his family and the market, meat for export, and items of clothing for 15, 20, 30 people? This is the problem with ‘virtual’ arguments and metaphors; they’re impossible to pin down.

On the domestic front, too, we are continually encouraged to ‘stop wasting water’. From the WWF’s new report (which says we must all ‘evaluate our own water footprint to become more aware of the role of water’), to campaign groups like Waterwise, to politicians like Ken ‘Don’t Flush the Toilet’ Livingstone, we are cajoled to keep our water use in check (7). Yet the vast majority of us are not ‘wasting’ water. One of the benefits of living in an industrialised society is that water is cleansed and re-used. When I have a shower in the morning, that water is not ‘used up’; it goes back into the system. You may be drinking it right now.

As AA Gill once poetically put it: ‘All the water that ever was, every ice-age glacier, every princess’s tear, every rill, gill, brook, beck and burn, each and every drop of monsoon, all scattered showers, every old man’s prostate dribble and teenager’s salivay snog is still here. The world is as soggy as the Garden of Eden.’ (8)

The only question worth asking is not ‘why are we using so much water?’ (because we are alive and thriving, that’s why) but ‘how can decent water be delivered to every single human being on the planet?’ Of course there are water shortages around the world. Some Third World countries suffer from terrible water scarcity. Millions and millions of people do not have access to clean drinking water – and often these are the same people who toil for hours every day throwing water on to crops that will end up in a Sainsbury’s or Waitrose in the UK. However, not a single one of these social problems will be resolved by inducing guilt in British consumers or doing strange sums to convince us that our tweed jacket has 29.733333 (recurring) litres of ‘virtual water’ in it.

These problems demand super-ambitious, large-scale industrial projects: dams, reservoirs, dykes, canals, manmade rivers and lakes, sewage systems, more investment in GM crops that can grow even in arid conditions. Instead we get a Catholic-style campaign designed to make Western consumers feel conscious/guilty about their water-use.

This cuts to the essence of the politics of environmentalism. The panic over dwindling resources – whether its oil or what is now called the ‘new oil’: water – is not based on hard evidence that this stuff is running out, but on a lack of belief that we are capable of delivering it to one and all, and, more profoundly, on a conviction that we shouldn’t really be using it in the first place. Just as the idea of the eco-footprint implies that mankind is a destructive, plague-like presence on the planet, so ‘water consciousness’ calls into question the value of human life itself.

Water is life. There is no living creature known to man that can survive without water. Our ancestors built communities and cities next to rivers or seas, from Mesopotamia – the cradle of civilisation situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates – to London, so that they could sustain themselves with the blue stuff. To feel guilty about using water is to feel guilty about being alive, to be ashamed of humanity’s very presence on planet Earth. Do you know what ‘water neutrality’ really means? Death. These misanthropic eco-worriers should urgently splash some cold water on their faces. Lots of it.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons explained why, despite the food price crisis, the world won’t starve just yet. Daniel Ben-Ami looked towards an age of abundance James Heartfield was fascinated by the New Economics Foundation’s one-sided report on resource exploitation. As part of a spiked science debate, Nicandro Porcelli argued that development is the solution to water shortages in the developing world.

(1) UK Water Footprint: The Impact of the UK’s Food and Fibre Consumption on Global Water Resources (pdf)

(2) See the Waterwise website

(3) You take 58 baths a day – virtually, WWF, 20 August 2008

(4) Revealed: How Britain’s ‘massive’ water consumption threatens world supplies, Daily Mail, 20 August 2008

(5) Greywater, Wikipedia

(6) UK Water Footprint: The Impact of the UK’s Food and Fibre Consumption on Global Water Resources (pdf)

(7) See the Waterwise website

(8) AA Gill at Waterhouse, The Sunday Times, 9 March 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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